Japan likes to drink, there’s no two ways about it. With the intense work schedules and high-pressure lifestyle, a well-earned drink at the end of the day often turns into a tie-around-the-head lets-never-mention-this-again style all-nighter. Festivals, work parties, long days, holidays and even just random weekdays are fair game for drinking, and there are plenty of places to go … but before you can decide that, you must first decide what to drink. Whether you prefer a pint or a pitcher, want something traditional or like experimenting, this is our ultimate guide to Japanese alcohol.
Where to start? We have chosen the six most common and interesting drinks in Japan, in an attempt to familiarise you so you can experiment and order like a pro.
Sake, aka nihonshu, is a rice wine that can be drunk warmed or cold and is probably the most well-known Japanese drink exported abroad. Fermented with water, rice and usually yellow Koji mould, it is usually between 10- 20% alcohol content and isn’t traditionally an aged drink (like wine) beyond the initial 6-month period. There is a huge variety in sake quality, unsurprisingly, and it relates to the complexity and amounts of polished rice. Starting at the bottom with the aforementioned infamous Onecup – which definitely gets the job done, but with little enjoyment – a high amount of alcohol is added at the end of the process to increase yield.
At the top-end of the scale is Junmai Daiginjo-shu, which is fermented using a very precise and labour-intensive processes, and is considered the pinnacle of the brewer’s art. You don’t necessarily need to pay the highest price for the best sake though. Case in point: Obama was served Daiginjo Tokusei Gold from Hiroshima by the Emperor during his 2016 visit, but it only costs about $10 a bottle (even with the gold flakes).
Drinkability: Not everyone’s cup of tea, but try both temperatures as it really makes a difference.
Buying tips: Aim to buy sake bottled within the last year.
Good for: Feeling Japanese. Reduced hangovers? Some people swear by this, but it only applies to the higher quality stuff.
Where to go: A day-trip for sake tasting is a great option at Sawanoi, and Shinshu Osake Mura has lots of sake and low prices. You can try Sasahana in Ginza if you’re feeling fancy, or go for the relaxed self-pour nomihodai at Yamachan in Shinjuku.
A true jack-of-all-trades (and master of many), you’ll see shochu in every shape, colour and flavour. It’s drunk on its own and used as an ingredient in other great drinks such as chuhai and umeshu. A distilled spirit usually made from rice, sweet potato, wheat and/or sugarcane, it has a typical alcohol content of about 20-40% and originates from Kyushu. In bars you might find it mixed with water and ice, oolong tea, fruit juices and/or soda water, and store shelves are packed with numerous wondrous creations which make great affordable (but heavy) gifts. Not as glamorous or cool as sake, shochu wins on versatility and you’ll learn to love it in its many forms …. You can even use it to make your own drinks at home, including umeshu (if you can wait).
Drinkability: Since it can be mixed with pretty much anything – great!
Buying tips: Ideal for souvenirs as it comes in beautiful bottles and lots of flavours.
Good for: Mixing and home brewing projects.
A personal favorite, chuhai is a solid choice for the street drinker. Held aloft with shouts of ‘kampai!’ on many a summer evening, it’s an affordable, varied and very, very drinkable drink. Ideal for those who aren’t keen on beer, chuhai can range from between 3-4% to the 9.6% ‘strong’ cans, in small and large sizes, allowing you to keep up with the Sapporo drinkers. Made from shochu and soda, the name is a merger of shochu-highball (we’ll come to highballs later). With some common flavors such as ume (tastes weirdly like the rice ball of the same name), lemon, grapefruit, peach and lime, there are also great seasonal flavors to try like pineapple and kiwi.
Buying tips: Try all the seasonal flavrs!
Good for: Making copious amounts of new street friends.
Where to go: Any town center, river or busy spot!
Made with plums steeped in shochu with sugar, umeshu is like a wine, but sweet and delicious. Similar to its main ingredient, umeshu is also very versatile and is great straight as a dessert wine or aperitif, on the rocks, with soda/tonic, and in cocktails. At between 10-20% strength, some pacing is needed, and this is where the dilution comes in handy, so you can get creative. It can be sickly for some, but the balance of the tart plums and the overall sweetness is usually nicely managed, and depending on your mixer you can adapt it to suit your preference. The local izakaya can be a great place to give a few types a try and you’ll see it on almost every menu you come across.
