Drinking in Japan
Against common misperceptions, drinking plays an important role in Japanese society. An activity with social and business benefits alike, many ‘salarymen’ use drinking parties in restaurants and izakaya (see Food in Japan) to interact with their clients. The legal drinking age in Japan is 20. And while, especially for foreigners, this is not continuously up held, driving or biking under the influence will be dealt with harshly.
Japanese alcoholic beverages
Beer is a very popular drink with the Japanese, and another example of external influence (see customs in Japan) as the brewing techniques were brought over from Germany in the early Meiji period. The leading brands in Japan are Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo.
The Japanese have added their own twists to traditional beer. Happoshu is a low-malt beer, an alcohol made with similar ingredients to beer but with a lighter flavour and cheaper price. Third beer, a more recent creation, is made from soya, wheat or pea spirits.
Sake (also known as Rice Wine or nihonshu) is a traditional Japanese drink that can be drunk either hot or cold and has an alcohol content of between 10-20%. Umeshu is a type of plum wine that is quite unlike normal wines and those who don’t usually like alcohol may prefer its sweet and fruity taste. French, Italian and Australian Wine is popular in Japan, and the nation has its own wine industry, with the majority produced in Yamanashi Prefecture.
An alternative beverage to beer and wine can be found in Chuhai, a fruity alcoholic drink made from shocu and soda. It has an alcoholic content between 5-8% and comes in an array of exotic and seasonal flavours.
If visiting in the summer, look out for rooftop bars, an amazing way to view the sky line of the city, and a great place to enjoy a cold beer. As well as serving a variety of light snacks there is draft beer (生ビール nama-biiru) on tap. Order by the glass, or many establishments offer deals and (飲み放題 nomihodai) course.
Nomihodai are set prices you can pay for an all-you-can-drink session and tend to last around two hours. A similar set up can be found in karaoke clubs some offering food as well as drinks. Nomihodai deals are infamous so keep a check of what you are drinking.
If you see a sign for a pub, don’t be tricked into believing it will be like the western equivalent. In Japan, ‘pub’ is often used to describe hostess clubs where people sing Japanese folk music (Enka 演歌).
As with food and general life, within Japan there are certain customs regarded as good manners when drinking alcoholic beverages. Most of them are universally regarded as polite however be careful, as a few easy mistakes could leave you embarrassed.
It’s customary not to serve yourself a drink, and to serve one another, so check friends’ glasses in case they are becoming low. If someone wants to refill your glass, make room and then have a sip before putting it down. This might seem like a dangerous path to intoxication, and if you feel you’ve reached your limit, simply keep your glass full and don’t drink any of it.
If drinking with a meal, don’t take a sip until everyone is served and a toast Kampai has been given. Whilst many may be accustomed to saying ‘chin-chin’ as a toast’ do not say this is Japan, as it refers to male genitalia- perhaps not the best table toast!
The Japanese have their own drinking games, an example being Takendo Takendo Nyoki Ki.
It is normal for the bill to come as a holistic list for the entire evening, so keep a watch on your drinks for when you come to split it or ask if you can pay separately, which in Japan is referred to as Betsu-Betsu.