"Kaizen," says Sam Boulton, his slight Brummie lilt adding warmth to almost every obscure term he introduces me to. "It's a Japanese word that means 'continuous improvement' and it's a philosophy we're pinning our business to." Sam and I are sat deep beneath the Great Western Arcade in his latest venture, Shibuya Underground, a booking only sake bar and Japanese cocktail den. My phone gave up scrambling about for reception long ago and the world is a calmer place for it. Sam's the man behind former JQ meadery, The Vanguard, and recent UK top 50 bar, The Pineapple Club; but his latest venture is a complete change of pace, being the only one of its kind — in the UK — outside of London.
At a maximum of ten covers, book online and you'll only then be told where exactly Shibuya Underground is. You'll need to make just one choice when confirming your attendance: the sake menu or the cocktail menu. Both are £40 and come with six drinks. The sake menu is exactly that; a whistle-stop tour of Japan's famed fermented rice wine, from the light to the robust, the sparkling to the bewildering. The cocktail menu, meanwhile, is a more playful carte of Japanese-inspired cocktails, only one of which contains sake. Your best bet, perhaps, is to order at least one of both options and share, but do bear in mind that the sakes can be delicate and may struggle to stand up to some of the cocktails. Palette cleansers are your friend.
Dimly lit with bursts of balmy reds, one wall is covered by straw sake barrels most commonly found at Japanese shrines. The intimate venue is about as zen as you're hoping it is, Lo-fi Japanese music — embracing, but with a beat — is punctuated occasionally by the easy rumble of trains passing a few metres further down, running as they do from Snow Hill to Moor Street following the exact line of the arcade above.
A nice coincidence, the trains are a nod to the name — Shibuya being the district home to one of Tokyo's busiest rail stations, with some 2.4 million passengers passing through on an average weekday. If you've not been, though, perhaps your point of reference for Shibuya is the extraordinary road crossing that runs just in front of the station. The world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, with as many as 3,000 people walking it at a time, the spot was made globally famous by the final scene of Sofia Coppola's Tokyo love letter, Lost in Translation. It's a special place to Sam who, having flown into the city in the early hours, found himself jet-lagged at the crossing at 4am, back in 2018. "It was totally deserted," he said. "I'm not sure what I was expecting at that time but the tranquility of absolute silence at a spot so synonymous with buzz, really hit me." It's apt, then, that his own Shibuya, back in Brum, is also an island of tranquility, open evenings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; limiting its tiny intake when so many city centre bars will be bursting at the seams.
It was then, at Shibuya, that Sam, like so many visitors to Japan, fell in love with the country and, having immersed himself in the drinks culture (as well as almost every other Japanese culture) Shibuya Underground's wheels went into motion. "Lockdown gave my team and I the chance to really investigate the concept. To work on the menus and start ordering supplies in." The supplies, by the way, are one of the absolute standout elements of the bar. It can take as long as nine weeks for imports to arrive from Japan — a wait that doesn't deter Sam because, ultimately, it's worth it. One beautiful sake vestibule (below) has blue rings at the interior's base. "That's called janome," says Sam. It literally means 'snake eye', but is more what we would call a bullseye. "The purpose of the contrasting rings is to help assess the clarity of the sake by looking at the crisp border between the blue and white. The pure white part of the cup allows you to check the overall tint."
If it sounds like Sam knows his stuff, well, that's because he really does. A qualified sake sommelier, Sam's part of the Asian spirits panel for the IWSC (International Wines & Spirits Challenge), a global company that judges the best of the best. The day before I visited Shibuya he'd been in London, with representatives from New York and Paris, trying more than 70 shochus. Shochu is almost as big a deal to the Japanese as sake and, without wanting do a deep dive into what the hell it is, essentially where sake is a brewed alcohol, shochu is a distilled liquor. Where sake usually hits at around 15%, shochu is normally at the 20% to 25% mark. It's the lead ingredient in Watermelon (below), one of the cocktail menu's first drinks. It's a remarkably balanced high ball, incorporating fresh watermelon and salt, served in a square glass as a nod to Japan's famed square watermelons, which can fetch prices in excess of $200. This is the drink that made me finally realise that when I say I don't like sweet cocktails — something I utter in every cocktail bar I enter — I'm talking, as they don't come close to saying in Japan, utter bollocks. What I actually don't like is bad sweet cocktails. These are sublime.
