Whether you’re getting sloshed, smashed, sh!thoused, hammered, lubricated or lit, we have the ultimate guide to drinking in Japan. From drinking etiquette to what to drink and how to order we have everything you need to know about a good night out in Japan. Here are some dos and don’ts for enjoying a tipple in the land of the rising sun. Cheers!
May 20th, 2021 | by Jared Kubokawa & Mike Humphrey
Japanese Drinking Etiquette
From izakaya’s & karaoke bars to vending machines and convenience stores, there is no doubt about it, the Japanese enjoy a drink. With intense work schedules and high-pressure lifestyles, a drink at the end of the day can often turn into a night of karaoke and a walk/stumble home at the break of dawn. Whether you are here in Japan for a quick trip or live here, understanding Japanese drinking culture and etiquette is a must. Some key things to remember about drinking in Japan:
- It’s okay to say no to more. People in Japan will often encourage you to drink more and will offer to re-fill your glass. It is socially acceptable to say no. If you are uncomfortable saying no, don’t fully finish your drink. Leaving something in the glass will prevent people from offering you more.
- In Japan, it’s considered impolite to pour for yourself. When someone fills your glass, you should offer to pour for them in return (this is part of the reason why people so readily offer to re-fill your glass). Alternatively, if you want another drink, pour a glass for someone else.
- Can you drink in public in Japan? Japanese laws on drinking in public are generally quite lax. It is legal to drink open alcohol in public in Japan. You can consume alcohol in parks, at the station, or even inside a train (just don’t cause a ruckus).
Legal Drinking Age in Japan: 20
What to Drink in Japan
When you come to the land of the rising sun you may be wonder what to drink. I’m sure you have heard of sake, but what other types of Japanese alcohol are there? What do local Japanese people drink? Below is a small list some of the types of alcohol Japan is known for. While not an exhaustive list, this is a good place to start.
Beer is the most popular drink in Japan and has brewed here since the beginning of the 19th century. There are four main beer producers in Japan – Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory. Most beer drinkers in Japan prefer light lagers, but the craft beer scene is on the rise and offers a wide variety of beers to suit everyone’s taste. We may be a little biased, but we are big fans of the Hakuba Brewery. Take a look at our article where we took a tour of the Hakuba Brewery.
Sake or rice wine is called nihonshu (lit. Japanese alcohol) in Japanese. When drinking Sake in Japan you can order it hot (atsukan) or cold. Personally, I prefer cold sake as I find when you heat the sake the rice flavor is too strong. Hot sake however is great on a cold day. Sake has a long and storied history in Japan and there are a wide variety of types and grades. For more information, you can read this sake 101 article from Boutique Japan.
Shochu is a distilled alcoholic beverage made either from rice, wheat, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or brown sugar. It’s typically around 25% alcohol, weaker than whisky or vodka, but stronger than sake or wine. I like to think of shochu as the Japanese version of vodka. It is served on the rocks or as the alcohol in mixed drinks (lemon-hai, oolong-hai, etc.)
The famed chu-hai is a staple at any convenience store in Japan and a common pre-drink for anyone heading out on the town. These pre-mixed canned drinks come in a multitude of flavors and strengths. Be wary of the strong tall boys, the widow maker of many an unsuspecting foreigner looking for a good night on the town (they pack an especially strong punch).
Commercial whisky production in Japan began in 1924 with the opening of the Yamazaki distillery. Before 2000, Japanese whisky was sold almost entirely on the domestic market. This changed in 2001 when Nikka’s 10-year Yoichi single malt won “Best of the Best” at Whisky Magazine‘s awards.
According to Whisky Magazine Japan’s top whiskies are:
- Hibiki 21 YO 43% (blend)
- Nikka Yoichi 10 YO SC 59.9%
- Yamazaki Bourbon Cask 1991 60%
- Karuizawa 17 YO 40% (pure malt)
Japanese whiskies are widely sought after and are considered a prized item to take home. If you are a whisky fan, we recommend taking the opportunity while in Japan to order a glass and if you are fortunate enough to find a bottle in stock be sure to pick one up, your whisky-drinking friends at home will thank you.
