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Japanese drinking culture is just as good as you might hope it is. If you like a tipple then you won’t be disappointed. However, it’s worth having a bit of an overview before you get started so that you can make the most out of it.
The most well-known drink at the heart of Japanese drinking culture is nihonshu (日本酒, Japanese alcohol), a strong rice wine more commonly known as sake. Made by fermenting rice with water, yeast and a mold known as Koji, the resulting drink is around 15% strength/alcohol content. It is likely to be available in every izakaya, bar, and restaurant you visit.
A drink of Japan through the ages, legend has it that before the mold and yeast were added to the process in more recent times, the nihonshu was produced by chewing the grains of rice before being spit out into containers to be left to ferment. The notion being that the enzymes in the saliva would start the fermentation process. This particular type of nihonshu was known as kuchikamizake (口噛み酒, alcohol chewed in the mouth). You may recognise this if you’ve seen the Japanese film Kimi no namae wa, (君の名前は) or ‘Your name’ in English.
Certainly one of the most popular drinks in Japan. With big players like Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo you’ll surely recognise some of the beers available. However, depending on where you’re from, it may not be entirely what you’re used to. Firstly, the portion sizes are a bit different. You can expect a medium (200ml-300ml) or large (500ml-700ml) rather than a pint or a half pint, you can also often get a jug or pitcher to share. Secondly, it’s more focused on the standard lagers rather than ales or other types. However, as they have across the globe, things have been changing in Japanese drinking culture. Craft beer is making big waves, particularly in the cities and if you venture outside of the traditional izakayas.
Not as well known outside of Japan, but just as regularly drunk in Japan, is shochu (焼酎). Whereas nihonshu is fermented or brewed, Shochu is distilled. The most common form comes from distilling potatoes but it can also be made from rice, barley, buckwheat and many other starchy items. Shochu is a bit stronger than nihonshu although equally as delicious.
Umeshu and Chuhai
If you like your drinks a bit fruitier then you have a couple of popular choices. First is a lighter, sweeter spirit Umeshu (梅酒). A relatively weak plum wine, this is generally still drunk in small glasses due to the high sugar content. Alternatively, there’s Chuhai (チューハイ), a Shochu version of the highball. A mix of shochu and a flavoured carbonated water, a slightly lighter taste compared to whiskey highballs. Watch out though, if you buy it in a can from a konbini it can be a lot stronger so check the alcohol percentage before you knock it back.
A drink normally associated with Scotland and Ireland, Japan has been up and coming in the whiskey world over the last few years with several having won awards. The Japanese drink it in much the same way as anyone else with one exception, Highballs! Highballs are whiskey mixed with carbonated water and are available in most izakayas. You can commonly get a variety of flavours as well so why not try them all.
As with many customs in Japan, there are rules and expectations within Japanese drinking culture as well. As with many things in Japan or indeed when traveling in any country. It’s important to understand these to fit in but most importantly to show respect to the culture you love.
Don’t pour your own drink
When out in a party, always pour for others around you and then wait for them to return the favour and pour your drink for you. While there is no hierarchy with friends, when out with coworkers it is expected that you would pour a drink for your boss.
Don’t drink before everyone has been served
Similarly to the expectation that you wouldn’t start your meal until everyone has been served, it’s the same with drinks. Make sure everyone has something in their glass before swigging back your highball.
Order the same on the first round
Not as common as the others, but it does make the waiters like much easier. People often order the same drink for the first round of orders and it’s more often than not beer. We guarantee you won’t regret this when it’s the height of summer.
Don’t drink from the bottle
An important one to remember particularly for those from the UK, US or Australia. As we mentioned before portion sizes are different in Japan, especially for beer, and sharing is very common with both food and drink. Drinking directly from the bottle doesn’t really fit the sharing culture even if it’s just for you. If you are sharing, it’s even worse and not very sanitary.
Everywhere you travel in the world, you are likely to toast before you drink and Japan is no different. Before you take that first refreshing sip, remember to Kanpai! (カンパイ), as you clink your glasses with your friends and colleagues. Don’t be afraid to stand up and reach over to make sure you reach everyone. Sometimes people like to drop in their own local saying for Kanpai or cheers, but be careful, Chin-chin (ちんちん) in Japanese is a childish word for penis! Certainly not something you want to be shouting across the table.
Now you know the ins and outs of what to drink and how, you need to know when to drink! Japanese drinking culture is focused around community. Whether it’s to get to know your classmates, friends from your local club or work colleagues, drinking is the perfect opportunity for this. This pastime is so common in fact that it even has its own term nominication (飲み二ケーション). A somewhat crass combination of the Japanese verb nomu (飲 む, drink) and the English word communication.
Particularly for companies, it’s almost considered a necessity to ensure good working practice, that your team and your boss will go out for a drink after work. It’s a chance to break down barriers and drink and laugh without the formal restrictions of work.
While it’s generally a great idea for clubs, classmates and friends, be careful when out with your colleagues as not all barriers are truly broken down. Firstly, you have to attend. Refusing to join the nominication can be considered a slight against colleagues and against the company itself. So make sure you go along, even if it’s at the expense of other plans. Secondly, turning down another drink or even not drinking at all is a further slight. Now, these barriers tend to go against each other. You’re expected to drink to help ease the process, breaking down the barriers with your boss but you also don’t want to cause offense to anyone as you relax and speak your mind a bit more. You may be inclined to avoid it or not drink, but you don’t have this option either! While it may seem rather stressful, don’t panic. It’s ultimately meant to be fun and remember everyone will have drunk as much as you.
Overall attitudes are changing and as social rules start to change, the rigidity of nominications are relaxing too. Most of the time, drinking in Japan is like drinking in the rest of the world, a chance to relax, make new friends and get to know people.