A cocktail called Rice (below) is Sam's pick of the six. coming, as it does, with an ice block emblazoned with the venue's bespoke logo, 'Shibuya' written in Kanji. Rice is an extraordinary drink, mixing top of the range Daiginjo sake with ever-so-subtle notes of vanilla and chocolate. "The trick with sake cocktails," he explains, "is to let the sake sing. Usually cocktails are built around a robust, 'hero' flavour that you then add to. Here, sake is delicate and the additions need to accentuate that flavour, not overpower it." It's a job executed with perfection by Klára Kopčiková, who runs Shibuya with Sam. Klára, too, is on her way to becoming a sake sommelier and was recently a finalist in the IWSC awards for emerging bartender of the year. Not just a highly skilled mixologist, Klára has a knack for delivering the drink's 'headline' facts — those natty soundbites that you'll remember long after you've left and you can show off with in front of your chums. She was instrumental, as were as many as three others, in the creation of what I believe was the best drink of the night and a cocktail that absolutely belongs on a shortlist of the city's three or four very finest.
Ceremonies (below) is a creation two years in the making, the original concept coming from Kaleb, a man who never got to see it served as his visa expired before Shibuya opened, COVID putting such a lengthy delay on launch. Kyoto matcha tea gin is infused with clarified matcha in a process that even Sam, who likes to talk drinks, feels would be too long and technical an explanation. It doesn't matter. I don't care. All I care about now and forever more is Ceremonies, an umami, musky, smooth concoction that is brought to vivacious life with acids from grape, and lemon, and lime. "We're working on an oil of mushroom and kombu [a seaweed] to drizzle into it too," he says. "That should be ready in a week." I'm all for Kaizen, Sam, but don't you dare mess that drink up. It's already borderline perfection.
Tinkering with their cocktails, swapping some in, and wholesale menu changes are planned to keep Brummies coming back, but that's not all. Sam promises Shibuya will be launching sake classes, karaage fried chicken pop-ups, cherry blossom one-offs and even nights dedicated to the crazy Japanese pastime of betting on wildly animated, virtual horse racing, in which 'jockeys' have been known to ride 2500lb sea lions to victory. Entire menus are in the pipeline dedicated to tea, while Sam is also in advanced talks with Great Western Arcade neighbour, Sushi Passion, about supplying canapé-style pairings.
Sounds good, right? It's all exciting stuff, incredibly so, but does Birmingham want it? We've seen far more strait-laced crowdpleasers come and go in recent years — could Shibuya Underground represent a step too far? I ask Sam if it's a gamble. He shrugs and chuckles. "I guess it's a bit risky," he says, surveying his neon sanctuary. "But you're talking to the man who opened a mead bar, mate."
Shibuya Underground is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It's also available for private hire for bookings of six or more, any day at any time. Instagram
BANGLADESH ✈ BIRMINGHAM ✈ PAKISTAN
Think Birmingham, Pakistan and Bangladesh and you probably think of some top-notch cricket rivalry. But Brum’s melting pot of culture offers more than some thrillers at Edgbaston. Delve into understanding these people and places with the new online festival, Transforming Narratives, March 19 to 21. During the three-dayer you can get to know how the cultural sectors of three countries are inextricably linked beyond the pitch. Transforming Narratives Mela & Symposium is a celebration of contemporary arts and culture in Brum and cities across Pakistan and Bangladesh. Bringing together these countries’ artists and audiences on a dedicated online platform, three simultaneous programmes will take place: Mela, Symposium and Ālaap. The Mela part showcases the contemporary art, dance and music being made across the locations. With films focusing on individual campaigners and community action, such as Idrish (ইদ্রিস), community issues such as Rinkoo Barpaga's thought-provoking documentary, Double Discrimination, about racism in the deaf community, or wider issues such as Bangladeshi artists exploring the complexities of the environmental crisis in Emergency Jaruri জরুরী , there are loads of events to dip your toe into and explore these communities’ similarities and differences to Brum’s. Worth a viewing is Ben Crawford’s MAC-supported film showing Maryam Wahid’s first major home soil photographic exhibition, Zaibunnisa (above), which addresses memory, identity and migration through the chronicle of Maryam and her mother’s journey to Lahore in 2019; her first-ever trip to Pakistan and her mother’s return after 20 years. The festival’s third element, Ālaap , is the chance to hear firsthand from the artist community. The word itself has two meanings: unstructured, improvised movements found in musical traditions across South Asia, and the word for first-meeting and free-flowing conversation between friends and new acquaintances. All welcome, friends new and old, tickets are free but do pre-book.
