There’s something so mysterious about Japanese nightlife. After dark, the streets light up with flickering neon signs, as well as the more subtle, secretive glow of red lanterns. Noren curtains delicately cover the entrance to each bar, so you can’t see what’s happening until you step inside.
Japan’s relaxed night-time atmosphere seems to provide a balance to its politeness-charged day. In the light of day, Japanese people are generally modest and reserved; but at night, passionate karaoke ballads are belted by all ages, and uptight businessmen let loose, laughing loudly over after-work drinks.
Want to join in the fun? Here are the basics on how to get your drink on in Japan.
Where to Drink
Back in Canada, I was a pub-going kind of girl, so I was immediately drawn to the warm lighting, casual décor, and stay-as-long-as-you-like attitude of izakayas.
However, unlike in pubs where it’s acceptable to just show up and drink, in izakayas you’re generally expected to order at least a little food. Some places automatically bring each person a small appetizer and charge it to your bill, functioning as kind of a cover charge.
In most Japanese restaurants, each person orders a single meal, but true to their laid-back style, izakayas are more communal eating places. Each dish is quite small, so the idea is to order a few different plates and share them with everyone at your table.
You’ll see big chain izakayas, as well as smaller, often family-run ones. The big chains usually have picture menus, atmospheric music and plenty of seating. Smaller izakayas, although often more interesting, can also be more intimidating for tourists. In smaller izakayas, the menu is usually displayed on the walls, and of course, only in Japanese. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can always ask “osusume wa nanidesu ka?” which means “what do you recommend?” and then agree to whatever the server suggests.
Many smaller izakayas only offer bar seating, and some can only accommodate as few as 5 people in total. Unless you speak enough Japanese to strike up a conversation with the owner across the bar or with the other customers, then it can be a pretty quiet atmosphere. If you’re lucky enough to go with someone who speaks Japanese, however, then it will be probably be one of your best experiences in Japan. The food is usually fantastic, and it’s easy to make friends with the other customers.
At home, my karaoke-style was to show up, drink my beers, and cheer for the people who were brave (or drunk) enough to stand up and sing. I quickly realized that this doesn’t really work in Japan, where most karaoke clubs have a series of private rooms for groups. Each karaoke box is equipped with a karaoke player, screen and microphones. You use a phone to order drinks and a server will deliver them to your room. It’s tons of fun if you’re with a big group, but if you’re a couple, then it’s just the two of you singing alone in a small room. Sometimes it takes a little more digging, but you can also find less common, more Western-style karaoke bars, where singers perform for the entire crowd.
Snack Bars and Host Clubs
One of the first warnings we received when we came to Japan was that a “snack bar” is not at all what it sounds like.
Snacks bars and host clubs are bars where the female staff are paid to flirt with the male customers: Lighting their cigarettes, pouring their drinks, and complimenting them on their above-average karaoke singing. There are also host clubs, where females can go to be doted on by male servers.
There’s no entry fee, but there are also no set prices for anything on the menu, and customers are generally expected to buy drinks for their friendly servers at an inflated charge. Be prepared for an expensive night, and keep in mind that smaller snack clubs often cater to regular customers, so it can be oddly intrusive for a tourist to just burst in on this sort of intimate, friends-only setting.
What to Drink
The main Japanese beer brands are Kirin, Suntory, Asahi, and Sapporo. Personally, I find them all pretty average – neither good nor terrible. Weirdly, many izakayas only carry one brand, so if you want to order a beer, you just get whatever kind they have. There are also a lot of fantastic microbreweries all over Japan, so if you can get your hands on a local beer – go for it!
I’m probably biased since I live in a town known for its sake, but I think you can’t fully appreciate Japanese drinking culture without trying it. It doesn’t have the monopoly on Japanese nightlife that it once did, but it’s still a classic Japanese drink. Plus, a small bottle of sake, cold or hot, is easy to share with a group.
Shochu is a clear, distilled spirit, similar to vodka, but not as strong and usually more flavourful. It tastes a little like sake, but the flavour varies depending on whether it’s made from rice, sweet potatoes, wheat or sugar cane. With 20-40 percent alcohol content, you can drink it straight, or mixed with soda or water. It’s also used as cocktail base for Chuhai, which is a popular carbonated, fruity drink.
Umeshu is a liquor made from ume fruit, sugar, and either shochu or sake. Ume fruit is kind of a cross between a plum and an apricot, so umeshu is often referred to as “plum wine”. It has a mild, fruity, sweet and sour taste, so it’s the perfect drink for people who don’t like beer or strong liquor. You can either drink it straight or mixed with a little soda.
How to Drink
The general drinking etiquette you would apply at home also works in Japan. It’s ok to get drunk in public as long as you don’t disturb anyone else and preferably do it a casual bar, rather than a classy restaurant. Japan has some of the strictest drinking and driving laws in the world, which is important to keep in mind when you’re figuring out how you’re going to get home at the end of the night.
Similar to the west, if you’re drinking with friends, you should wait until everyone at the table has been served before starting to drink. Toast by saying “kampai” before taking the first sip. If you’re sharing a bottle at your table, it’s customary to serve each other, rather than pouring your own drink. Always wait for someone else to refill your glass, and top up other people’s when they’re empty.
Have you ever experienced Japanese nightlife? Where are some of your favourite places to drink around the world?