Sake Bar Uhei

The bar in a hidden sidestreet in the trendy Ginza - Sake Bar Uhei

In 2017, amidst the opening of Ginza SIX in Tokyo's Ginza district, there was an establishment tucked away on a side street which also opened albeit more quietly – Sake Bar Uhei.

The owner, Tsutomi Hori, had a long history as a master in one of Ginza's prime locations. Perhaps as a result of this, a group of enthusiasts formed a community on social media, where regulars exchanged information about both the bar and the owner.

How was the beloved "Sake Bar Uhei" born?

The store I worked at in university was my starting point

I'm originally from Yamagata prefecture, and I attended Hirosaki University’s Education faculty. I felt the need to work part-time to support myself, so I began working at an izakaya (Japanese pub) called "Sake Bar Shu" near my boarding house.

While I should have been job hunting, I couldn't imagine myself working as a salaryman, and my desire to do something on my own in the future was strong. So, before graduating, I approached the owner and asked to work there. He told me, "It would be disloyal to your parents if I hired you before you graduate," so I started working there after graduation.

The owner not only sliced sashimi but also peeled vegetables and shredded cabbage using a yanagiba knife. He had previously worked as a banker and ventured into the restaurant business after quitting, so I believe he developed his own style towards cooking. I learned from him how to make the best use of the resources at hand and come up with creative solutions.

At the time, I didn't have much money, so my father gave me a knife that had a blade length of about 1 shaku (10 sun or 300mm). I still use that knife today, although it has become significantly shorter over the years.

The owner had many apprentices, but it was common for the senior apprentices to leave after 4 to 5 years. I also left the owner's tutelage at the age of 26 and moved on to a prestigious traditional Japanese restaurant chain in Hamamatsu, which my father had introduced me to. I worked there as a part-time job since my second year of university, so in total, I worked there for about six and a half years.

Working in Hamamatsu expanded my horizons as a chef

Working in a variety of roles such as cooking hot pot, side dishes, catering, and kaiseki in Hamamatsu allowed me to greatly expand my culinary skills. I believe that my experiences there really broadened my abilities as a chef. Although I couldn’t work with these at the time, I still frequently encountered ingredients like softshell turtle and blowfish on the menu, which expanded my culinary horizons.

There were many people there and as I gained experience, including serving as an acting manager, I felt that I developed the capability to manage a restaurant - at least to a certain extent. At 30 years old, I decided that I wanted to challenge myself in Tokyo, the heart of Japan. So, I joined a Japanese restaurant chain.

I had pride in my culinary skills after honing them in my own way, but when I was entrusted with running the main part of the restaurant, I couldn’t get used to the Tokyo way of doing things. It's not just about cooking; it also involves creating the menu. That part was a huge challenge for me.

Getting results in Ginza and becoming independent

Around that time, there was a company opening a new restaurant in Ginza which offered me a store manager position. Initially, that company's president intended to focus on Japanese sake as the main attraction and feature rare delicacies in the menu. However, as we adapted to customer feedback, the restaurant gradually expanded its food offering as the place gained more and more acclaim.

As the restaurant's food began to gain recognition, we experienced over 150% growth in sales compared to the previous year for three consecutive months, which greatly boosted my confidence.

The company suggested that they wanted to separate and make that restaurant an independent venture because the business had expanded too rapidly. However, I had a chronic illness, so I told them I needed to undergo surgery before considering it. In the three days I took off for the surgery, another person took over the restaurant. That person quit after only a month.

It was the company that set the stage

During that recovery time, I initially thought, "I've had enough, and I should quit for good." However, a customer who had always supported me invited me for drinks, and that experience made me reevaluate my situation. I realized that part of the reason I had reached this point was because “the company set the stage for me and always prepared for me”.

In the end, I decided to continue working with the company's group of restaurants. I worked at various restaurants within the group, but I found it unfulfilling. I still had a strong desire to own and operate my own restaurant. I talked to the company about it, and they allowed me to take over the Ginza restaurant after the previous owner left.

