If you stick to hotels and bars in upscale areas, visitors from
Western countries (with the exception of Scandanavia) will find
Japan an expensive place to go out for a few drinks. The language
barrier can be a bit intimidating but a visit to an izakaya or
one of the other cheaper drinking spots will pay off, both in
terms of price and cultural experience. Other bars and western
pubs are more expensive but have a more familiar atmosphere. As
for the infamous places where you get charged an arm and a leg
for a beer and a few peanuts, well, you should be able to spot
the difference as soon as you walk in the door.
(Incidentally, store prices haven't changed much in recent years
- where they have, they've generally come down - and imported
beers are often cheaper to buy in convenience stores than domestic
Nomiya and Izakaya
These are both terms for places to sit, eat and drink in a noisy
and casual atmosphere. The more traditional ones can be identified
by a red lantern (aka chochin) hanging outside. The more youth-oriented
trendy izakaya chains such as Tsubohachi and Muranoki have more
of a corporate identity but are equally cheap and cheerful. The
menu tends to be varied and extensive - french fries, beef stew,
sushi, salad, you name it - as Japanese usually eat and drink
at the same time. As soon as you sit down, you receive a small
dish of vegetables or pickles (otsumami) to begin with. The chain
places even have picture menus so all you have to do is point!
Beer usually comes in three sizes - small, medium and large glasses
(jokki), in a price range around 300 to 800 yen, as well as pitchers.
Yakitoriya and Yatai
Yatai are basically street stalls, set up for festivals but also
as temporary drinking spots which happen to serve food like noodles
or oden, a stew popular in winter. They are about as casual a
place to hang out as you'll find anywhere. Yakitoriya are just
a notch above: smoky, noisy places that serve char-broiled chicken
and sake from kettles. A visit to the establishments under the
train tracks near Yurakucho station in Tokyo is always a great
way to meet the locals at their most laid back.
Beer gardens and beer halls
Open only during the summer, most so-called 'beer gardens' are
actually located on the roofs of department stores. They provide
an open-air outlet for the vast increase in beer sales over the
hot and humid summer months. Beer halls are an attempt to recreate
a kind of 'Ocktoberfest' atmosphere, often with live 'oompah'
music and thigh-slapping, lederhosen-wearing staff. One of the
better places is the Lion Beer Hall in Ginza.
At the beginning of the 1990's, there were no more than a dozen
western-style pubs in all of Japan. But the increasing number
of foreigners and the worldwide 'theme pub' boom changed that.
Suddenly, Irish and British pubs were popping up everywhere. The
idea of standing and drinking in a pub with a limited food menu
was nothing new to westerners but the Japanese took a while to
get used to the idea. At first, some were attracted by the novelty
factor but soon people began to appreciate the relaxed atmosphere
and flow of these pubs. Backed by the major Japanese breweries,
British and Irish beers such as Bass and Guiness became more popular,
also. These days, names like the Dubliners and the King's Head
are becoming common throughout the country. Prices are a little
on the expensive side with a pint of Guinness costing around 900
Most cities in Japan have an 'entertainment district', such as
Roppongi in Tokyo or Susukino in Sapporo, where there is a high
concentration of bars and restaurants - and often of foreigners,
too. Most have loud music and a raucous atmosphere, especially
at the weekend. To put it politely, they tend to be the place
to meet members of the opposite sex - a topic in itself. Many
of these bars offer deals like happy hour prices and ladies' nights.
For example, the large Gas Panic bar in Roppongi, Tokyo has all
drinks for 300 yen on Thursday nights. They are also a good place
to ask for those desperately in need of a job.
This is a very misleading, and potentialy costly name. You might
assume that one of these places would a handy spot to grab a quick
bite. Actually they are discreet watering holes where middle-aged
customers drop in for an after-hours business meeting over a few
drinks or a croon on the karaoke machine. There's usually a cover
charge, though you may not realize it till your bill comes, and
prices are over the top anyway. You have been warned.
There are host bars too, but they are vastly outnumbered by establishments
where young women massage the fragile egos of office workers and
businessmen. Business is - on the surface anyway - above board,
unlike similar places in South-East Asian countries. But these
bars are usually very expensive and paid for with company expense
accounts. So they are not for the casual traveler or faint of