Discover Deep Japan

Your Guide to Bars in Japan

Photo by Julian Lozano on Unsplash

Hello and welcome to another DISCOVER DEEP JAPAN LIFESTYLE GUIDE! In this edition, we hope to introduce you to some of the intricacies of Japan’s unique drinking culture. Here in the land of the rising sun there is no shortage of bars, pubs, and other assorted dives, many of which are well worth seeking out.

A quickie history

First, here’s a quick rundown of the history of Japanese pubs. Originally, bars in Japan were born out of places where sake was sold. Since there was no way to effectively bottle sake at the time, customers instead brought their own jars, filled them up, and took them home to imbibe. Eventually, these establishments-now known as izakaya- became places where you could stay and drink, eat, and socialize with other patrons.

Bar vs Izakaya

So what is an izakaya in Japan, and what is a plain ol’ bar? To put it simply, anything called a “bar” (バー) in Japanese is at least somewhat akin to a Western-style bar or pub, while izakaya (usually distinguished by a red lantern at the entrance) will likely be much more “Japanese-y” in its décor, seating arrangements (tatami floors and zabuton cushions) and type of clientele. This shouldn’t turn you off from visiting them; I personally prefer izakaya to bars, especially when I’m hungry. Izakaya are, surprisingly enough, great places to get a bite to eat! For the full rundown on izakaya, see our article HERE.

As for bars, their path to the peak of Japanese nightlife was much more gradual. For centuries, Japan was closed off to much of the world, and beer was first brought in on European merchant ships during the Edo period. The brewing of beer itself was heavily restricted to areas where foreigners were allowed to live, and it wasn’t until Japan opened to the west in the mid-to-late 19th century that the Japanese beer industry was born. This coincided with the birth and subsequent proliferation of cocktail bars all over fashionable Ginza and elsewhere. Such cocktail bars are still very much in vogue today, but are far from the only place Japanese young people go to drink.

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Best of the rest!

It’s not as if the entirety of the Japanese drinking scene is made up of swanky cocktail bars for the refined types, and generic sports bars for everyone else- there is a whole lot in-between! Here’s the rundown:

Stand-up bars

You can generally find these near or even inside train stations, and populated throughout the evening by a rotating cast of exhausted looking salarymen. For the same inexplicable reason that stand-up steakhouses have caught on in this country, so too have stand-up bars. Good for a quick drink before heading home.

Theme bars and amusement bars

Perhaps the most visually interesting of any bar on this list, theme bars can in some circumstances be the adult equivalent of maid cafes- if you want to drink while being served by sexy cops or nurses, rest assured they are out there. There are also more austere bars that serve every sort of clientele from heavy metal fans to railway enthusiasts. Expect to pay a cover charge, and in some cases you will be charged by the hour (although in my case, the server was kind enough to remind me before my next hour was about to start). Theme bars are usually for enthusiasts of a particular subject, and aren’t often too touristy.

 “Foreign” bars

If you see union jacks or any other manner of flag on the shopfront, chances are these are so-called “gaijin bars,” which come in varieties for all sorts of nationalities (and their Japanese fans), including exotic themed Philippine or Thai bars, or chains like the faux-British Hub. These sorts of places tend to be more known as meetup spots rather than for their stellar food and drink- unless overpriced Belgian beer and reheated fish and chips are your thing. It can be a comforting bit of home however, especially if you haven’t been in the country long, don’t know anyone yet, and your Nihongo isn’t quite up to par.

Host / Hostess Bars

Yes, we’re talking about those kind of bars. So, let’s get these out of the way: Chances are, if you are in one of these establishments, you are doing so for reasons other than to enjoy a night out with friends or for a meal and some drinks. You can see advertisements for these places all over, as well as the dead-eyed well-dressed attractive people advertising these bars and clubs in certain parts of town. I won’t comment further, just be aware that when girls / guys ask if they can drink with you at a snack bar or host club, that means YOU are paying for the drink, which is usually priced at crazy markups. When you further account for table charges and the like, chances are you are in for an expensive night out. At the very least, make sure you have enough left over for cab fare after you miss your last train. Speaking of which:

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Getting home

So, now that you have enjoyed a night out and experienced your share of bars and izakayas, you probably need to find a way home. Needless to say, you should not drive -driving laws in Japan are probably stricter than you are used to back home, and apply whether you drove your car, motorcycle, or even if you came by bicycle. Not that this stops drunk
oji-san from weaving back and forth in the street on their bikes during the wee hours of the morning, but you should under no circumstances follow this example.

However, driving to a bar, izakaya, or karaoke place is perfectly acceptable, and you don’t even need a designated driver. How can this be? Well, many areas in Japan (moreso in the countryside where more people drive regularly) have something called a “daiko service,” where two nice men come to pick you up in their car. One of the men drives you home, and the other man follows behind in your car! Very convenient, and when you split the fare with a few friends, quite reasonable. It is perfectly acceptable to ask a bar to call a daiko service for you while you finish your last drinks of the night and figure out your bill.

As for taxis themselves, Japanese taxis are said to be quite safe, and this is speaking from the experience of having seen my share of taxi scams in Europe. In Japan, most taxis tend to be black, but can be any color. While the term shiro taxi (white taxi) used to denote fake taxis, this is not necessarily the case anymore.


Helpful Links:

Dirty Japanese is an amusing and quick read for those who want to brush up on their casual Japanese. Good for slang and other bar-speak.



Here is a free app to help make getting a taxi easier. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/japantaxi/id481647073