In the mean time, you can make your own and it’s super simple: get a giant bottle from the 100yen store, buy plums/be given them by kind neighbor/teacher/random old person, get a bottle of shochu and some rock sugar and you’re set! You need about 1kg plums, 500g-1kg sugar and 1.8 – 2 litres of shochu. Stick it all in the bottle, leave it in a dark place for a minimum of three but preferably more than six months, and enjoy! The longer the better though – I was recently given some homemade six-year old umeshu, and I can confirm that it is worth the wait.
Drinkability: Can be sickly sweet, but helped with mixers.
Buying tips: If you’re keen, head to a specialist bar to try some higher-quality varieties.
Good for: Homemade gifts and great in cocktails.
Where to go: Any izakaya for a simple introduction and some trial and error runs on mixers. If you’re more serious, Umetsubaki is a group of nicer izakaya with a selection of 100 types of umeshu, so you can drink to your heart’s content (and hopefully not past your stomach’s).
In less than a century and with only a handful of distilleries, Japan has stormed the whiskey world and in 2015 a Yamazaki Single-Malt won ‘Best Whiskey in the World’. When Japan decides to do things, it does them well. The beginnings of whiskey in Japan are cool enough to be a soap opera, and were actually made into one. Massan tells the story of Masataka Taketsuru, who went to Scotland to learn about distillation in 1918 and returned with a Scottish wife, Jessie Cowan, and the secret to great whiskey. Yamazaki was founded on the outskirts of Kyoto in 1923 with partner Shinjiro Torii, before Taketsuru branched out alone to found the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido. Fastforward 80 years and the now named Suntory and Nikka brands (respectively) are the biggest in Japan.
For those who are serious, don’t bother with the cheap stuff. You’re in Japan, if you want cheap – drink the chuhai and the one-cups and be done. If you want to try whiskey, then try some of the best in the world.
The Hibiki label has won more international awards than any other in Japan, including ‘World’s Best Blended Whiskey’ in 2007 and 2008. As an added bonus, it is also the whiskey Bill Murray drinks in Lost in Translation, so you can enjoy the quality and the pop culture links too. If you want to splash out you can try a 30 year bottle, but the 17-year version is also ranked highly.
The Yamazaki label is equally notable, with the 2013 Sherry Cask winner of ‘Best Whiskey in the World’ 2015 and the Mizunara 2014 ranking in sixth place for 2016. Favourites include the Yamazaki Single Malt 12-year whiskey, which is a great place to start.
The Hakushu Distillery sits in the shadows of Fuki and produces the well-respected Single Malt Distiller’s reserve.
The 12-year Yoichi is a long-time favorite amongst Japan’s whiskey lovers and is considered one of the most similar to a traditional Scottish flavor. For a step up try the 17-year Taketsuru pure malt, which was named after the founder (so it must be good right?). There is one cheap option here … which is still pretty well respected. The Nikka ‘From the Barrel’ is a blend of malt and grain whiskies which are recasked and then bottled directly from the barrel.
There are, of course, many other great whiskeys available, but these are some of the most well-known and respected. They will be a bit pricey, but cheaper than at home (depending on where home is) and miniatures make excellent gifts for whiskey lovers or people you need to impress.
Drinkability: The more you pay…
Buying tips: Bottles are often cheaper here than home. Check out supermarkets as they are often cheaper than fancy shops in department stores, but won’t have the same range. Smaller bottles are great gifts!
Good for: A one-off evening, reducing the weight of your wallet, classy people.
Where to go: Nikka Blender’s Bar in Aoyama (bias obvious). Tsurukame in Nihonbashi has a happy hour between 5pm and 7.30pm. Bar Plat in Jinbocho has a massive variety and Zoetrope in Nishi-Shinjuku has over 300 bottles and screens silent movies while you drink. If you’re out of Tokyo, head to the Suntory Yamazaki distillery tour!
