Drinking in Japan
My partner and I travelled to Japan for three weeks in December last year, and to say that this trip had an impact is ... an understatement. Japan is effing awesome. And it’s particularly effing awesome if you’re a bit of a booze hag. The quality of food and drink, from fancy establishments right through to convenience stores, is so good it’s actually kind of shocking. Whether you’re sipping on sake or plum wine, craft beer or whiskey – plus awesome local flavours like yuzu (how damn good is yuzu?!) – Japan is a total dream.
Here are a few rad boozy things we did. If you’re off to Japan sometime, definitely add them to your list. The exciting thing about Japan is you’ll inevitably end up finding so many more of your own little rad places in between.
Note: the legal drinking age in Japan is 20. All prices correct at time of visit. As always, make sure your boozy adventures are responsible ones!
Kurand Sake Market & Shugar Market
We got a hot tip from a friendly Tokyoite re: Kurand Sake Market (see: Bar Asyl below), and what a brilliant tip it was. With a few locations dotted around the city, Kurand Sake Market is a must-visit if you want to embark on a total sake experience. We ended up at the Shimbashi bar, but you’ll find them at Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno and more.
The deal is you pay ¥3200 for all-you-can-drink, no time-limit access to 100 different sakes from boutique breweries across the country. You quite literally pour your own drinks from a series of sake fridges in a delightful choose-your-own-adventure drinking extravaganza. And somehow the vibe isn’t for getting messy drunk, but rather for long afternoons or evenings of boozy exploration.
We arrived at Kurand Sake Market a tad late in the night to be settling in for the all-you-can-drink experience, so instead opted for a ¥1000 tasting flight of three sakes each (which then, inevitably, snowballed into another flight each). We lucked into some very generous service from an English-speaking staff member, who went out of his way to help us pick sakes that showcased a range of flavour profiles.
A couple of nights later we booked into Kurand Sake Market’s sister initiative, Shugar Market, which operates under the same premise but focusses on plum wines (umeshu), and fruit and milk liqueurs. It was especially fun to mix and match the fruit and milk liqueurs into some delicious cocktail creations.
The great thing about both outlets is that you can also bring your own food. Many locals had brought in homemade feasts bundled up in containers, whilst we scored some delicious take-away tonkatsu curry from the store downstairs at Shugar Market. All things said and done, both Kurand Sake Market and Shugar Market were some of our most exciting and enjoyable experiences of the trip, and you can bet we’ll be visiting again next time.
My own hot tip: reserve ahead of time if you can!
Golden Gai is a series of ramshackle alleys tucked away in Shinjuku, and home to over 200 bars – some so small they have just a few seats at the bar. Whilst some are strictly invite-only, many others are open to and welcome travellers. You can bar hop all night or settle into a fast favourite (it’s hard to not develop rapport with bar staff in such snug surrounds!).
We fell into the latter camp after chancing upon Bar Asyl straight up. Bar Asyl is a poky little place atop a narrow staircase, where the walls are covered in pen scrawlings and good whiskey flows. The owner treated us to some incredible whiskey recommendations, excellent conversation and some hot tips for more drinking holes around the city (see: Kurand Sake Market above!). A couple of cosy hours very well spent indeed.
It was difficult to not accidentally stumble upon great beer in Japan. Beer is big here and we found some incredible brews without even really trying. A few favourites in Tokyo:
Far Yeast Brewing Company in Shibuya, which also serves a mean bao.
Brussels Beer Project in Shinjuku, which you should definitely visit after having the mind-blowing tsukemen ramen at nearby Fuunji.
Watering Hole, a local taphouse close to Yoyogi Station. This place has a nice range of Japanese and imported beers on tap and the option to create your own flight from the day’s selection. The bar is covered with paraphernalia from the owners’ beer adventures around the world.
There always seems to be that place you find on a trip. The one that you fall totally bonkers in love with. Nokishita711 was that place for us. It’s a miniature gin bar on a quiet street in Kyoto stocked with gins from all over the world and a cracking cocktail menu to match. Said cocktails showcase Japanese ingredients like green tea, shiitake bitters, plum wine, pickled plum, wasabi, yuzu and seaweed in wild and wonderful ways. The space is cosy and quirky and the theatre of the cocktails always seemed to spark great conversation with both the owner and fellow patrons. It was so good we ended up there three out of the five nights we stayed in Kyoto.
Nokishita711 also introduced us to Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin, from The Kyoto Distillery, Japan’s first dedicated artisanal gin distillers. Gin as a thing seems to be relatively new for Japan, but it’s definitely taking off (quickly). Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin is distilled with local botanicals like yuzu and Japanese peppercorn berries, and we took pains to make sure we brought home a bottle for ourselves. We’re now in that wonderful predicament of being transported to Japan every time we pour a Ki No Bi gin and tonic but not wanting to drink so much that we run out. Cause for a return trip soon, surely?
Kyoto Pontocho Backstreet Food and Drink Hopping Tour (Japan Wonder Travel)
When travelling, we find organised food and drink tours an awesome way to crash-course a new city; you inevitably end up learning about the culture and history of a destination, and your belly is full and happy. Plus, there’s that delightful saying from Julia Child: “People who love to eat are always the best people”.
Such was the way with our Kyoto Pontocho Backstreet Food and Drink Hopping Tour (¥13,000pp), and our amazing guide, Tatsuya. This tour was such a highlight of our Japan trip. Tatsuya took us to a number of establishments: a skinny little place with barely enough room for a few stools at the bar (but great tempura and our first taste of shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit); a great pub that we definitely wouldn’t have been let into without Tatsuya (Japanese Speakers Only!); and a sit-down meal to round off the expedition. It felt like a fun night out drinking with a good friend who knows all the best spots in town.
Sake Bar Yoramu
We hit up Sake Bar Yoramu on recommendation from our trusty Lonely Planet guide, and ended up with a great mini-education on sake from the owner, Yoramu, in a setting with a more serious vibe than Kurand Sake Market. We shared a couple of flights and made our way through several different styles – the highlight being an aged sake that had taken on an unexpected amber colour and tasted almost like a fortified wine.
So tell me: what are your Japan gems? This sure as heck won’t be the last time we visit, so I’d love to know what to put on the wishlist for next time. Kanpai!