However, due to circumstances related to the company's property contracts and head office, we couldn't continue running the restaurant. That's when I decided to start a restaurant from scratch, and that's how “Sake Bar Uhei” came into being.

I built this restaurant from the ground up, from sourcing my own funds to searching for the property. I take pride in the fact that I was able to build this restaurant up from scratch.

A commitment to kitchenware

I’m very particular about the tools that I use. One significant factor was my experience at the previous Ginza restaurant, where we used sashimi as the appetizer (In Hori-san's previous restaurant where he served as the owner, the appetizer was a sashimi platter). This experience played a huge role in my development. I had the opportunity to prepare and serve a lot of sashimi, which allowed me to seriously study the art of cutting.

It's true that you can still prepare delicious sashimi with a knife that isn't razor-sharp, but there are also tasks that can only be accomplished with a sharp knife. For instance, while you can slice fish parallel to its muscle fibers with a less sharp knife, cutting the muscle fibers perpendicular to create a clean presentation is something that can only be done with a sharp knife.

While there is the idiom that “Kobo (the name of a famous Japanese monk from the Heian period) does not choose a brush”, I believe truly good work requires equally good tools.

Customers told me the taste is different

Something that truly shocked me was when customers told me the taste of my food was different depending on which knife I used. We had a customer come in two days in a row to eat our sashimi, and they noticed a difference in taste when I used a different knife. They asked me if I’d raised the quality of the fish - at first I was going to say “It’s the same.” as the only difference was the knife used. The day before I had used a Kasumi knife, and the second day I used a Sakai Ichimonji Mitsuhide Honyaki Yanagiba knife for the first time. It makes sense that the person using the knife would notice the difference when cutting, but I was really surprised that the customer also noticed a difference in the taste of the exact same dish.

“Good Sharpness” means “The taste improve when food is cut with it”

I used to think that 'good sharpness' referred to how well a knife could cut or how sharp it was. However, I now believe that it essentially means 'how much the taste of ingredients improves when you cut with that knife.' If using a good knife is more efficient for improving my cooking skills, I would definitely consider buying one.

Taste is important, but we also want to make it “a place where people can connect with each other”

Of course, I want to create delicious dishes and have a restaurant with many customers, but I also want to make it a place where relationships are formed between customers and myself, as well as between the customers themselves. A place where the owner can see the face of each customer and aims to create a soothing and enjoyable atmosphere. The initial restaurant I worked at was a place just like this.

The name "Sake Bar Uhei” is derived from the name of the first restaurant I worked at, which was called “Sake Bar Shu”, and the name of my parents' company, even though they are in entirely different industries. From my parents' company, I brought along the “Uhei” name.

Determination of training people

I really want to study culinary history and eventually teach the origins and preparation of food, teaching people how to cook. While the food and beverage industry can be quite unpredictable, and I'm unsure how long my physical stamina will last, I originally graduated from the Faculty of Education in university and have a desire to nurture others.

Regarding the old-fashioned hierarchical structure within restaurants and the tradition of not readily teaching skills to younger generations, I don't think these practices are good. For young people today, there are many new career opportunities, and they have access to many options that can be pursued with significantly less risk. I still think that the fact that it is difficult to recruit people even when we do so directly, and that many people quit immediately, is a custom that this industry has created that needs to be changed.

The concept of "ascetic practices" itself has become dead. It's not about enduring hardship for the sake of gaining skills, but at the same time a person's true value comes from their high level of skill. My own mentor used to say, "I had a tough time, but it doesn't mean you'll become a skilled chef just by enduring it. If you don't understand something, don't hesitate to ask, and I'll teach you."

In a world where most jobs have emerged within the past few decades, the profession of a chef has existed for centuries. The artistry of Japanese cuisine, too, might diminish if we make working in the field and teaching it too strict and people decide to leave. I want to convey the beauty of being a chef, which my mentor instilled in me – the ability to build relationships and be a source of comfort for others.

Restaurant Information

Sake Bar Uhei

6-12-2 B1, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo City 〒104-0061

Trading Hours 17:00 - 24:00
Closed Mondays
Trading hours and days are subject to change, please contact Sake Bar Uhei before visiting to confirm.