A broke-ass guide to drinking in Tokyo

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The nighttime lights in Tokyo are overwhelming. Billions of bright bulbs and bulletins begging for your attention, yearning for your yen. You think: ‘With all this brilliance, the rumors must be true: this must be the most expensive city on Earth. How else could they afford their electricity bills?’ But I’ve got a little secret for you: Tokyo isn’t as expensive as everyone says it is.

Mind blown, right? I mean, Japan is expensive if you’re comparing it to most other Asian countries, but when compared to other cities equally famous for their nightlife (London, New York, Hong Kong, Amsterdam) Tokyo isn’t the insane money monster that it’s made out to be. Sure, if you plan on going out to clubs or high-end specialty cocktail places you’re gonna pay a pretty penny. But if you follow the guide below you can spend less on drinks and more on whatever it is you came to Japan to experience…probably manga or robots.

Eating and drinking on the cheap in Asakusa, Tokyo. Image by Will Robb / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

Eating and drinking on the cheap in Asakusa, Tokyo. Image by Will Robb / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images.

When planning a night of overindulgence, it’s important to know what you’re up against. In this case (as in most cases) your enemy is expensive prices. So I’ll lay it out: generally speaking the average cost of a beer in Tokyo is around ¥600 and the average mixed drink is around ¥800. On their own, these prices aren’t too bad, but knowing you (or rather, knowing me), you’re not gonna have just one drink.

Related article: A no-sushi guide to food in Japan

So what’s a broke-ass who wants to get drunk supposed to do? Drink in the streets! It’s totally legal in Japan to drink pretty much everywhere, so your best bet is to go to any of the many convenience stores that seem to be everywhere and buy a chu-hi. A chu-hi is a can of shochu mixed with some kind of citrus carbonated water. The combination is so good that a chu-hi ‘strong’ (which are around 8% abv), tastes like a refreshing soda. Because of this it’s important to pace yourself. You do eventually want to make it into a bar, don’t you? Keep your eyes peeled for vending machines that serve booze. Unfortunately they are harder to find now than they used to be.

Japan's dedication to beer in its myriad forms is legendary. Image by Martin Lopatka. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Japan's dedication to beer in its myriad forms is legendary. Image by Martin Lopatka. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now that you’ve loitered for a while and gone through a couple of chu-his, you’re ready to hit the bars. Depending on the neighborhood, a lot of the bars have a seating charge that usually amounts to ¥500. Yes, that’s right, they charge money so that you can come in and give them more money for drinks. This is especially the case in the Golden Gai area of Shinjuku because the bars are so tiny that they mostly seat less than 10 people. So it’s important to ask if there’s a seating charge before you sit down and order a drink. That way, when you get the bill, there’s no odoroki (Japanese for surprise).

Another way to fill your (drunk) tank without breaking the bank is to imbibe at a cheap izakaya. Izakayas are drinking places that also serve a variety of small dishes. As I’m sure you’re well aware, it’s important to have food in your belly if you plan on drinking; bad things generally happen when you don’t. Your best bet for a cheap izakaya is to go to the area surrounding any of the more popular train stations and look for a yellow sign advertising ‘all items ¥270’. These places are everywhere and just like the sign says, all the items are cheap as chopsticks. This includes beers.

Nomihodai is also an important word to know because it’s Japanese for ‘all-you-can-drink’. This is more common than you think and certain areas like Roppongi have loads of Nomihodai places where for ¥1000 you can drink til you stink…wait, that’s gross.  

Sipping sake in Ginza. Image by jetalone. CC BY 2.0.

Line 'em up... sipping sake in the Ginza area of Tokyo. Image by jetalone. CC BY 2.0.

Now that you have the basics out of the way here are five cheap and cool places in Tokyo to sip away the hours.

Beatcafe (2 Chome-13 Dogenzaka, Shibuya): a subterranean bar devoted to art and rock ‘n' roll. The drinks are cheap , the locals are hip, and the decorations are awesome. Just don’t bother trying to make any song requests from the DJ/bartender. He won’t play them.

Miyoshino (Kitazawa 2-24-3, Setagaya): an amazing little bar in an alleyway in Shimokitazawa. The bartender/owner, Tsutomu, is a huge fan of American Soul music and he blasts it from behind the bar while serving up cheap drinks and big smiles. You can sit there all night, not understanding a word of Japanese and still have one of the best evenings of your trip.

Bones Bar (2F, 2 Chome-- Kitazawa, Setagaya): the owner of this joint is a big fan of all things Californian, so the place is decorated with ephemera ranging from the Grateful Dead to a surfboard. Movies play in the background while the man behind the stick practises his English on you and serves you cheap drinks.

Grilled kingfish - just one way to line your stomach on a boozy tour of Japan's capital. Image by avlxyz. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Grilled kingfish - just one way to line your stomach on a boozy tour of Japan's capital. Image by avlxyz. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Hanbey (B1F Kusumoto Bldg, Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku): a super cheap and quirky izakaya where it doesn’t matter that nothing is in English. Look at the things the people around you are ordering and just point to one and let your server know that’s what you’d like. The word for beer is beeru, so let him know how many of those you want. Once you order take some time to check out all the rad old school Japanese pop culture memorabilia that lines the walls.

Mistral Bleu 'Train Bar'(1F ROI BLDG. 5-5-1 Roppongi, Shinjuku-ku): English is not a problem in this bar housed in a former train car. Pictures and bric-a-brac cover the walls and inexpensive drinks fly across the bar to thirsty tourists from all over the world.

Thanks to Tanya Kollar for all the research help.