Japan has a long history of, and love for, drinking. Sake, or nihonshū, as the Japanese call it, and o-cha (green tea) are the country's two signature drinks. There is also craft beer, award-winning whisky and meticulously brewed coffee to get excited about. Japan's cities have excellent bars and cafes; in rural areas, seek out local styles of sake.

What to Drink

Beer

First brewed in Japan at the end of the 1800s, biiru (beer) is now the country's favourite tipple. Many a night out at an izakaya (Japanese pub-eatery) begins with the phrase, toriaezu biiru! ('first off, beer!'). Beer in Japan has long been ruled by what are known as the big five: Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, Suntory and Orion (the latter is Okinawa's signature beer). Most bars and izakaya just serve one kind of lager (made by one of the above), either as mugs of draught beer or in 633mL bottles (meant to be shared among the table and drunk in glasses).

Japan does have a growing number of craft brewers; to sample their wares, seek out craft beer speciality bars – most cities have at least one. For the latest on the craft beer scene, check out blog Beer Tengoku (http://beertengoku.com) or follow @JapanBeerTimes.

biiruビールbeer
bin-biiru瓶ビールbottled beer
nama biiru生ビールdraught beer

Sake

What much of the world calls 'sake' the Japanese call nihonshu (the drink of Japan). It's made from rice, water and kōji, a mould that helps to convert the starch in the rice into fermentable sugars.

Sake has existed for as long as history has been recorded in Japan (and odds are a lot longer). It plays an important part in a variety of Shintō rituals, including wedding ceremonies, and many Shintō shrines display huge barrels of sake in front of their halls (most of them are empty). Naturally, sake is the best pairing for traditional Japanese cuisine.

The rice used to make sake is different from the rice grown for eating: the grain is larger and starchier. It's polished before fermentation and – generally speaking – the greater the degree of polishing the better the sake will be. That which is made from only the innermost part of the kernel is the most prized. Sometimes the alcohol content is artificially regulated (either increased or reduced). On average the alcohol content of sake is around 15%; by law it can be no more than 22%.

The taste is often categorised as sweet (ama-kuchi) or dry (kara-kuchi), though these are just starting points. Sake can also be tanrei (crisp), hanayaka (fragrant), odayaka (mellow) and much more. Sake is always brewed during the winter, in the cold months that follow the rice harvest in September. Fresh, young sake is ready by late autumn.

Sake Glossary

ama-kuchi甘口sweet flavour
dai-ginjō大吟醸sake made from rice kernels with 50% or more of their original volume polished away
futsū-shu普通酒ordinary sake
genshu原酒undiluted sake, often with an alcohol content close to 20%
ginjō吟醸sake made from rice kernels with 40% to 50% of their original volume polished away
junmai-shu純米酒'pure rice sake', made from only rice, kōji and water
kara-kuchi辛口dry, sharp flavour
koshu古酒aged sake, often golden-hued and sweet
nama-zake生酒fresh, unpasteurised sake
nigori-zake濁り酒milky-white 'cloudy sake', often rather sweet
nihonshu日本酒Japanese word for 'sake'
shiboritate搾立てyoung 'nouveau' sake that comes out in autumn
tokutei-meishōshu特定 名称酒premium sake; distinguished by being either ginjō or above or junmai-shu

Local Sake

If wine is defined by terroir then sake is defined by its water, usually mountain snowmelt that flows downstream through rice paddies picking up various minerals on the way. The variety of rice matters too, though many brewers buy rice from elsewhere in Japan (like Yamada Nishiki rice farmed in Hyōgō Prefecture and prized by brewers); there are also countless strains of kōji used in secret, proprietary blends.

There are over 1500 kura (breweries) in Japan; Kagoshima is the only prefecture that has none. Some are small and still do much of the work by hand; others are highly modernised.

Almost everywhere has a ji-zake (local sake). Niigata and other parts of Northern Honshū are particularly famous for the quality of their sake, with Hiroshima and Nada-ku (in Kōbe) also major centres of the brewing industry.

How to Drink It

Sake can be drunk reishu (chilled), jō-on (at room temperature), nuru-kan (warmed) or atsu-kan (piping hot), according to the season and personal preference. The top-drawer stuff is normally served chilled. Sake is traditionally presented in a ceramic jug known as a tokkuri, and poured into tiny cups known as o-choko or sakazuki. A traditional measure of sake is one (一合), which is a little over 180mL or 6oz. In speciality bars, you will have the option of ordering by the glass, which will often be filled to overflowing and brought to you in a wooden container to catch the overflow.

Shōchū

Shōchū is a distilled spirit that can be made from a variety of raw materials, including potato, barley and sugarcane. It's quite strong, with an alcohol content of about 25% (but can be as much as 45%). The beverage is strongly associated with Kyūshū, and especially Kagoshima. Okinawa has its own signature distilled spirit called awamori, actually made of long-grain rice.

Honkaku shōchū is made in traditional pot stills. This is the good stuff, unadulterated and appreciated for its flavor and drunk on its own, either straight or on the rocks, or diluted with water. There is also shōchū that is mass-produced, a neutral spirit used in cocktails – like the kind that show up on the menu at cheap izakaya and karaoke parlours or can be purchased in cans at the convenient store. (Beware the hangover from these).

