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Chasing Starlight

The search for a limited-edition watch leads to a bar in Ginza, and to the night-sky-inspired cocktail that it’s based on.

I first hear about it in Tokyo. And even then, it’s eight months too late.

Seiko—that watchmaking behemoth from Japan—had come up with a limited-edition timepiece, inspired by a cocktail made by Hisashi Kishi, one of the most famous bartenders in Tokyo. It was supposed to be the watchmaking equivalent of the Starlight: a blue, whisky-based drink with tiny bubbles that were meant to look like stars on a clear evening.

A watch that’s made with the help of a bartender? A cocktail that looks like the night sky? The more I read, the more I know it’s something special. The subtle, almost philosophical kind of special that comes from one side of Japan; not the crazy, flaming-ramen-served-by-a-robot-cat-from-space kind of special that the other side of Japan comes up with.

It’s a simple piece, the watch. A date sub-dial at 6, a power reserve indicator running along the 12-hour mark and just past the 4-hour mark. Not the most complicated, though really quite charming for all that. But the thing that strikes me is the dial. A deep blue that’s supposed to shift and turn and shimmer, depending on the light.

Up until now, I’d never been taken by Seiko. Sure, I had a respect for what they did, which was make an entire tsunami of affordable watches. And maybe that impression came unfairly, because I also knew what else they could do, which was make some of the finest watches in practically every price category that exists (and some pieces go well into the multimillion-yen territory).

Until recently, you would barely see those finer timepieces outside of Japan. Seiko, it seemed, had been keeping the best stuff to themselves, and collectors had to fly to—or order from—Japan just to get them.

Like most of the world, I’m a little slow to catch on. Looking at the photos of the cocktail-inspired watch, I know I’m going to pay for that.

The watch I’m looking for, Seiko had named the SARY087. And while it wasn’t really the most inspiring of names, the thing about Seiko was that they hardly ever named their watches. They give the watches a model number and then let the community come up with nicknames for them.

And think about that. About how confident you have to be be to leave the naming to your fans.

To date, all the popular Seikos have nicknames assigned to them by the will of the fanbase. You’ll find a Turtle, an Urchin, a Samurai, a Monster, and so on. That’s how strong the following is, and that’s how collectible these things have become.

The cocktail watch had been dubbed—and unsurprisingly at that—the Starlight. And with it, Seiko had me.

But here’s the thing: they only made 1,300, and all of them were sold only in Japan. There’s another edition made for the rest of the world—the SSA361J1, still called the Starlight—and only 3,500 of those exist. But those were for the rest of the world to scrabble over.

And while 1,300 may sound like a lot, it barely scratched the surface of their following, which, on Facebook alone, numbered well over a million. In watch-crazed Japan (to say nothing of the rest of the watch-crazed world), I’d have to search the hell out of Tokyo to find a limited-edition timepiece that’s well past its initial release.

I read that they’d all been sold at that point. That you won’t find any more. But that doesn’t stop anyone from hoping: it just makes the wanting even worse.

Back in my hotel room, I set up alarms and searches on my phone. I can use all the help I can get at that point. I flip my computer open, set up a window for Google Translate, and do some hunting.

SOLD OUT, the Yodobashi site says, and all of BIC Camera’s 22 Seiko display cases tell me that they’d run out of stock. There are three on amazon.jp, though at prices nearly double the retail: that doesn’t seem like a good deal. I bookmark them anyway, then head out of the hotel to look for every store I can find—because if you can’t be early, at least be thorough.

Hunting a watch is exciting as anything. Only, the actual legwork isn’t. And how you find a watch in Japan is you save a photo of it on your phone, take down the model number, and show it to the stores. And you do it over and over until your legs give out.

I go for the big ones first—BIC and Yodobashi—just to be sure. Nothing. I move on to the Seiko displays in department stores. Still nothing. Then I take to the streets and visit the smaller shops. Each one takes about 15 to 30 minutes, between all the talking. One woman tells me that the run was finished, that they wouldn’t be selling any more. Another tells me that I might want to consider a similar model with a different dial. She suggests a very light blue. But the dial is the point. That’s why the Starlight is the Starlight.

I hit every corner store in my spare time. The only chance left is to find places that don’t have an online presence: places that don’t advertise and might have gotten overlooked by collectors. And while it isn’t actually daunting to find them, the sheer number of them is. I search all around Akihabara, and there’s no sign of the Starlight.

How big a thing Seiko is in Tokyo is as big as the city itself. There are signs all over, and display cases at nearly every commercial center. And the minute you land in Narita, huge posters of the Astron (a GPS-synced technological marvel) and Grand Seiko (the brand’s high-end line) greet you from the airport wall. A ride on the Metro shows you a population that’s in love with Japanese watches. You see divers, dress watches, digital watches. Salarymen with Grand Seikos strapped to one hand, leather briefcases held in another.

