Leave your preconceptions at the airport. Japan is full of surprises! It’s fun, offers some crazy nightlife options and has way more than sushi & sake. Grab up a bar stool and let me tell you how it really is!
Beers & Bars are everywhere!
In plain numbers Japan has about 80,000 bars with another 50,000 plus convenience stores selling everything from beer, sake, plum wine, chuhai (alco-pops) to vodka-based mixed drinks called sours. That’s over 130,000 locations to enjoy a beer- not a bad start. With an estimated 25,000 bars in Tokyo alone you’re spoiled for choice. However the local drinking dens are different than bars back home so you need to make a choice. Are you going to watch the rugby or the mingle with locals?
Part 1: MIngle with The Locals?
The more traditional bars known as “izakaya” are like gastropubs on speed. With a wonderfully bizarre choice of foods expect the atmosphere to range from homely & serene to boisterous, smoky- and on occasion wild. And when I say wild- I mean Japanese game-show wild! We’ve done a pretty comprehensive post on Izakayas you may find useful.
Many Izakayas are chain-pubs & most will have a seating charge disguised as a small dish of food. You don’t see the charge until you get the bill at the end but it’s usually inexpensive (under 500 yen) and never quibbled. On the plus-side Izakayas always serve draft chilled Japanese beer- simply learn the phrase “Nama wo hitotsu! (a draft beer please)“ and use your hands to beckon the largest glass possible.
The Magic Word- Nomihodai
Hard to believe but most izakayas also offer a drink as much as you can option -usually for anywhere from 90 mins to 2 hours. Known as “Nomihodai” you’d imagine that this kind of drinking would cause civil unrest in Japan every weekend- but not so. Foreigners on the other hand tend to look upon “Nomihodai” as a direct challenge and go a wee bit overboard so here’s a few things to bear in mind!
- You’re supposed to drain your current drink before ordering the next one. Supposed to being the operative word.
- The staff will often call last order about 20 mins before time which will seem unfair at the time so make hay in the first hour plus!
- The beer on tap may be a lesser quality beer than you’re used to. To read more about the bean-based, low-taxed, zero malt beer that’s invaded Japan read our blog post here on Japanese beer.
- Expect to pay about 2,000 yen for the honour of being put through your paces. That works out at about the same cost of 4 x beers so we reckon you’ll make it work for you!
Part 2: Watch the rugby
Prefer Pints in Pubs to Sushi & Sake? You’ve just whittled your choice down from about 80,000 to a mere 300 bars nationwide. The good news? Pubs in Japan are easy to find as they look like pubs and are showing the rugby! They’ve also got familiar beers (Guinness, Heineken, etc) on tap and serve bar food so are hard to miss. Most have typical pub-type names to boot such as The Bulldog, The Dubliners or The Royal Scotsman.
Editor’s Note: the word pub is used differently in Japan so you may notice signs such as “Love Pub” or “Sexy Pub” in areas of ill-repute. Suffice to say you won’t be getting a bowl of Irish Stew if you walk into those kinds of establishments.
Now for a Japanese tongue twister. Repeat: a pub is not always a pub but a hub is always a pub.
Happy Hour, Happy Days
Of the 270 pubs listed on the Guinness Perfect Pint Program a whopping 107 pubs belong to the HUB Pub chain. Finding a Hub is usually as simple as finding a train station in the Tokyo area and Mobal have already put together a HUB Pub Guide which makes things really easy. The HUB Pubs have already announced they will be open from midday during the Rugby World Cup & with all branches offering Happy Hour (!) in the afternoon you’re going to want to be there. They’ve even announced their first pub on the island of Kyushu will open in May 2019. With England, Scotland, Wales & New Zealand all camped on that island for the duration of the Rugby World Cup so that’s a shrewd bit of business.
We’ve lots more to say on beer but it’s not good to read on an empty stomach so let’s take a quick detour to look at the various nibbles on offer at Pub, Hubs & Izakayas!
Japanese Beer Snacks
In an Izakaya the menu usually has helpful photos but the main staples may not appear- hence here’s a quick intro to 5 basic dishes.
- Cold Tofu (Hiyakko) eaten with soy sauce. Healthy and tasty but you might need a fork!
- Salted Soybeans (Edamame) are the perfect beer snack. They look like hairy peas in a pod but way tastier.
