Ao - Manager / Bartender
●Where are you from?
I’m from Hachioji in Tokyo, although it’s probably very different from the urban environment you might imagine in Tokyo.
●How did you spend your time as a student?
I attended a technical school that produced electric guitars, electric basses, and other musical instruments.
●What was your life like at the vocational school?
The school was in Daikanyama and started from the afternoon, so I would work on the guitars until the evening.
●The school starts very late!
They started at noon because everyone’s brains were still asleep in the morning! Since there was a lot of machinery involved, the work hours were set short so that everyone could concentrate properly.
●What kind of work did you do there?
As soon as you enter the school, you’re given an inexpensive electric guitar, which you have to take apart and put back together again. This helps you to learn the structure of the guitar. Then, when you actually make a guitar, you’re taught to think about what kind of wood you want to use and what shape you want to design. Students are given a long, thin, square board, which they cut and shape to eventually turn into an instrument.
●How did you get into the school in the first place?
When I was in high school, I joined the music club and played guitar. When we were practicing for a live performance at the school festival, the strings came off the guitar and the sound stopped working, probably because the instrument was a cheap one. So, I borrowed a guitar from a friend for the last studio rehearsal before the concert, and somehow that guitar, which was propped up, fell over and broke. At first, I thought it was just a string that had come off, but it turned out that the neck of the guitar had broken, which is a common problem with Les Paul-type guitars where the body and neck are connected. I was surprised that such an expensive guitar could be broken so easily. I desperately tried to find out why it broke, and I began to understand deeper as things unfolded.
●The incident led you to be more interested in the structure of the guitar, rather than playing it?
That’s right! I decided to move on to building and fixing guitars.
●What was the most difficult aspect of the work process?
Sanding. When sanding, the grain of the wood can get caught in the machine and completely destroy the guitar. So, I would always sand the guitar alone in an environment with no one else around. When you hear a loud thump sound coming from the room next to you, you know a guitar has been destroyed!
●Tell us about how your interest in drinks came about?
My first encounter with alcohol was when I started working part-time at a bar in my hometown of Hachioji when I was 18 years old. At the time, I had a part-time job working through the night, because my school started in the afternoon. But then an older colleague asked me if I wanted to work at the local bar. I was still a minor, but I liked the atmosphere of the place, so I decided to give it a try, even though I had no experience.
●What type of colleague did your friend make?
He quit the week after I joined!
●So he invited you to work, although he already had the intention of quitting?
I was his substitute! But that rhythm of life suited me so well that I continued after he quit.
●Do you find any similarities between making musical instruments and making drinks?
From the perspective of manufacturing, I gradually began to feel that there’s not much difference between the two.
It takes about three months to make one instrument. The process of selecting tools and materials and then going on to construction felt very similar to the process of making sake.
Also, if you shave 1mm too much off the neck of a guitar, you feel a big difference when you grip it. If a cocktail has a few ml more or less, there is naturally a difference in taste, so I thought there were similarities in those areas as well.
●Were you ever employed in the instrument manufacturing industry?
Instrument production is a very small world, and to be honest, it’s a difficult industry to get into. Everyone either works in a music store or as a furniture sprayer. Even if there was a job in production, most likely it would be in a factory, somewhere very far away. And so my motivation gradually shifted from making musical instruments to mixing drinks.
●So you kept working at the bar?
That’s right. I took up employment there.
●What motivated you, as a minor, to work in a bar?
I think it was the opportunity to meet people I wouldn’t normally meet. It was interesting just to listen to their stories, and when I talked about making musical instruments, they all listened to me, which was fun. It was like looking into a different world.
●What experience did you gain by looking into a different world?
I saw another side of the city; one that was different from the one I grew up in. It was an interesting thing, to discover a side of the city that I didn’t yet know.
●It’s interesting to see the two different sides of a city, isn’t it? When I go abroad, I sometimes realize that I don’t know as much about Japan as I thought I did. How about you, have you ever been abroad?
When I was about 21 years old and had become somewhat accustomed to making sake, I went to New York and lived there for six months thanks to a connection with a customer.
●Did you often go abroad?
That was my first trip abroad and my first solo trip. I couldn’t even speak English, so everything was an adventure!
●What made you pick New York in the first place?
I went to meet a Japanese person who works in a famous bar in New York City. They’re a manager of a bar and took me to bars all over New York.
●Tell us about your life in New York.
I was living in Brooklyn around 2010, and my roommate happened to be a Japanese jazz bassist. So I got to see live jazz performances as well as hang out in cool bars. I even got to travel with a group of artists who had graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music and had come to New York to try and get artist visas.
●Sounds like a pretty valuable experience!