THE KING OF KONG
It's 50 years, almost to the day, since Kong was unveiled in Manzoni Gardens, which is absolutely mad to those of us that, at the time, were minus eight years old and somehow "remember" it happening. I've seen dozens of Kong prints, but this new one from Stephen Millership, the artist behind the famed Dorothy images of Brum, is the best. Crazy to think Kong only stood there for 6 months and people who never even saw it are making art of it and... well... writing about it. £9.99
VAN THE MAN AND THE BIRMINGHAM PLAN
In a weekend where migrants and refugees rightly sat atop the news, and a report teeth-grindingly suggested cultural activities don’t improve grades, Brum is giving said report the finger with Ikon’s latest exhibition. A Gift to Birmingham has been a six-month collaborative research project to harness the roles of artists, educators and activists in challenging assumptions about migration, breaking down cultural and intercommunal barriers. The showcase is the photographic documentation of migrant communities in Birmingham, created by renowned Brummie photographer, Vanley Burke, working with Migrant Voice — a migrant-led national organisation that has a hub in Brum — and the University of Birmingham. With their stories at the forefront of our minds, we can celebrate the fact that Brum is already a beloved home to migrant communities, and part of what makes it such a damn fine city— but it seems we can still improve. The exhibition features seventeen portraits of members of Migrant Voice, with each person in their own environments – their homes, community centres and parks – across the inner-city. Each image tells a story of migration, recently or years ago, and displayed together they present a portrait of Birmingham as an incredibly diverse city. As each person was photographed, they were also interviewed by researchers from the School of Education at the University of Birmingham, about their experience of living and working here. The discussions included both positive experiences – the city’s resources and infrastructure – and more challenging aspects, such as the limited interaction between migrant and host communities, as well as the need to shift attention from children’s academic attainment towards greater cultural understanding in schools. Hear, hear. From this, Ikon and the University of Birmingham have created a set of schools’ packs for teachers and students to openly discuss sensitive issues and directly address conflict. Clearly, we’re learning; a gift indeed. A Gift to Birmingham is open March 23 to April 3, with free entry.
You spent lockdown surrounding yourself with houseplants, didn't you? They're all on their last legs, aren't they? Murderer. Okay, maybe it's not murder, but it's definitely plantslaughter. The good news is you can make amends, because Brum-based gardening expert, Julia Watkins, spent lockdown foreseeing this exact scenario and setting up the only emergency service plants need. Make an appointment and green-fingered former Botanical Gardens pro and Julia's associate, Adrienne Wade, will come to your home — if you're in south Brum — to assess and remedy the health of your houseplants. She'll re-pot whatever needs repotting using specialist compost, or divide, prune and propagate where needed, plus she'll fend off any pests or disease that may have set in since your shoddy tenure. On top of that Adrienne will advise on the placement and watering needs of your leaved-ones, until all is hunky dory once more. This is done while you're present so you can learn how to care for them in the future with confidence. Clever, right? It's £35 (plus VAT) per hour and more info is here. Julia's company, Lupin, do all sorts of things but a further recent string added to their botanical bow is a subscription bouquet service. A fresh bouquet of beaut flowers is delivered on the first Thursday of each month for £36. You can choose from a three, six or 12 month subscription. More
Getting into the Japanese spirit? Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival will take place at Red Brick Market, Digbeth, March 26. More —
Kings Heath stalwarts, Byzantium, are bringing back their midweek meal deal for two. Every Tueesday and Wednesday throughout March grab a flatbread, two dips and four tapas dishes for just £27. Details —
Anyone fancy a road trip? Join Brum-based Ladies Wine & Design on a jaunt to see 'British Art Show 9' in Wolverhampton on Saturday, March 26. Free —
From today to March 20 the Commonwealth Games Cultural Crew (not their official name) will transform Centenary Square into a stage for open-air show, Wondrous Stories. Entry is free and unticketed. —
I'd rather chew my own feet off at the ankle but the clunkily-named Practical Classics Classic Car & Restoration Show is returning to the NEC, tomorrow to March 20. £23 — The Mousetrap, the longest running play in the world at seven hours 12 minutes (just a little joke there), will tour the UK this year, landing at The Alexandra, October 31 to November 5. From £13 (obstructed view) but realistically from £18. —
This is almost unsubscribe worthy, but I'm about to mention Christmas. Tickets for Love Actually in concert with full orchestra at Symphony Hall went on sale yesterday, for the December 13 one-nighter. It'll be crazy popular. Don't you dare unsubscribe over this. I'm watching. —
You can get two toasties for £10 at the excellent Arch 13, midweek lunchtimes. That's a £3 saving. Vegas, baby! —
Cork dorks: Assemble. Cafe Artum's first wine club meet will take place at their Hockley Social home, March 24. For £45 (plus fee) you'll get five wines and a BBQ meal from Andy Low N Slow. Former Carters sommelier, Alex Smith, is providing the grape nerdery. More —
Tickets go on sale at 10am today for Chris Rock at the Utilita Arena, in May of this year. £35.90 plus extras. —
Moseley's Peruvian gem, Chakana, pops up in Stirchley tonight, tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday. —
Hot on the heels of Mostly Jazz's line-up announcement comes Moseley Folk Festival's line-up, and it's a goodie. Tickets on sale tomorrow, 10am.
WORDS: Tom Cullen
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