Walk into any bar and say “nama beeru kudasai” and you are rolling. A beer is the go-to drink here , and is usually served as standard at the beginning of parties so everyone can raise a glass to the occasion. With the first breweries opening here in the mid 19th century and beer a popular drink since the 17th, Japan has made some modifications to the pint (aside from size), mainly based around tax-avoidance.
For the standard type of beer you may be used to, the Familiar 4 stay strong: Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi and Suntory all produce great quantities and varieties of beer with strengths around 4-5%. However, things get a bit more varied than in most countries.
Happoshu: In a bid to avoid rising taxes based on malt content in beer, Happoshu was born. Basically ‘bubbling spirits’, this is a low-malt beer which falls under the 67% malt content rule and is therefore cheaper. It can be a pretty convincing substitute, and you’ve probably drunk it if you’ve been on a night out without noticing. It’s cheap, does the job and there’s certainly a lot of variety – but it can also taste like cat piss, so be warned.
Third Beer: Aka Dasian, this is the most recent development and closer to cat piss. A further attempt to avoid taxes after the government cracked down on the sneaky Happoshu makers, third beer uses no malt and instead has pea, soy or wheat spirits. Technically not beer in any way, but to non kanji-readers it could be mistaken for it. These are often marketed as healthier, as they have fewer carbohydrates but are more likely to give you a headache the next day. Instead of learning kanji, you can rely on the price to let you know which is which. So for once, maybe don’t be a complete cheapo and future-you will be grateful.
Craft beer: Is fast-growing, and definitely worth exploring. Despite the challenges of of home brewing being illegal (thanks, Meiji-period laws) and high tax rates, the Japanese love of craftsmanship and quality won out and there are now over 240 micro breweries operating across Japan. Shiga Kogen, Kobushi Hana, Hitachino Nest and Brimmer are all great names to start with, but find a bar, hit happy hour and try them out yourself. Alternatively, they can be found in nicer supermarkets or alcohol shops in department stores (you’ll spot Nest’s owl straight away). The food market below Shibuya Station has a great selection.
Drinkability: It’s a matter of taste and money, but there’s definitely something for everyone!
Buying tips: Hit the conbini for the cheap stuff, department stores for the nicer ones. They can make great gifts if you visit different areas.
Good for: Cheap drinking parties or a nice quiet evening enjoying the fancier choices.
The Highball: Insanely popular in Japan, a highball is a bar staple. In other places it may just be a general term for spirit and mixer, but here it is specifically a whiskey and soda combination.
The Red Eye: Horrendous or amazing, depending on personal taste, the red eye is a mix of tomato juice and beer, and although not unique to Japan, has a strong following here. Key point: if ordering red wine, enunciate clearly or just say ‘aka-wine’ to avoid getting this concoction by mistake.
Where to go
So now you know what you want to drink, where’s the best place to get it?
The street: Perfect for the social chuhai
Thanks to Japan’s high levels of trust, you needn’t even enter a shop for your alcohol these days. You can find one of the alcohol vending machines and get started in the street. Fear not, Americans and Canadians (and others?) you can legally drink in the street here, so there are lots of great meeting places. If you can’t find a machine, head into your local conbini and persuse the aisles for everything from cans of chuhai to the questionable Onecup sake. Just remember to press the giant “OK” lie-detecting button on the till screen to confirm your age … you might be starting to see some flaws in their trust-based system.
The izakaya: For a bit (or a lot) of everything
Sort of like your regular bars, but great for mixing food and drinks for groups, izakaya are places where getting rowdy is basically expected. With cheap nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) deals and very cheap beer, this is a great opportunity to find your Japanese spirit drink (see what we did there?).We have a beginner’s guide if you like the sound of them … (izakaya that is, not spirit drinks – that’s a personal thing).
Dedicated bars: For the connoisseurs
There are plenty of specialist sake, umeshu and whiskey bars you can visit to try a variety of your favourite. The prices may be higher as you’re sampling the best and getting recommendations, but it can be a great experience. Japan is seriously getting into craft beer and has lots of established breweries, so you won’t struggle to find craft beer pubs with a great range either.
So there you have it. Take your pick from Japan’s alcoholic offerings and enjoy your stay just that little bit more.