Drinking plays a major role in Japanese culture, and the Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals but also all types of alcoholic beverages in the evening with colleagues and friends. Sociologists have theorised that in a strictly conformist society, drinking provides a much-needed escape valve that can be used to vent off feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning.
Most Japanese looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere go to an izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub), many of which offer all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) services which are about 1000 JPY for 90 minutes (on average), although guests will be limited to certain types of drinks.
Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki) are ubiquitous in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of 100-150 JPY a can or bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, will charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and even hard liquor. In winter, most machines will also dispense hot drinks and even soups, indicated by a red label with the writing あたたかい (atatakai) instead of the usual blue つめたい (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 23:00. Increasingly, these machines, especially those located near schools, require the use of a special “Sake Pass” (酒パス・カード) obtainable at the city hall of the city where the machine is located. The pass is available to anyone of twenty years of age or over, the age of maturity in Japan.
“Sake” as it is known in Western nations is called nihonshu (日本酒) in Japan, where sake refers to any kind of alcoholic drink. A transparent rice-based beverage (often called wine, although technically brewed), usually around 15% alcohol, sake can be served hot (熱燗 atsukan) or cold (冷やし hiyashi), but true connoisseurs drink theirs cold. Sake is generally not cheap; a measure comes at 500 JPY at least in a restaurant.
Sake has its measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko (ちょこ) and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri (徳利). Alternatively, particularly when drinking it cold, it is sipped from the corner of a wooden box called a masu (枡), occasionally with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in go (期, 180ml), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8l isshōbin (一升瓶) bottle.
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo (日本酒度), a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this “sake level” measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.
Other labels often flung about include ginjō (吟醸, from highly milled rice) and daiginjō (大吟醸, even more highly milled), honjōzō (本醸造, with added alcohol) and junmai (純米, pure rice), which at least for the amateur are more useful for determining the price than the taste.
Worth a special mention is amazake (甘酒), the lumpy, often rather foul-smelling home-brewed version of sake, drunk hot in the winter. Amazake has very little alcohol, and it tastes pretty much like the fermented rice glop it is, but it is cheap.
The website of the Japan Sake Brewers Association (linked below) offers extensive information on both sake and shōchū. The Sake Plaza in Shinbashi and other liquor shops allow visitors to taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.
Shōchū (焼酎) is the big brother of sake, a stronger drink which is often served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chūhai (チューハイ or 酎ハイ). Shōchū contains typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger with over 60% alcohol) and is often served straight or on the rocks. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest libation around at less than 1000 JPY for a one-litre bottle, shōchū has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sakes.
Umeshu (梅酒) is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in shōchū, so it absorbs the flavour, and the uniquely sweet and bitter taste is a hit with many visitors. Awamori (泡盛) is another distilled alcoholic beverage made from long grain indica rice. It is indigenous to and unique to Okinawa but is being served in Okinawan restaurants all over Japan.
- imojōchū (芋焼酎, sweet potatoes shōchū)
- mugijōchū (麦焼酎, barley shōchū)
- komejōchū (米焼酎, rice shōchū)
- sobajōchū (そば焼酎, buckwheat shōchū)
- kokutōjōchū (黒糖焼酎, brown sugar shōchū from the Amami Islands in Okinawa)
- shisojōchū (紫蘇焼酎, shiso shōchū made of the shiso plant, Perilla frutescens)
- kurogomajōchū (遠州曳馬焼酎, sesame shōchū)
- kurijōchū (栗焼酎, chestnut shōchū, famous in Shikoku)
The major brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru) are Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory, but there is a growing number of local breweries all over the country. Yebisu is another popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Micro-brewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their micros or ji-biiru (地ビール). In 2006, the average Japanese adult consumed nearly 60 litres of beer and quasi-beer, with 9 billion litres of alcohol consumed in total.
Cans usually come in sizes of 330ml or 500ml, but in Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in bottles (瓶 bin), or draft (生 nama meaning “fresh”). Bottles come in three sizes, of which the largest is the most common. The large bottle gives you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companion’s glass (and having yours topped off as well). If you order a draft beer, you each receive your mug (jōki). In many establishments, a dai-jōki (“big mug”) holds a full litre of the brew.
Some breweries offer seasonal beers, especially in autumn, with higher amounts of alcohol, like Kirin’s Akiaji cans, which are usually decorated with beautiful autumn foliage.
British and Irish pubs have started appearing all over the country, which is nice for those who like their European brew.
Happōshu and third beer
Thanks to Japan’s convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two “almost-beers” on the market: happōshu (発泡酒), or low-malt beer, and the so-called “third beer” (第3のビール dai-san no biiru), which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. Priced as low as 120 JPY, both are considerably cheaper than the real thing, but lighter and more watery in taste.
Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo’s “Draft One” and Asahi’s “Hon-Nama”, so beer guzzlers need to pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it may not say ビール (beer), but will instead say 発泡酒 (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker その他の雑酒(2) (sono hoka no zashu(2), lit. “other mixed alcohol, type 2″).
Japanese wine has been made since the Meiji period, with the main production areas located in Hokkaidō and Yamanashi. Several varieties exist, and (usually quite expensive) imported wine is available nationwide. Suntory, as well as many other smaller producers, have wineries, offering tours to visitors. While in the past most Japanese wines was a sort of cuvée (a blend of locally grown and imported grapes), more producers stress the fact that their wines have been made of “100% Japanese grapes”.
The most popular beverage by far is green tea (緑茶 ryokucha, or simply called o-cha お茶), provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge variety of tea in bottles and cans in convenience-store fridges and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶); the most ubiquitous kind is Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea is also very popular.
The major types of Japanese tea are:
Read more about the Japanese tea ceremony.
- sencha (煎茶), the common green tea
- gyokuro (玉露, jade dew), of higher quality than sencha, as grown in the shade
- matcha (抹茶), soupy powdered ceremonial green tea, bitter and expensive; made from the buds and the tips of tea plants
- hōjicha (ほうじ茶), roasted green tea
- genmaicha (玄米茶), tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-y
- mugicha (麦茶), a drink of roasted barley, served iced in summer
Coffee (コーヒー kōhī) has become more and more popular in Japan, though it is not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It is usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered down coffee is called “American” or “Blend”. Hot and cold canned coffee is readily available in vending machines like other beverages for about 120 JPY per can. The regular kōhī is rather sweet, so there are black and, as of recently, many other “European” varieties as well. Decaffeinated coffee is practically unheard of in Japan, even at Starbucks. Thank God.
There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks, but major local chains include Doutor and Excelsior.
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks on vending machines is one of the little joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis (カルピス), a kind of yoghurt-based milky soft drink containing lactic acid which tastes better than it sounds and the famous Pocari Sweat (ポカリスエット, an “isotonic supply” drink). A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune (ラムネ) which is nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but is noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where one pushes down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener.
Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, Mountain Dew) are widely available in Japan, even in their diet varieties. Root Beer too is becoming a more common sight in vending machines. Ginger ale is very popular, and another common find in vending machines. Energy drinks (“supplement”) such as Red Bull can nowadays be found in almost all convenience stores and at vending machines. Many of the local brands, usually available at drug stores, are infused with ginseng.
In Japan, the term “juice” (ジュース jūsu) is a catch-all term for any fruity, soft drink, and extremely few are 100% juice. So if it’s fruit squeezings you want, ask for kajū (果汁).