Any Japanese city of reasonable size will have a hankagai (繁華街), a lively commercial and entertainment district. Famous ones include: Tokyo's Kabukichō, Osaka's Dōtombori and Sapporo's Susukino. Such districts are stocked, often several storeys high, with a medley of drinking options that include izakaya (traditional pubs), cocktail bars, Western-style pubs, jazz cafes, karaoke parlours, nightclubs and more – all awash in the neon lights that form Japan's urban signature.

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!').

In 2015, 425 million cases were sold (and beer consumption stats are closely watched by economic pundits; the latest figures, a slight uptick, were welcomed with enthusiasm).

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). Kirin Lager, which you'll often see served in 633mL 'big bottles' (大瓶; ō-bin) for the table at old-school izakaya has long been synonymous with beer. The younger generation prefers Asahi's Super Dry (also a lager), by the can or from the tap.

The average mug of lager at a bar or restaurant costs around ¥500. Vending machines and convenience stores sell beer for around ¥200 a can.

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

Craft Beer in Japan

After years of fits and starts, craft beer has really taken off in Japan in the last decade. Every town with a tourist attraction now has its own ji-biiru (地ビール; local beer). Most are run-of-the-mill lagers (or adventurous fails), but there are some genuinely good innovators out there, too. Some of the best include:

Baird Brewery (http://bairdbeer.com) Early pioneer. Its Shizuoka brewery has a beer garden and there are also taprooms in Tokyo and Yokohama; start with the best-selling Rising Sun Pale Ale.

Minoh Beer (www.minoh-beer.jp) Kansai's signature microbrew, helmed by two sisters on the outskirts of Osaka; it has two Osaka taprooms. Try the award-winning Imperial Stout and Yuzu White Ale.

Kiuchi Brewery (www.kodawari.cc) Ibaraki-based maker of the cult-fave Hitachino Nest beers; the White Ale is its classic, but the Red Rice Ale is good, too.

Lots of cities (especially Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka) have dedicated craft-beer bars. Be warned that craft beer is often pricey: a serving (often shy of a pint) can run over ¥1000. Tasting sets are the best deal.

Shōchū

Shōchū is a distilled spirit that can be made from a variety of raw materials, including potato (in which case it's called imo-jōchū), barley (mugi-jōchū) and black sugar (kokutō-shōchū). It's quite strong, with an alcohol content of about 25% (but can be as much as 45%).

The beverage is strongly associated with Kagoshima, in southern Kyūshū, where it was likely first introduced from Okinawa (Okinawa has its own signature distilled spirit called awamori, actually made of long-grain rice). Like any spirit, shōchū can be harsh – it's long had a rough image to match – or deliciously complex and balanced. The growing presence of the latter over the last two decades has done much to raise shōchū's esteem.

The good stuff can be drunk on the rocks (rokku de). Go down a notch and have it oyu-wari (with hot water) or mixed in a chūhai (a highball with soda and lemon). Chūhai in fruity, seasonal flavours is also a convenience-store staple.

chūhaiチューハイshōchū with soda and lemon
oyu-wariお湯割りshōchū with hot water
shōchū焼酎strong distilled liquor

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.

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 Types

Sake is classed by its seimai buai (精米歩合) – the amount of rice that is polished away before fermentation. As a general rule, the more polishing, the better the sake will be, as it is believed that sake made from the inner portion of the rice kernel is the smoothest and most delicious of all. Sake made from rice kernels with 40% to 50% of their original volume polished away is called ginjō. Sake made from rice kernels with 50% or more of their original volume polished away is classified as dai-ginjō.

Sometimes the alcohol content is artificially regulated (either increased or reduced); unadulterated sake is known as junmai-shu (pure rice sake). 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 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.

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.) So if you want to try out the more rarefied stuff, you'll have to seek out a teahouse or speciality shop. After a course meal, restaurants often serve hōjicha, roasted green tea, which is weaker and less caffeinated.

A plethora of hot and cold bottled teas can be purchased from vending machines and convenience stores; department store food halls are a good spot for buying higher-grade loose-leaf tea.

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

Alcohol

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).

Tea & Coffee

Coffee

Japan's first-wave coffee shops are called kissaten and they tend to serve small cups of dark roast (for around ¥500) accompanied by tiny, adorable single-serving pitchers of cream. Many are quite charming, with vintage mid-20th-century interiors, though they're known to get quite smokey. Until around 11am they often serve a mōningu setto (morning set) of tea or coffee, toast and eggs for about the same price as they usually charge for coffee.

The coffee third wave is still cresting in Japan's cities, bringing with it all sorts of indie shops that specialise in hand-poured, single-origin brews or ever more elaborate latte art. Many serve truly excellent coffee.

Filling the need for mediocre on-the-go brews are a number of chains, which charge about ¥300 a cup and can be found all over any city. Staff will usually ask if you want it hotto (hot) or aisu (cold). If you just want coffee (and not a place to rest), Japan's convenience stores sell coffee that is no better or worse for about ¥100.

There's also the Japanese phenomenon of canned coffee, which can be bought hot or cold from vending machines or convenience stores. It's often very sweet and tastes more like a coffee-flavoured beverage, but it does have the necessary kick.

With the exception of the indie speciality shops, cafes in Japan also serve black tea and soft drinks like juice.

American kōhiiアメリカンコーヒーweak coffee
burendo kōhiiブレンドコーヒーblended coffee, fairly strong
kafe oreカフェオレcafé au lait, hot or cold
kōcha紅茶black English tea
kōhiiコーヒーregular coffee
orenji jūsuオレンジジュースorange juice

Soft Drinks

While drinking plays a big role in Japanese society, you needn't drink alcohol to participate. The most common nonalcoholic izakaya order is oolong tea (烏龍茶; ūron-cha), a Chinese tea that can be ordered hot or cold; bars also serve soft drinks and juices. You just need to order something, for the first round at least, so you have a glass to raise.

At shrines, teahouses and winter festivals, you can sometimes find a sweet, nonalcoholic fermented rice drink called amazake (甘酒), served hot.

Nightlife

Alcohol is largely considered an accompaniment for food (or often the other way around) so places to eat, like izakaya (Japanese pubs) and yakitori-ya (restaurants specialising in charcoal-grilled skewers), double as nightspots. Rather than tucking into a full meal, a succession of small plates, often to share, are ordered bit by bit along with drinks. Larger cities have a huge variety of bars, including many that specialise in craft beer, and a growing coffeehouse scene. In summer, look for beer gardens that pop up on the rooftops of department stores.

Oft-maligned 'gaijin bars' – bars frequented by expats that are often a bit grotty – can be good sources of local intel, as bartenders usually speak good English.

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. Food and drinks (ordered by phone) will be brought to the door. 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 with dozens of private rooms.

Feature: The Water Trade

The murkier side of Japan's nightlife culture is what is euphemistically called 'the water trade' (mizu-shōbai). Here customers pay more for the charm factor (and sex appeal) of the cocktail waitresses (and sometimes waiters) than for the drinks, and a night in a 'hostess' or 'host' bar can wind up costing an unholy sum. Such establishments are often obvious, with photos of attractive young women or men plastered outside; others – usually the more expensive ones – can be more discreet.

Most typically decline entry to visitors who can'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).

A 'snack' (スナック; sunakku) is a more low-key, less expensive version of a hostess bar where the relationship between the waitresses and their customers (usually older men) is more friendly than charged. These bars typically have covered windows and loud karaoke.