I was able to repair the instruments they showed me, and my community gradually grew. After making more friends, we even traveled together to Boston to visit Berklee College. At the time, I didn’t have a lot of money, but I had a lot of time, so I spent my days sleeping in and socializing.
●When did you return to Japan?
Actually, there were times when I wondered whether or not I should return to Japan. Oddly enough, there were quite a few people around me who were living in New York without returning, and my friends told me that I should just stay! But if immigration caught me I would be banned from entering the U.S. for 10 years!
●Was it a difficult decision to make?
I was a little conflicted because I was starting to make some money after about six months of living there. Living in New York, I would get jobs from people I meet at bars. It’s strange, but when I give them my contact information, they introduce me to a job, saying, “Here’s a job for next week”. If I did it, I would simply get paid.
●And yet, you still returned home, didn’t you?
Yes, I returned safely to Japan! I went to New York while still employed at my workplace in Japan, and since I had been introduced to the people in New York by a senior colleague, I felt that I shouldn’t cause any more nuisance.
●What have you been doing since you returned to Japan?
I wanted to work in a bar that was located more centrally, so a friend invited me to look for a job while sharing a room in Shinjuku. The owner of the bar where I was working at the time was willing to let me go.
●Did you find a job quickly?
Thinking that I wanted to work in cutting-edge bars, I first started applying to well-known or “famous” bars. But those places already had enough young staff, and there was no room for me. However, I couldn’t mope around forever, so I applied for a part-time job at a hotel I stumbled across, and they hired me to work in the bar.
●What was the hotel called?
It was at the InterContinental Hotel Tokyo in Roppongi. I learned so much about the mannerisms and service of working in a city center bar, that they hired me as a full-time employee.
●How did your work change once you became an employee?
Initially, I had my plate full with getting used to the service and style. After a few years, I started to supervise cocktails for the entire hotel, including the café and steakhouse, and as head bartender, I was allowed to perform a fairly wide range of duties. Meanwhile, I heard that Hyatt Centric, the first Hyatt Hotel brand in Asia, was opening in the Ginza area and was looking for a bar manager. I was only 28 years old at the time, so it sounded like a dream come true. When I met with the GM of the hotel, he asked me to come work immediately. I was involved in the launch of the Ginza location and helped to develop the menu.
●Did your experience in New York come in handy?
When it comes to working in a bar, in many ways, my previous prejudice had disappeared. There were also many people from overseas at the hotel, so I think I was able to see things in a much flatter light. Because I went to New York with nothing, I was able to broaden my perspective to see things without preconceptions. I feel that the steps I took at the hotel turned out well because of how I had developed my way of thinking.
●What a smooth sailing bartender story!
Then, two years after opening, the pandemic came along and the hotel was closed. The Ginza district was like a ghost town for a long time.
●The number of international visitors has stagnated and the hotel industry has been hit hard. So how is it that you came to Ao under these circumstances?
I had met Ao’s producer, Soran Nomura, at a Bacardi competition, and through that connection, he contacted me, just as Ao was celebrating its second anniversary.
●Did you see this as a new challenge?
I have been in the hotel field for nearly 10 years, but I was looking for new discoveries and wanted to challenge myself in a new environment. So after talking with the owner, Kai Tanaka, I decided to come to Ao.
●What was it like coming to K5? The style is very different from the larger, well-known hotels.
There are hotels that shower you with their brand value, and there are hotels that don’t. Neither is good or bad, it’s just about what each customer wants. I have the impression that many guests come to K5 with an understanding of the characteristics of this location, an understanding of the colors of each tenant, and a different frame of reference from that of a hotel. In a good way, the hotel is not imposing the brand on us.
●Do you think it’s this ‘flat’ structure that allows customers to better enjoy the experience?
I think the attraction is that people themselves can freely access the facilities without being overwhelmed. If they are in the mood for a snack, they can go to B. If they want a good hearty meal, they can go to caveman. I think this is what helps create a free-feeling atmosphere.
●I feel that the same kind of atmosphere is also present in the whole town of Kabutocho, not just in K5.
I have the impression that many people come to enjoy each and every piece of content in the city. What is interesting is that usually when people choose a hotel, they are tied to the location. If it were the Inter Continental, for instance, I could see it would be a favorite for the people working in Roppongi, or if it were the Hyatt, it would cater more towards people that want to go shopping in Ginza due to the accessibility. But I think K5 is a hotel where people come to enjoy the city, rather than choosing it based on its accessibility.
●A hotel where you come to enjoy the atmosphere of the city itself, rather than a straight line of brands?
