Jet-lagged? Ill? Exhausted? There’s a yakushu for that. In Tokyo, these traditional Japanese medicinal liqueurs are mixing with 21stcentury cocktail culture.
Following GPS and wandering in the narrow alley, I finally find the Yakushu Bar Sangenjaya Tokyo, before I doubt about my smartphone navigation. The place is tiny, no more than a few seats at a counter. It’s like kind of place the owner set up with his/her own friends and families, hidden in the hustle and bustle of the city.
In this dark, woody space, jars of yakushu infusions and dry ingredients line the shelves – each half full of a different mysterious ingredient, steeped in clear liquid. Some of the contents I recognize without checking the kanji written tags hung on the jars – goji berry, ginger, peppermint – and many I don’t. Yakushu means “medicinal liqueur”. They are preparations of medicinal herbs, flowers or more outlandish ingredients, steeped in alcohol – most commonly shochu, the Japanese distilled liquor. The ingredient flavours the alcohol, and the booze unlock its benefits. Yakushu has become increasingly popular in the health-conscious Tokyo. The city is looking to the past for inspiration, and it’s turning yakushu from boring old nightcap into trendy new concoction.
I have great difficulties in choosing among 40 ingredients line up in front of me. As for what to drink? What are my symptoms, and how can they be alleviated? I have to reply on the bartender, who suggests an easy starter drink: shiso leaf, said to help with anxiety and stress. It’s the ideal holiday detox.
She pops the jar open and strains a couple of ladlesful into a glass over ice. A gentle note of shiso rises up, fragrant and aromatic. How does it taste? Extraordinary and refreshing! It’s far from the bitter Chinese brews I’m used to have. Suddenly I have the feeling that the bartender onesan is less a medicinal drinks maker. She is more a alcoholic alchemist. (Am I tipsy?)
All of these kinds of yakushu are made in-house. “The base is mostly shochu, and some whisky, too. Sometimes I make liqueurs with rum or tequila – we can make yakushu with any spirit”, added by the bartender onesan. Alongside the jars full of goji berry (for the liver), ginger (for perspiration and digestion) and seaweed (good for immune system and lowering cholesterol), is a jar of pungent shochu where a snake lies coiled at the bottom, which brings my mind to the Diago Alley Apothecary in the book of Harry Potter. Flowers and leaves need about three days to steep, but roots and seeds – especially dry and hard seeds – are better to leave for about a month. Snakes should be leave for a year to have an invigorating effect on the male libido.
Leaving the bar with a bit tipsy, I don’t exactly feel cured just yet. But for the taste and refreshing, I’m willing to get another round in next time in Tokyo.
Yakushu Bar Sangenjaya
2 Chome -13-20 Sangenjaya, Setagaya, Tokyo