Shōchū is also the base for many fruit liquors, including the most popular one, umeshū (apricot liquor).

awamori泡盛Okinawan distilled spirit made from long-grain rice
chūhaiチューハイshōchū cocktail made with soda water and/or fruit juice or tea
imo-jōchū芋焼酎shōchū made from sweet potatoes
kokutō-shōchū黒糖焼酎shōchū made from sugar cane
mizu-wari水割りmixed with water
mugi-jōchū麦焼酎shōchū made from barley
oyu-wariお湯割りmixed with hot water
rokku deロックでon the rocks
shōchū焼酎strong distilled liquor
sutoraitoストレートstraight
umeshū梅酒apricot liquor

Tea

Japan is a treat for tea lovers. Here o-cha (tea) means green tea and broadly speaking there are two kinds: ryokucha (steeped with leaves) and matcha, which is made by whisking dried and milled leaves with water until a cappuccino level of frothiness is achieved. It's matcha that is served in the tea ceremony; it is quite bitter, so it is accompanied by a traditional sweet.

When you order o-cha in a Japanese restaurant (it's usually free, like water), you'll most likely be served bancha, ordinary tea. (In summer, you might get cold mugicha, roasted barley tea, instead.) After a course meal, restaurants often serve hōjicha, roasted green tea, which is weaker and less caffeinated.

To really get to know Japanese tea, visit a teahouse or speciality shop, which will serve matcha and higher-grades of ryokucha. (Cafes may serve black tea, but rarely serve green tea). Department store food halls are also a good bet for quality tea to take home.

bancha番茶ordinary-grade green tea, with a brownish colour
matcha抹茶powdered green tea used in the tea ceremony
mugicha麦茶roasted barley tea
o-chaお茶green tea
sencha煎茶medium-grade green tea
hōjichaほうじ茶roasted green tea
genmaicha玄米茶green tea mixed with roasted brown rice
gyokuro玉露the highest grade of green tea, shaded from the sun and picked early in the season
kōcha紅茶black tea

Coffee

Cafes of all colours can be found all over Japan. In cities, and increasingly in resort areas, you'll find indie shops doing well-crafted lattes and single-origin pour-overs. There are also some lovely, older individually-operated cafes, known as kissaten (喫茶店), the word used before kafe (カフェ) entered the lexicon; these tend to only serve hand-poured or siphon-brewed coffee and no espresso drinks.

There are also plenty of chains, both international (like Starbucks) and domestic (like Doutor), and these days most convenience stores offer what counts as passable coffee (for a very reasonable ¥100). When ordering, staff will usually ask you to clarify whether you want it hotto (hot) or aisu (iced).

Amerikan kōhiiアメリカンコーヒーweak coffee
burendo kōhiiブレンドコーヒーhouse blend, typically strong
kafe oreカフェオレcafé au lait, hot or cold
kafe rateカフェラテcafé latte

Nightlife

Any Japanese city of reasonable size will have a nightlife district. Famous ones include Tokyo's Kabukichō, Osaka's Minami (and especially Dōtombori) and Sapporo's Susukino. Such districts are stocked, often several storeys high, with a medley of drinking options that include izakaya, cocktail bars, Western-style pubs, jazz cafes, karaoke parlours, nightclubs and more – all awash in the colourful, LED-lit signage that forms Japan's urban signature.

The legal drinking age in Japan is 20. Bars generally don't require photo ID as proof of age, but nightclubs are required to check ID cards (of everyone, no matter how far past 20 you look). Though local governments have been cracking down on this practice, some establishments in well-known nightlife districts do employ street touts; though not all are employed by shady places (where bills may come inflated), it's best to steer clear of them.

Feature: Karaoke

Karaoke (カラオケ; pronounced kah-rah-oh-kay) isn't just about singing: it's an excuse to let loose, a bonding ritual, a reason to keep the party going past the last train and a way to kill time until the first one starts in the morning. When words fail, it's a way to express yourself – are you the type to sing the latest J-pop hit (dance moves included) or do you go in for an Okinawan folk ballad? It doesn't matter if you're a good singer or not (though the tone-deaf might sign up for singing lessons – such is the important social function of karaoke), as long as you've got heart.

In Japan, karaoke is sung in a private room among friends. Admission is usually charged per person by the half-hour, though most places offer a variety of packaged deals that include a set number of singing hours with or without unlimited drinks. Food and drinks can be ordered from the phone in the room. To choose a song, use the touch-screen device to search by artist or title; most have an English function and plenty of English songs to choose from. Then let your inner diva shine!

All major cities will have karaoke parlours, usually in well-marked tower buildings around train stations or in nightlife districts.

Feature: The Water Trade

Japan's sex industry is euphemistically called 'the water trade' (mizu-shōbai). Prostitution is illegal, but there are many businesses that tread a fine line. 'Hostess' and 'host' bars, for example, are establishments where customers pay more for the charm factor (and sex appeal) of the staff than for the drinks; they can be both relatively harmless or gateways to under-the-table prostitution (and regardless will cost a dear sum to visit). Such places are often obvious, with photos of attractive young women or men displayed outside; others – usually the more expensive ones – can be more discreet. Most typically decline entry to visitors who don't speak Japanese, but in some nightlife districts touts sometimes target foreign male travellers, knowing that by not understanding how things work, the tourists might end up spending big bucks in their establishment.