Barhopping in Japan
5 Bar Types You Must Try in Japan: Nightlife Guide to Drink Like a Local
Japan Nightlife 101: Drinking culture in Japan
When it comes to nightlife, every culture has a unique take on what to drink and where to do it. In Japan, drinking is a huge part of the social culture that you can see at Izakaya, local pubs or bars that are popular hubs for nomikai. Nomikai, literally means “drinking party”, but it’s not just about going out for a drink. People in Japan take the idea of teamwork very seriously, and nomikai are a common extension of office culture where colleagues who work together can also play together to build a stronger team. In the office, seniority and social hierarchies often dictate workplace rules by gender, status and age, but nomikai offer a chance for colleagues to talk with their boss, senpai, or seniors more freely. Weekends? Weekdays? It doesn’t matter! You can find work groups, university circles, and other groups at any day of the week throwing nomikai after work or an event.
To top it off, don’t forget nijikai, or after-party in Japanese. For nijikai, you will often find groups heading to karaoke, where the drinking is likely to continue there, too. Japanese people are known for their rigorous work ethic, but after hours, you’re bound to see another side at nomikai. If your into nightlife and staying in Japan, than you must try the Japanese bar scene at night! Japan afterhours is a chance to mingle with the locals and cozy up with Japanese people in a more relaxed atmosphere. So grab a glass and get ready for a night out with Japan’s local Izakaya bar scene!
Casual Nightlife and Barhopping in Japan
For a casual night out, the common choice is izakaya, a Japanese-style local pub or bar that serves drinks and food. The menu at izakaya come in many shapes in sizes, serving up a wide-range of dishes from Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and tapas to sushi and other seafood. But not just the food, izakaya come in different types, each which a unique flair and drinking style. To help you get a taste, we’ve listed up the 5 most popular, classic Izakaya types so you can pick the best spot for your next nightlife adventure in Japan!
Bars you can only find in Japan: the best kinds of places to drink like a Japanese local
Tachinomi-ya (Standing bar) - Pregaming the night
Tachinomi - literally means “standing bars” (“tachi” meaning standing, “nomi” meaning drink). Traditionally they were located only around train stations or in business areas so salarymen could grab an afterwork drink and a snack (O-tsumami) before heading home. Recently, this chairless-style izakaya has become widely popular among younger crowds as well, so many spots have ramped up their menu to include a wider range of food and drinks for cheap. Unlike other Izakaya, Tachinomi-ya do not charge a tsukidashi or cover charge. For drinks, you’re likely to find beer, whiskey, and sake (nihonshu). Tachinomi are a good way to try a bite of something new easily and cheaply, making it the perfect place to start your barhopping tour!
Yokocho (Alleyways) - Nostalgic atmosphere of old Japan
Yokocho - literally means “alleyways behind the main streets”. It also can refer to the narrow side-streets filled with small pubs and bars along the sides. These little yokocho areas can be found in cities all over Japan especially in the big cities of Tokyo and Osaka. In Tokyo, the Omoide Yokocho or “Memory Lane” in Shinjuku, and Harmonica Yokocho in Kichioji are well known hubs. These spots were originally marketplaces, built after the city was destroyed in WW2. First popular among middle-aged and older men, yokocho have become a hit recently with young men and women because of their reasonably priced food and drinks. Many people also come for the cozy atmosphere of these smaller pubs, which make it easier to strike up a conversation with the neighbors sitting close by. If you’re looking to mingle with Japanese locals in English or Japanese, yokocho are a great chance to meet new people and mix things up on your pubcrawl.
Taishu Sakaba - Counter-style Drinks with Locals!
A standard izakaya will seat groups at tables or private rooms, so you can enjoy each other’s company exclusively. However, at a Taishu Sakaba, the bar patrons are all brought a little closer at a U-shaped counter. At these bars, all guests are seated in a way that faces the chef, which encourages easier ordering and the chance to talk with everyone at the counter. This style dates back to old-town Tokyo after WW2, where workers who left their hometowns in Tohoku (northern Japan), came to Tokyo for work. Many of these Tokyo-transplants needed a place to gather and mingle while away from their families, making Taishu Sakaba the perfect place to feel welcome and meet new friends in the town.
Machiya bar (Townhouse Bar) - The Must-Try Bars in Kyoto
Machiya - literally means “town house” in Japanese. These were traditionally wooden townhomes, popularized by merchants and craftsmen in old-town Kyoto. Construction of machiya townhomes was prohibited after WW2, but because so many survived in Kyoto through the war to present day, many of those that are not still used as homes have been renovated into trendy restaurants, shops and hotels. Machiya are often long and narrow. As a bar, you can come here to enjoy beer, shochu, sake and whiskey. Another popular drink choice is fresh fruit and vegetable juices made with Shochu. Many machiya bars also serve specially styled dishes unique to Kyoto. A must-try is obanzai, a Kyoto-speciality where at least half of the ingredients of each dish are sourced and processed locally in Kyoto. Because obanzai only feature seasonal ingredients, most of the ingredients feature vegetables or fish that change based on when you visit. If you sit by the counter facing the chef, you’ll be able to see the variety of seasonal dishes and make your pick easily. If it’s on the counter, it’s yours to order, so feel free to ask for whatever catches your eye!
Japanese Sake Bar
If you are big fan of Sake? Or maybe a novice still eager to try? If so, a sake bar is the ideal place to try a flight and pick the best for you. Sake bars usually feature anywhere from 10-30 or more different varieties of sake, and have an on-site sake master, called a kikisake-shi to help you make selections. Sake can be paired with a wide variety of dishes, so depending on the bar, you can order light, “otsumami” tapas, or a full meal to match the sake you pick. Sake will be served in a small, 180ml carafe called Ichigo, at a price of about 500 to 900 yen depending on the bar and quality of sake you choose. Sake bars are a great place to bring a friend and enjoy comparing different kinds of sake.
Do you know which type of bar you want to try first? Depending on which you choose you can set the mood and enjoy an authentic nightlife adventure to spice up your time in Japan. If you’re looking for recommendations of the best bars to try near you, or looking for a buddy to help you order, we’ve got a number of ideas and local guides to help you kick off the night. Below are a few links to our local pubcrawl and nightlife tours in Japan, each with a local guide who will help you make the best of each type of bar mentioned above.
Ready for the best must-try, must-see bars in Japan? Let a local show you the best, hidden gems and how to enjoy them in a tour below: