This is a topic near and dear to my heart. In the current article, I’d like to talk about cheap drinking and drinking culture in Tokyo.
Cheap Bar Drinking Culture in Tokyo
In Tokyo, if you want to break the bank painting the town red (mixed metaphor 1), your options are limitless. If you go to a girls’ bar or a hostess bar, you will spend A LOT of money. However, cheap drinking bars also abound, and in the current article, I’d like to talk mainly about these establishments. Let’s get into it.
Bar-type Number 1 (Snack)
Of the following types I am going to introduce, this is actually the most expensive of the options. A “snack”, when viewed from the average western person, looks and is laid out like a normal bar. Usually, such establishments are run by a “mama,” who is usually a veteran (thirty or forty-something lady who used to work as a hostess) of the mizu shoubai (the “drinking industry”). These places often include small karaoke devices were the patrons, along with the encouragement of the “mama,” sing to their hearts’ content. There is usually a menu, albeit somewhat limited, for food, but one snack I used to go to quite often had a decent enough menu that one could have a decent enough meal. Also, many of these places have a system where you can keep your own bottle of whiskey or shocu or whatever, and the mama will you serve you from your own bottle. These places tend to be a bit expensive, as they usually have some kind of cover charge for entering, though I have also been to snacks that were not that much more expensive than the average tachinomiya (see below).
Bar-type Number 2 (Western-style bar)
These also abound. When I say “Western-style bar,” I’m talking about how Japanese people view western bars circa 1950 or so. The bartenders in these establishments adorn tuxes and the like, and the whole atmosphere feels like being transported into an episode of Mad Men. Lots of whiskey and bourbon and other “put-hair-on-you-chest” type concoctions (gin and tonics, high balls and the like) abound. Not all “Western-style bars” fit this pattern; many are also geared toward live music events. What these places share in common is: (1) a cover charge; and (2) a paucity of food. Most will have a limited menu for food, but for the most part, such places are where you go AFTER having dinner. By the way, if you go into a drinking establishment in Japan and are automatically handed a small plate of peanuts or such culinary garbage (here called “otoshi”), this is an indication that there is a cover charge (even if said cover charge is not (and it usually is not) advertised out front)).
Bar-type Number 3 (The Hub and the like)
In Tokyo, there are also many franchise bars, with locations all over the city. The most well-known is “the Hub.” This place fancies itself as a British pub. Insofar as the Hub carries many beers you would have a hard time finding in Tokyo and offers food that I suppose my British friends would characterize as “pub grub” (fish and chips, sausages, sandwiches), to be honest, you COULD have a full-on meal here, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I suppose you could consider it a British pub, but once you have been to one Hub, you have been to all of them (I’ve been to the Hub in several places, in Shinjuku, Ebisu, Shibuya, and Kichijoji, and they are all the same). The Hub is usually extremely crowded, with loud music, and to be honest, I’m not the biggest fan. They do have a good selection of beer, though, and they are always open and usually located near major train stations. Also, the place is very foreigner friendly, with complete English menus and, depending on the location, staff members who can speak English. I usually go to the Hub when I’m trying to think of a better place to go, when I’m waiting for someone to arrive, or at the end of the night for a final drink. As such, the Hub is not without its charm and utility.
Bar-type Number 4 (Tachinomiya and Dive Bars)
These kinds of bars are my favorite. A tachinomiya (stand while drinking establishment) is, as per the name, an establishment where the patrons stand and drink. They are almost without exception small, and most DO NOT have a cover charge, so they tend to be pretty cheap (my favorite tachinomiya here in Shimokitazawa, higechouchin, has beers and highballs in the 300-400 JPY range). The other good thing about tachinomiyas is that many have a decent enough food menu to make dining there possible. Also, because they are small and you are in close proximity to other customers, these places are very conducive to talking to and meeting new people. Tachinomiyas exist everywhere in Tokyo, and in Shimokitazawa, there are several I know of. The same comments apply to “dive bars,” except with dive bars, first, the food menu is usually pretty limited and second, there is often some kind of cover charge. Also, in dive bars, instead of standing, you are usually provided with seats. The most famous example of dive bars can be found in Golden Gai in Shinjuku, near Kabukicho. In Golden Gai, there are literally hundreds of these closet-sized dive bars in about a five block area. About fifteen or twenty years ago, this area had a reputation for being dangerous, but I’ve been drinking in Golden Gai for years and have never had a problem (knock on wood (kuwabara kuwabara in Japanese)).
Bar-type Number 5 (Izakaya)
This is probably the main place where Japanese people drink. An “izakaya” is a Japanese-style pub, but at these establishments, the main purpose is eating in addition to drinking. The main point about Japanese drinking culture is that most people combine eating and drinking, and for this reason, izakayas are the most popular drinking establishment in Japan. Most izakayas have a pretty broad menu allowing for a full-on meal. I have had many friends involved in the mizu shobai here in Japan, and I have been told, many times, that any drinking establishment without a decent menu has a very hard time being successful, because, most Japanese people combine drinking with eating and, most young Japanese people, don’t really have money to hit up bars after the izakaya (nijikai) and don’t really drink that much anyway. Izakayas come in the mom-and-pop variety and there are also many franchise izakayas (at these, there are often nomihoudai (all you can drink) bargains). Most mom-and-pop type izakayas are relatively cheap, and franchise izakayas are usually even cheaper.
Bar-type Number 6 (Curbin’ it)
Below, I will get into some of the drinking laws in Japan, but here, suffice it to say, there are no open-container laws in Japan. What this means is that it is perfectly legal to drink outside in public. Many western foreigners new to Japan are so dumbfounded by this that they make ostentatious displays of this public drunkenness because, where they are from, such boorish behavior would be grounds for a prompt jackbooting by the police. Allow me to provide you with some advice concerning curbing one in Japan. (1) Move out of the way of moving people. If you are going to curb one with your buddies, don’t do it on the shoutengai (main commercial strip); move off into the cut somewhere. (2) DO NOT LITTER. Litterbugs are especially despised in this country. (3) DON’T DO IT ON THE TRAIN. Technically, this is not illegal, but it is heavily frowned upon. Aside from these general rules, curb it up. This is actually the cheapest way to drink with your buddies in Japan (as you can buy beers and highballs and chuuhais at any convenience store).
Commonalities of Bar-types
One of the things I love about Japan is that you can still smoke in most places in Japan. Actually, let me qualify that. In so-called “resutoran” (restaurants), which are typically Italian or French (or other such pretentious places), smoking is usually not allowed. In many cafes and coffee shops, smoking is not allowed or at least the place is partitioned into smoking and non-smoking areas. Fast food joints like McDonald’s have been completely non-smoking for several years now. However, in the abovementioned drinking establishments, smoking is A-OKAY. I love it (being a heavy smoker). For young western people who have never experienced such smoky environments, this may come as a bit of a shock, but the reality is that these places are chimneys.
When I came of partying age in America (early 2000s), taking shots was very common (is it still?). When many of my friends came to Japan, they were surprised at the lack of taking shots (and many of my Japanese friends were surprised (and a little put off) with the idea of sake bombs when I explained them). This is one area of drinking culture that is different in Japan.
There isn’t one. Well, there is, but it completely depends on the establishment in question. In America (at least in Maryland), by law, it is illegal to serve alcohol after 2:00 A.M. I will get more into some of the drinking laws in Japan below, but suffice it to say, drinking establishments stay open pretty late in Japan (especially in Tokyo). Having said that, however, Izakayas tend to close around 11 (and the last train is usually around midnight or so, so really, it’s a moot point unless you are drinking late near where you are staying), and Western bars, dive bars, and snacks tend to stay open quite later (2 or 3 A.M., or sometimes until the next morning).
Drinking Laws in Japan
They don’t exist. You can drink outside (just because you CAN doesn’t necessarily mean you SHOULD). Also, booze is sold everywhere in Japan (at convenience stores, grocery stores, train stations etc.).
Public Intoxication Laws
These do exist, but they are very lax when compared with other countries. All you need to do is walk around Shinjuku or Shibuya on a Friday night, and you will see what I mean. It is very common to see drunken people throwing up or passed out on the street. This will likely draw the attention of police, but will not result in an arrest (the police will ask if you are okay if you require medical assistance, etc.). I’ve seen many, many drunken people on the streets or at train stations, but I have never seen anyone actually get into trouble with the police. I suspect there is a line one could cross with the police, but I don’t know what it is. I suspect you would need to be extremely intoxicated (and loud and violent) for the police to exercise martial force (you probably shouldn’t be drinking that much in the first place).
Here, the laws in Japan are very strict. If you are drunk and walking, as mentioned above, you will be fine. That ceases to the be the case the second you get behind the wheel of a car or even if you ride a bicycle. In the case of driving a car drunk, the laws are zero tolerance-if you have had one drink or ten, it doesn’t make a difference (well, it does, because you would probably get in more trouble if you were very drunk), you can get arrested. The police are not as strict with people operating a bicycle drunk, but in recent years, they have become much stricter and you can get into trouble for this too (first of all, it goes without saying that trying to ride a bicycle or operate a motor vehicle while drunk is extremely dangerous and ill-advised). Don’t do it.
What Cheap Bar Tips Do You Have?
I hope this article has provided you with some insight and advice concerning cheap drinking in Japan. Kanpai! (cheers). Leave your cheap bar tips below!