If you stick to hotels and bars in upscale areas, visitors from Western countries (with the possible exception of Scandanavia) will find Japan an expensive place to go out for a few drinks. The language barrier can be a bit intimidating but a visit to an izakaya or one of the other cheaper drinking spots will pay off, both in terms of price and cultural experience. Other bars and western pubs are more expensive but have a more familiar atmosphere. As for the infamous places where you get charged an arm and a leg for a beer and a few peanuts, well, you should be able to spot the difference as soon as you walk in the door.
(Incidentally, store prices haven't changed much in recent years - where they have, they've generally come down - and imported beers are often cheaper to buy in convenience stores than domestic brands)
Inside a typical busy izakaya
Nomiya and Izakaya
These are both terms for places to sit, eat and drink in a noisy and casual atmosphere. The more traditional ones can be identified by a red lantern (aka chochin) hanging outside. The more youth-oriented trendy izakaya chains such as Tsubohachi and Muranoki have more of a corporate identity but are equally cheap and cheerful. The menu tends to be varied and extensive - french fries, beef stew, sushi, salad, you name it - as Japanese usually eat and drink at the same time. As soon as you sit down, you receive a small dish of vegetables or pickles (otsumami) to begin with. The chain places even have picture menus so all you have to do is point! Beer usually comes in three sizes - small, medium and large glasses (jokki), in a price range around 300 to 800 yen, as well as pitchers.
Yakitoriya and Yatai
Yatai are basically street stalls, set up for festivals but also as temporary drinking spots which happen to serve food like noodles or oden, a stew popular in winter. They are about as casual a place to hang out as you'll find anywhere. Yakitoriya are just a notch above: smoky, noisy places that serve char-broiled chicken and sake from kettles. A visit to the establishments under the train tracks near Yurakucho station in Tokyo is always a great way to meet the locals at their most laid back.
Beer gardens and beer halls
Open only during the summer, most so-called 'beer gardens' are actually located on the roofs of department stores. They provide an open-air outlet for the vast increase in beer sales over the hot and humid summer months. Beer halls are an attempt to recreate a kind of 'Ocktoberfest' atmosphere, often with live 'oompah' music and thigh-slapping, lederhosen-wearing staff. One of the better places is the Lion Beer Hall in Ginza.
A rooftop beer garden
A pub crawl in Tokyo
At the beginning of the 1990's, there were no more than a dozen western-style pubs in all of Japan. But the increasing number of foreigners and the worldwide 'theme pub' boom changed that. Suddenly, Irish and British pubs were popping up everywhere. The idea of standing and drinking in a pub with a limited food menu was nothing new to westerners but the Japanese took a while to get used to the idea. At first, some were attracted by the novelty factor but soon people began to appreciate the relaxed atmosphere and flow of these pubs. Backed by the major Japanese breweries, British and Irish beers such as Bass and Guinness became more popular, also. These days, names like the Dubliners and the King's Head are becoming common throughout the country. Prices are a little on the expensive side with a pint of Guinness costing around 900 yen.
Most cities in Japan have an 'entertainment district', such as Roppongi in Tokyo or Susukino in Sapporo, where there is a high concentration of bars and restaurants - and often of foreigners, too. Most have loud music and a raucous atmosphere, especially at the weekend. To put it politely, they tend to be the place to meet members of the opposite sex - a topic in itself. Many of these bars offer deals like happy hour prices and ladies' nights. For example, the large Gas Panic bar in Roppongi, Tokyo has all drinks for 300 yen on Thursday nights. They are also a good place to ask for those desperately in need of a job.
This is a very misleading, and potentialy costly name. You might assume that one of these places would a handy spot to grab a quick bite. Actually they are discreet watering holes where middle-aged customers drop in for an after-hours business meeting over a few drinks or a croon on the karaoke machine. There's usually a cover charge, though you may not realize it till your bill comes, and prices are over the top anyway. You have been warned.
There are host bars too, but they are vastly outnumbered by establishments where young women massage the fragile egos of office workers and businessmen. Business is - on the surface anyway - above board, unlike similar places in South-East Asian countries. But these bars are usually very expensive and paid for with company expense accounts. So they are not for the casual traveler or faint of wallet.
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