- Yakitori or chicken on a stick is every foreigner’s friend until they think they’re invincible and start ordering variations such as soft chicken bones (nankotsu) or chicken’s rear-end (ponjiri) & chicken necks (seseri). To be on the safe side start with Negima– the staple fare of skewered grilled chicken & green onion.
- Cabbage. I. kid.you.not. Don’t punch the server when you get a heaving plate of fresh cabbage. It’s salted and served with tonkatsu sauce and it actually works.
- Shiokara– maybe one to order for your friend when he’s popped to the loo. Goes well (what doesn’t) with strong alcohol. Made from pieces of seafood, usually squid, fermented in internal organs with some salt added to finish. Not as bad as it sounds- though admittedly it doesn’t look great.
Even better than the real thing?
In Pubs expect to see something similar to but not exactly the same as you might experience in a British or Irish Pub overseas. Fish & Chips is usually served in dainty sizes and eaten with chopsticks- but you can make do with your fingers. HUB Pubs: As all 100+ HUBs share the same menu and offer traditional pub fare so here’s a quick category by category look at their menu. Not sure where the deep-fried quail eggs fit in mind you!
- A Taste of Britain– Fish & Chips, Pasties, Roast Beef & Jacket Potatoes all appear as does the lesser-spotted honey cheese snack.
- Recommended Menu– quite random it’s got Haggis, Popcorn, Mackerel Bruschetta & Pizza!
- A La Carte– Nachos, Hot Dogs, Fish Dogs, Chips all share this space with Fried Gnocchi in Gorgonzola Sauce.
- Speed Menu- features mixed nuts, beef jerky, Doritos and fried crispy pasta to keep the hunger at bay.
Pop to the Shop for a Snack
The next stop on the snack roller-coaster is your local convenience store. Unless you’ve pitched your tent in the mountains you’re probably never going to be more than 5-10 mins from a 24-hr convenience store. Which means you’re only a short walk from a sugar rush or snack binge!
Editor’s Note: even the Japanese are mesmerised by the choice of snacks on offer & have dedicated ranking websites that rate snacks by popularity based on categories such as “Chocolate”, “Cookies, Pies & Biscuits”, “Potato Chips & Snacks” , “Sweets & Caramels”, “Rice Crackers & Japanese traditional snacks”, “Chewing Gum”, “Dried Fruits”, etc. See here for current rankings!
Let’s take a look at what to expect.
- Rice Crackers (Senbei)- the nation’s favourite nibble. Mainly soy-flavoured but the package colour can indicate the flavour! Green- possibly soybean or wasabi (!!!). Pink- possibly shrimp or cherry blossom flavour, etc.
- Rice Balls (Onigiri)- toothsome, cheap and amazingly varied onigiri are everyone’s favourite meal in a hurry. Triangle-shaped to fit in your hand they can contain yummy fillings such as Tuna Mayonnaise, Teriyaki Chicken and Seaweed or the less inspiring fermented soybean (Natto).
- Japanese deep-fried chicken (Kara-age)- delectable deli chicken. Lots of competition in this arena between the likes of 7-Eleven, Family Mart & Lawson so expect to be able to choose from tasty normal to madly spicy, cheese, garlic or salt flavour, etc. Normally on display beside the cash register you can simply point at the one you like.
- Ice Cream (Aisu)- sounds so safe and simple. But you haven’t reckoned with Japanese ice-cream now have you? Should be easy to tell the difference but watch out for pitfalls such as corn potage, cream stew & spaghetti flavours- to name a few!
Editor’s Note: lest you forget Mobal have not only created an online guide to every HUB Pub in Japan but with every SIM purchased for Japan you get a free beer coupon to use in any of the 100 plus HUB Pubs!
Now you’ve got your snacks you need to find the party!
Part 3- Is Staying Home the new going Out?
If you plan on staying home at night there’s no reason the party has to end. Japan’s 24-hour convenience stores make sure of that. So too does the fact that Japan’s population is falling. Why? Less Japanese people equals less beer being drunk. Less people getting drunk means breweries up their game. The result: brewers up their alcohol content and the choice of beers available. It’s a tough world.
Mobal have already written a comprehensive guide to Japanese beer with details of Japan’s beer revival. But here’s the basics you absolutely need to know!
Beer is great.
Japanese beer gets you drunk.
There you go.
See you in Japan in 2019!
Oh and if you haven’t heard about the amazing RUGBY FAN PACKS that come with SIM, Free Beer Coupon, Rugby Survival Guide, a Headband & a Free Wi-Fi app then click here to find out more!!