Frustrated, exhausted, and with few options left, I head to Star Bar in Ginza—Hisashi Kishi’s own bar, and one of the most famous in Tokyo. That was where it all began, and if the watch is special, then the drink—the source of it—has to be to something too. And this is the time to find out.

How big a thing Seiko is in Tokyo is as big as the city itself.

Star Bar is a few stops away by train from Akihabara, and with Google Maps being a little dodgy on that side of Tokyo, it takes me about an hour to get there. The place is a pain to find, but I finally see the plaque that says “Star Bar Ginza.” The plaque sits on a small column beside a concrete archway, which leads to a flight of stairs to the basement.

I head down and, through the window, I see the brass-and-wood interior. It’s a little cramped, for one of Tokyo’s most famous bars. There are ten, maybe twelve, seats. A bartender greets me at the door and I ask for a seat.

“Very sorry,” he says. “No more seats.”

“Maybe later?”

“Very sorry.”

Even the seats, it seems, are limited-edition back here. Tomorrow is going to be my last full day in Tokyo, and still, no watch.

When I return the next night—a Friday—I don’t expect to be seated. I hit the stores at Ueno and Ginza that afternoon and could actually use a drink. I go down the stairs again, past the archway, and the bartender from yesterday gives me a seat right at the bar. Not the break I’m hoping for, but it’s something.

Of course, I order the Starlight. They throw in one thing after another, shake it, then hand it to me in a small cocktail glass. Alone, I stare at it for a while. Knowing that it’s likely to be the only taste of the watch that I’d ever get on this trip, I take my time.

Is it really one of the best cocktails in Tokyo? Is it worth making a watch out of?

On my right, a woman asks someone beside her if she can smoke. Then she turns to ask me, and I go: “Of, course.” It’s a bar, after all, and one man a few seats away is already smoking, anyway. But that’s Japan for you: you can never be too careful, too polite. People are always asking permission for things, even when everything at the bar clearly says you can.

The woman introduces herself as Akiko. She says that Star Bar is one of the best in Tokyo, that I’d made the right choice. She tells me she comes all the way from Chiba (that’s quite a few kilometers) just to drink there, once a week. Maybe twice.

I tell her I’m there because I read about the Starlight. That I was going to do a story on it, the blue drink that was supposed to be so good they made a watch after it.

Akiko then speaks to the staff rapidly in Japanese. I look at her, curious, and before I know it I’m being introduced to the head bartender and he hands me his card. It reads: Yoshida Tatsuya. The rest is in Japanese. On the back is a map to the Star Bar, along with the address. Like it’s a badge for people who manage to make their way here, so they can come back. Hisashi Kishi isn’t there but given the luck I’ve had so far, I would be surprised if he were.

I ask the staff about the Starlight, what it’s made of. Whisky, they say, then list a few other things. I browse on my phone and read what Kishi himself has to say:

“The secret of a great Starlight is the bubbles. I shake the cocktail mixer in a special way that I call my ‘Infinity Shake’ to add tiny bubbles that sparkle in the glass and create a sense of starlight in the night sky.”

For all that talk about the night sky, the stars aren’t aligning for me. Still, I take a sip and… well, it’s subtle. Which is to say, it’s a bit on the bland side. But after a few more sips, I start to see the charm of it.

And you have to be in the moment, have to be on the lookout, to appreciate that kind of subtlety.

Like some things Japanese, like the watch itself, the Starlight has a sense of restraint. And you have to be in the moment, have to be on the lookout, to appreciate that kind of subtlety. At least the drink looks like the night sky. As close to it as it can, anyway. Just like the watch.

And here’s where it becomes clear, why they made both. There’s nothing quite like the Starlight as a cocktail. Almost philosophical, and a bit mysterious in the bargain. Something that invites thinking isn’t what you expect from a drink, but there it is. And maybe that’s what they want the watch to be. Maybe it isn’t so much about looking at the night sky, but what looking at the night sky invites you to do. Which, just like the cocktail, is to think.

How they made that dial, though, Seiko doesn’t say in detail. But odds are good you don’t get it by shaking it in your special way.

I finish the rest of my Starlight, say my farewells to Akiko and Yoshida, and get out of the bar. Last day, and watchless.

Sometimes, you have to let the math do itself: it’s time to go home.