Plum Wine (Ume Shu)
Ume shu or plum wine is a Japanese liqueur made by steeping Japanese plums in shochu and sugar. It is a sweet dessert wine and can be served on the rocks, as an umeshu sour, or mixed with soda/tonic and it can be served cold, room temperate, or hot.
Japanese Drinking Lingo – Must-Have Phrases
From getting the waiter’s attention to making sure you know when last call is, here are some must-have Japanese phrases that will make sure your drinks are served cold and promptly. Don’t head out to the bar without making sure you know the following:
- Sumimasen – Excuse me! (to call over a waiter/get their attention)
- Menu onegaishimas(u) – Menu, please
- Nama biiru kudasai – Draft beer, please.
- Biiru o ni hai kudasai / Biiru o san bai kudasai / biiru o yon hai kudasai / biiru o go hai kudasai / biiru o roppai kudasai – Two/three/four/five/six beers, please!
- Kampai! – Cheers!
- Kureditto kaado tsukaemasuka? – Can credit cards be used?
- Rasto ooda wa nanji desuka? – When’s last call?
- Nijikai! – Second/after party!
- O-kai-kei onegaishimas(u) – Bill, please.
- Gochisosamadeshita! – That was delicious! (when leaving, if eating)
The Do’s of Drinking in Japan
- Do have fun and enjoy yourself.
- Do have a hangover cure before you drink (ukon no chikara).
- Do say sumimasen (excuse me) to get the bartender or waiter’s attention—don’t worry it isn’t rude.
- Do buy a pitcher or large bottle of beer and pour drinks for your friends in the bar, saying hai douzo.
- Do order draft beer (nama biru) and toast together as a group before you drink, saying kanpai.
- Do try different Japanese liquors such as umeshu (plum wine), sake and the classic Japanese highball.
- Do buy an adult bevvy out of the vendo because it’s hilarious.
- Do enjoy the great selection of craft beers brewed right here in Hakuba by the Hakuba Brewing Company.
- Do take a photo of the outside of your hotel or lodge so you know where to go home to (or can show someone).
- Do take a business card (or a picture of the business card) for your accommodation so you can catch a cab home super easily.
- Do go home at a decent hour and save those yenjamins.
- Do keep track of how many drinks you’ve had.
- Do act cautiously with what you’re drinking and the alcohol content—one Strong Zero is basically two Red Bull and vodkas.
- Do act respectfully and go outside to smoke—even if you don’t have to.
The Dont’s of Drinking in Japan
- Don’t be a scumbag and sit outside the convenience store eating chicken and drinking Strongs, ever, full stop.
- Don’t drink out of the bottle (or can) at a bar—ask for a glass…Japanese customs.
- Don’t drink more than one or two Strong Zeroes—ethyl alcohol, caffeine, and saccharin for a dollar can’t be good.
- Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do at home and considering Japanese culture—do even less.
- Don’t drink your drink until everyone has their drink, and ‘cheers’ as a group.
- Don’t take something that isn’t yours just because it isn’t nailed down.
- Don’t steal someone’s jacket from the bar, ever, no matter what.
- Don’t fall in ‘gaijin traps’ aka one-meter deep street gutters covered in snow (urban tree wells).
- Don’t urinate anywhere except in a toilet.
- Don’t forget to get the number of the taxi company before you leave the hotel.
- Don’t leave empty cans and rubbish on the streets even if you can’t find a bin—put it in your pocket.
- Don’t drop any street pizzas (puke)—keep yourself together.
Check out this video about Japanese nightlife from our friends at Abroad in Japan.
↓↓↓To watch the video click here↓↓↓
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So, what do you think? What experiences have you had? We’d love to hear your fun stories and faux pas for drinking in Japan. Leave a reply below. Until we meet again, Kampai!