There are several large brands of Japanese beer ビール biiru, including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion, which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru 地ビール but these are still few in number. Most varieties are lagers, with strengths averaging 5%.
You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in bottles 瓶 bin, or draft 生 nama meaning "fresh". Bottles come in three sizes, 大瓶 ōbin large, 0.66 L, 中瓶 chūbin medium, 0.5 L and 小瓶 kobin small, 0.33 L, of which medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions' glasses and having yours topped off as well. If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug jokki. In many establishments, a dai-jokki "big mug" holds a full liter of brew.
Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating, especially when you pay ￥600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai "please, just a little foam". You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer.
Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country recently, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks.
For those with a more humourous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru こどもビール, literally Children’s Beer, a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind there is 0% alcohol content.
Thanks to Japan's convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-beers on the market: happōshu 発泡酒, or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer 第3のビール dai-san no biiru, which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. Priced as low as ¥120, both are considerably cheaper than "real" beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo's "Draft One" and Asahi's "Hon-Nama", so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it may not say ビール beer, but will instead say 発泡酒 happoshu or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker その他の雑酒2 sono ta no zasshu(2, lit. "other mixed alcohol, type 2"). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.
The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all types of alcoholic beverages in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorized that in a strictly conformist society, drinking provides a much-needed escape valve that can be used to vent off feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning.
In Japan, the drinking age is 20 as is the age of majority and smoking age, for that matter. This is notably higher than most of Europe and the Americas excepting the United States. However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other purveyors of liquor, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage. The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are popular with young Tokyoites and during busy times will ID everyone entering the club. However, most clubs will accept any form of ID. They will normally ask for a passport, but if you show them a driver's license legitimate or non-legitimate, they will accept it.
See also "Japanese sake tourism" article.
where to drink
If you're looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya 居酒屋, Japanese-style pub, easily identified by red lanterns with the character "酒" alcohol hanging out front. Many of them have an all-you-can-drink 飲み放題 nomihōdai deals at about ¥1,000 US$10 for 90 min on average, although you will be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient, an izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed.
・鳥貴族Torikizoku This is an izakaya居酒屋 where you can eat food and drink alcohol cheaply. The cost of each of menu is only 280 yen. You can eat not only 焼き鳥yaki-tori, but also, rice, salad, and tempura and more. Moreover, you can choose drink from more than 70 kinds of alcohol. This izakaya placed in most of the main city in Japan, so it is certain easy to go there.
While Western-style bars can also be found here and there, typically charging ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack スナック sunakku. These are slightly dodgy operations where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos and sometimes a bit more and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for the service. Tourists will probably feel out of place and many do not even admit non-Japanese patrons.
Dedicated gay bars are comparatively rare in Japan, but the districts of Shinjuku ni-chome in Tokyo and Doyama-cho in Osaka have busy gay scenes. Most gay/lesbian bars serve a small niche muscular men, etc and will not permit those who do not fit the mold, including the opposite sex, to enter. While a few are Japanese only, foreigners are welcome at most bars.
Note that izakaya, bars and snacks typically have cover charges カバーチャージ kabā chāji, usually around ¥500 but on rare occasions more, so ask if the place looks really swish. In izakayas this often takes the form of being served some little nibble お通し otōshi as you sit down, and no, you can't refuse it and not pay. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for any peanuts you're served with your beer.
Vending machines 自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥120-150 a can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, will charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and even hard liquor. In winter, some machines will also dispense hot drinks — look for a red label with the writing あたたかい atatakai instead of the usual blue つめたい tsumetai. Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 11PM. Also, more and more of these machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special "Sake Pass" obtainable at the city hall of the city the machine is located in. The pass is available to anyone of 20 years of age or over. Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area accept payment using the JR Suica or PASMO cards.
Coffee コーヒー kōhī is quite popular in Japan, though it's not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It's usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered down coffee is called American. Canned coffee hot and cold is a bit of a curiosity, and widely available in vending machines like other beverages for about ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word "Black" or the kanji 無糖 "no sugar" if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some locations.
There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor known for its low prices and Excelsior. A few restaurants, such as Mister Donut, Jonathan's and Skylark, offer unlimited refills on coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine or want to get some late-night work done.
Umeshu 梅酒, inaccurately called "plum wine", is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums actually a type of apricot in white liquor so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. Typically about 10-15% alcohol, it can be taken straight, on the rocks rokku or mixed with soda soda-wari.
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Though often called rice wine, in fact the sake making process is completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create the alcohol. The Japanese word sake 酒 can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu 日本酒 is used to refer to what Westerners call "sake".
Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko ちょこ and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri 徳利. Sometimes sake will be poured into a small glass set in a wooden box to collect the overflow as the server pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass, then pour the extra out of the box and back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu 枡, sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in gō 合, 180 mL, roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8 L isshōbin 一升瓶 bottle.
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo 日本酒度, a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this "sake level" measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.
Sake is brewed in several grades and styles that depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginjō 吟醸 and daiginjō 大吟醸 are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma. Honjōzō 本醸造 is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai 純米, meaning pure rice, is an additional term that specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.
A few special brews may be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake 濁り酒 is lightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Turn the bottle gently once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Though most sake ages badly, some brewers are able to create aged sake with a much stronger flavor and deep colours. These aged sake or koshu 古酒 may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.
Worth a special mention is amazake 甘酒, similar to the the lumpy homebrewed doburoku どぶろく version of sake, drunk hot in the winter often given away free at shrines on New Year's Eve. Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop better than it sounds, but at least it is cheap. As its name implies, it is sweet.
If you are curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.
Japanese wine is actually quite nice but costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. Several varieties exist, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. Selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialized stores and large department stores offering the most extensive offerings. One of Japan's largest domestic wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan's largest producers, Suntory, has a winery and tours there. Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature 常温 jō-on wine when dining out.
Shōchū 焼酎 is the big brother of sake, a stronger tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are largely two types of shōchū; traditional shōchū are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. The other is rather industrially made out of sugar through multiple consecutive distillation, often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chū-hai, short for "shōchū highball". Note however that canned chū-hai sold on store shelves do not use shōchū but even cheaper alcoholic material.
Shōchū is typically around 25% alcohol although some varieties can be much stronger and can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water at your choice. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, traditional shōchū has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sake.
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks on vending machines is one of the little joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis カルピス, a kind of yogurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds and the famous Pocari Sweat a Gatorade-style isotonic drink. A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune ラムネ, nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where one pushes down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener.
Most American soft drink brands Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is nearly impossible to find outside of speciality import food shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale is very popular however, and a common find in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands usually infused with ginseng.
In Japan, the term "juice" ジュース jūsu is catch-all term for any kind of fruity soft drink - sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like - and extremely few are 100% juice. So if it's fruit squeezings you want, ask for kajū 果汁. Drinks in Japan are required to display the percentage of fruit content on the label; this can be very helpful to ensure you get the 100% orange juice you were wanting, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.
The most popular beverage by far is tea お茶 o-cha, provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge variety of tea in bottles and cans in convenience-store fridges and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha 紅茶; if you don't ask for it specifically you're likely to get Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea is also very popular.
The major types of Japanese tea are:
sencha 煎茶, the common green tea
matcha 抹茶, soupy powdered ceremonial green tea. The less expensive varieties are bitter and the more expensive varieties are slightly sweet.
hōjicha ほうじ茶, roasted green tea
genmaicha 玄米茶, tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-y
mugicha 麦茶, a drink of roasted barley, served iced in summer
Just like Chinese teas, Japanese teas are always drunk neat, without the use of any milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea can also be found in most of the American fast food chains.