I feel that people recognize the city’s value and come to enjoy the people, the city, and the shops. There is a seamless connection between the hotel and the town, with no division. I feel that K5 is an extension of the interest of the guests who come to enjoy the city itself and that this place acts as a booster for the city.
●Who are Ao’s customers?
People who are familiar with Eiichi Shibusawa! But we are seeing more and more people using our bar as their favorite place to hang out. For example, if someone comes in and says, “I just had Chinese food,” we will suggest a gin-based drink with a refreshing taste. Recently, we’ve had a younger crowd coming to the bar, and I think the atmosphere will change and go on to a different level once we have more foreign tourists and customers.
●What kind of service do you strive for?
We value communication with each and every customer, so once you visit us, you can get a general idea of who we are. In a positive sense, we try to be flat in our approach toward customers. In Japan, the mentality tends to be that ‘the customer is king’. Perhaps we can buck this trend because the people around us have similar values.
●Are the bars in New York similar to this?
Bar-hopping has become a part of everyday life, and the way people enjoy it is different from Japan, but the communication between people is the same, and we have a very flat approach. It’s not pretentious at all, we simply enjoy each other’s company.
●Did you encounter any difficulties as a bartender?
People often say I’m great at making many different kinds of drinks, but the hardest part was developing my character. In New York, I failed many times making cocktails for customers, but I would continue to make the drinks over and over again, and the customers recognized this and began to approach me. But it wasn’t enough to just make the same cocktail, I had to sense the nuances of the day’s conversation and make changes to the cocktail. Each customer has a story to tell.
●It’s the same with theater. If it’s boring, they boo you, if it’s funny, they laugh. Maybe it’s because it’s something connected to their daily life so their reaction tends to be more direct.
The customers can participate in creating the establishment, or rather, they recognize the significance of their participation and create the place together with us. It’s not that this place is popular or that it’s accessible, it’s more like a place you go to on a whim to meet people. It makes me feel a closeness of heart.
●I’m not sure if it’s the spirit of the people or the way they take care of each other. Is that what they think of as a flat relationship?
I would often hear the phrase, “This isn’t America, this is New York.” People from all over the world gather on the small island of Manhattan, and there is constant competition and the culture is constantly changing. Everyone is desperate to get out there, and that’s why each individual shines through.
●Live music in bars and restaurants is very passionate and powerful, and you can feel the spirit of the restaurant that offers that.
There’s also a sense of nostalgia on the part of the restaurant. There are musicians who jump in and start sessions on the spot, and I never get tired of watching them every night, and above all the players themselves seem to be enjoying themselves.
●That’s also how you get more and more work. It’s like a series of sessions.
Whenever I meet someone in New York the first thing they would ask me is, “What do you do?”. Whenever I gave a vague answer in reply, they would say, “Oh, sightseeing. Don’t go along the river in the dark!” That’s just the way New Yorkers are.
●Have you ever thought about how young people are drinking less?
I haven’t really discussed it with anyone yet, but I feel that alcohol has become a tool for getting drunk. I think it would be sad if that happened, as I think drinking is something that enriches our lives.
●Could you explain that further?
It’s a refreshing sensation that helps to clear your head of the confusion caused by the constant input of daily life. It’s not about getting burnt out and just drinking in a bar, but if you drink in moderation, your head will start to spin and it can also act as a lubricant for communication.
●I hope young people can find a fun way to drink too.
Every bar should have an open door. I think that it would be a shame to miss out on a world without knowing about it. I think Ao is a good place to pass through, so I hope people will feel free to come in and to relax. But I also think it’s important to be adventurous from time to time, otherwise, you won’t open yourself up to new inspiration.
●What do you think is attractive about the bar?
The bar is a magical place between work and home. At the bar, I can reflect on the day. I think it’s good to view it in that way. More to the point, I would be happy if Ao could transmit the same charm of the bar in my hometown that helped me discover the duality of the city. A place that can help you realize a new side of yourself and inspires people to extend their daily lives.
Born in Tokyo in 1989. He started his career as a musical instrument maker, but by chance, he opened the door to the bar and became a bartender. After moving to New York, he absorbed various inspirations and cultures and returned to Japan. He then went on to establish his career working in the bar of the InterContinental Hotel Tokyo and Hyatt Centric Ginza, eventually becoming the manager of Ao in the spring of 2021. Every day, he serves cocktails while enjoying a conversation.
Text : Jun Kuramoto
Photo : Naoto Date
Interview : Jun Kuramoto
Ao - Manager / Bartender
Interesting people in Kabutocho
Ao – Yukitomo Kawashima
He has been working at Ao since its opening, and he and I have been running the bar almost exclusively together, taking photos and such. He has a lot of overseas experience and speaks excellent English, and I am looking forward to seeing how he will grow in the next five years.