The moment I land in Manila, I send out messages to a few friends, some queries to sellers. I get the same answer that the stores in Japan gave me, which were mostly apologies. I see one or two of the international edition, and I don’t bother to ask—I’d come all that way, and then some, and then back home. It’s the Japanese edition or nothing.

But by evening, someone named William Choi sends a message. It says: Yes, available.

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After all that walking, all that trouble, is it really going to be that easy? I take a chance and arrange to meet Choi the next day.

The next day comes, and after meeting a couple of Neapolitan tailors (you’ll see that story here and while you’re at it, watch the videos here and here), I head off to meet Choi at a café.

I see him at his table and take a seat. Unlike the Star Bar, the seats there are pretty much available most of the time. We exchange a few words—he’s a friendly enough guy—and then it’s on to business.

Choi tells me about the watch. It’s from the Presage line, he says (which is above your regular Seiko but below the posher Grand Seiko), and one of the rarer ones, at that. He brings out the box and lets me take a look at it, to make sure everything is in place.

I open it, and there it is. The photos had sold it to me, but it’s one thing to see it lying still with a cocktail glass beside it and another to see it in your hands. A deep blue dial that shifts and turns and shimmers, depending on the light. Just like the evening sky.

But then comes the hard part. Is it really the Japanese edition? I flip to the case back and check. Number 258 of 1300.

“I’ll take it,” I say, and hand Choi the money.

So, it really is that easy. Choi then tells me that it almost wasn’t, though.

He originally had a buyer in Singapore. Was going to pay well for it, too. But Choi had some difficulty shipping it, and so it stayed. I’d nearly missed it again.

But it’s finally mine, for all that, and I’ve never been happier to be in 258th place.

I ask Choi how many he thinks there are in the country and he says not many, but he can’t be sure of the number. Small group, then. Still, there’s a flood of limited editions from Seiko, especially in the more modest price ranges. And that’s something Choi finds hard to understand. He tells me: “They’re not really making money from that.”

Maybe they do it for the fans. For the people who name their watches for them. A special thank you. That’s my guess, anyway.

There will never be anything like the Starlight again, and after scouring Tokyo and sitting in Star Bar alone on a Friday, it feels like the trouble was worth it.

Choi is one of the admins of the Seiko Watch Club of the Philippines, as it happens, and that group isn’t so small. A following of over 18,000, each one a fan of the brand.

We get to talking about Seiko some more. It’s a company that’s been around since 1881, after all. Started as a small store in Tokyo and turned into a watchmaking empire, and now it has as much history as most of the popular Swiss brands, and quite a bit more than some. Choi tells me about the important watches, a bit of the history, the community. Then we say our goodbyes, our thank yous, and agree to meet again sometime.

At home, I open the box and pull out the watch. The blue is even more fascinating, the more I look at it. I take far too long, tilting it side to side to see the light play around with the color. Something like this—Seiko says it takes at least seven layers of gloss to get it—can cost you a few times the price if it were made by someone else.

I begin to notice the tiny details. The hands are finished half in satin and half in high polish, which work for the classic design. Adds a bit of contrast. The tip of the power reserve hand is shaped like a cocktail glass, which is a nice touch. I can see that a lot of thought went into all of this. Strap could have been much better, though that’s the easiest thing to remedy.

But that’s Seiko for you: it’s a whole lot of watch for not a whole lot of money. At least, relatively. Though that doesn’t make it any less valuable. With the Starlight run over and done with, Seiko is moving on to the next limited edition.

There will never be anything like the Starlight again, and after scouring Tokyo and sitting in Star Bar alone on a Friday, it feels like the trouble was worth it.

I look through the rest of the package. It comes with the recipe for Starlight, which is good if you want to try making it. It also has a photo of Hisashi Kishi, which is also good if you want to keep famous bartenders in your wallet—I’m sure that must be a thing somewhere. Maybe in Japan.

I look at the watch again and remember everything I had to do to get it. Then, I open a bottle of Nikka Whisky From The Barrel and try my hand at making a Starlight with what little bartending skill I have, Infinity Shake be damned. I throw in the whisky, add a dash of curaçao, float some water, and there you are. I put entirely too much blue liqueur in it, but whatever. No hesitation this time, because I know I could make a few dozen of these with what’s left of the bottle.

I take a sip and try to recreate that night in Ginza, when I first tasted Starlight. I remember the flavors were clearly defined, like it invited a sense of stillness. My Starlight—and I’m not even being humble here—tastes exactly like what you’d find in the Star Bar bathroom sink on their worst weekend. That with some mouthwash thrown in, the blue is so bad.

And what you get from all this is that maybe you leave the Starlight bartending (and watchmaking) to the Japanese. Because what they have is something I could use more of. What they have is just the right amount of restraint.

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