Kampai! Japan is a country of drinkers, and some rituals should be considered before taking a drink. Never pour yourself a drink; Your friend or host should do this for you and you in turn should keep your companions glasses filled to the brim! One word that you will hear quite often is kampai: “health” in Japanese.
Unlike in the West, the culture of going out for just one drink doesn’t really exist in Japan. Drinking is almost always accompanied by a meal or otsumami (a light snack). Otsumami usually comes in the form of a plate of edamame (soybean), surume (dried shredded squid), or arare (small rice crackers whose name literally translates to hail).
While sake (rice wine) is the national drink of Japan, lager beer (pronounced “beer-ru” in Japanese) is the most popular drink. Widely available brands include Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory, and Asahi. All of them are worth it and average around 5% abv.
Be careful with the cheaper brands though – this is not actually beer, but happoshu, a malt-flavored drink. This looks and tastes like cheap beer, but the low malt content allows brewers to avoid beer taxes! As for the good, our advice is to keep the cheap stuff (a bit harsh on the palate) hot, but drink the quality brands (strong and fresh-tasting) cold.
When times are tough and the strong yen drives up the cost of a pint, a word worth remembering is nomihodai (drink all you want). Head to your nearest izakaya (Japanese drink establishment that also serves food) for the best nomihodai deals, usually between 2,000 and 3,000 yen per person. Remember that the whole group must be on the same deal and it is usually limited to one or two hours!
Many restaurants also offer similar offerings, even if they are not on the menu, so it is worth asking if you are going to stay in the same place for some time, as it can be cheaper than paying for individual drinks. Karaoke Box is also a great place to buy good drinks where you get not only utaihodai (all you can sing), but nomihodai as well.
The drink menu in the karaoke box is usually extensive and filled with brightly colored drinks, a few alcoholic beverages, and a selection of a beer or two. British-style drinking establishments are limited to a handful of expensive fake pubs usually found in larger cities and are generally best avoided.
A wide variety of alco-pops called chu-hai are available. Receive it from a konbini (convenience store) like Lawsons, 7/11, Circle K or Family Mart, or from a restaurant or bar. Chu-hai is made from shochu, an alcohol distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice that can also be drunk clean.
Whiskey is very popular with Japanese men – Scotch is considered the best and is highly sought after. Many Japanese whiskeys are gaining popularity in the west. The two biggest brands are Nikka and Suntory. Yoichi and Yamazaki are considered among the best whiskeys in the world.
Drinks on the way
Japan is a nation obsessed with vending machines, and you’ll find one on almost every corner. There is approximately one vending machine for every 23 people in Japan, the highest number in the world. With so many vending machines comes a great variety of drinks. More new soft drinks hit the market in Japan than anywhere else in the world.
In a country apparently obsessed with hatsubai (new products), 300 to 1,000 new fresh and funky flavors appear every year. For those who need a coffee or tea fix on the go, there are canned hot drinks too. Japan is home to the only hot fizzy drink in the world – Canada dry ginger ale!
Cha Cha Cha
Finally, we couldn’t write an article about drinking in Japan without including tea. One thing the Japanese definitely have in common with the British is that they love a cup of tea! For tea connoisseurs, Japan is tea heaven. The Japanese word for tea is cha and there are countless varieties ranging from classic green teas to the more unusual mugicha (barley tea), sobacha (buckwheat tea), genmaicha (brown rice tea), umecha (plum tea). powder) and many more.
Sado (Japanese green tea ceremony) is an ancient tradition with roots dating back to Zen Buddhism. Literally translated as “the way of tea”, the ceremony consists of preparing and drinking tea.
As with all Japanese arts, sado requires years of study and perfection to master. Sado is widely taught in schools throughout Japan and is still a popular hobby today. A ceremony is worth seeing if you get the chance. The strict etiquette, the graceful movement and the elegance in which the tea is prepared, poured and consumed is quite a sight.