HOME Cheers! Complete Guide to Drinks You Can Find at a Typical Japanese Pub
Cheers! Complete Guide to Drinks You Can Find at a Typical Japanese Pub

Cheers! Complete Guide to Drinks You Can Find at a Typical Japanese Pub

Date published: 20 September 2018
Last updated: 19 September 2018

Izakaya are frequented by Japanese young and old after work, school or as the setting for an after-party. Whether it’s your first time in Japan or you have firmly planted roots here, there’s bound to be an izakaya that suits you. Use this guide to help you understand what’s on the menu and how to order like a pro!

What’s the Difference Between an Izakaya and a Bar or Pub?

What’s the Difference Between an Izakaya and a Bar or Pub?

On the surface, izakaya (居酒屋) and bars are similar. Both are places with a atmosphere that lets you unwind over a few drinks and tasty appetizers. However, it is not customary to interact with other customers at izakaya as you would seated at a bar or pub counter. Rather, izakaya are the background for social gatherings such as casual meetups with friends, company parties, graduation parties, farewells, and end of the year parties.

Izakaya are everything from roadside stands covered in a tarp, “akachochin” (izakaya with red lanterns outside), neighborhood mom and pop run establishments, to spacious nationwide chans.

They have become popular in Japan due to their laid-back atmosphere and no frills selection of inexpensive foods and drink. Places like Golden Gai in Shinjuku are known for their seemingly endless rows of izakaya lined up one next to the other. You can easily spend hours hopping from izakaya to izakaya as you experience nightlife in Japan.

An Amazing Selection of Drinks

You will find everything from beer, cocktails, wine, sake, shochu and even non-alcoholic drinks on the menu. This is because many Japanese tend try several different drinks in one sitting; whereas westerners stick with one type.

Beer, Beer, Beer!

Beer, Beer, Beer!

At home and abroad, people love to have a beer for a first drink. Sapporo, Asahi, Suntory, Ebisu, and Kirin are just a few of the domestic beer brands that may sound familiar to you.

Types and How Beer is Served in Japan:
・Draft beer is known as nama (生) and is served in a mug (ジョッキ) or glass (グラス). 
Izakaya also serve bottled beer (ビン).
・Craft beer (クラフトビール) are also catching on in Japan and can be found on menus at select izakaya.
・Be on the lookout for specialty beers representing certain geographical areas of Japan (ご当地ビール)

Sake

Sake

There’s no better place than an izakaya to try Japan’s national drinks of sake (酒) and shochu (焼酎). Every visitor must try drinks at least once! Sake is sometimes described as having a dry, or fruity taste, while shochu comes in a variety of tastes based on its mail ingredient. Sake, made from rice wine, is perhaps the most famous of the two, and it is not uncommon to see it listed as nihonshu on a menu.

Types & How served:
・By Temperature- Cold (冷酒/reishu), hot (燗酒/kanzake), or at room temperature (常温/jouon or 冷や/hiya).
・By glass or masu (枡/square wooden box used to measure rice) if you drink by your own. Sometimes the staff come to your table with the bottle of Sake and pour into the glass just in front of you.
・Surprisingly enough, the trend now is to use wine glasses.
・To share, set with a flask (とっくり/tokkuri), and small cups for number of people (お猪口/ochoko) will be suitable. Some Izakaya uses Chirori (ちろり), a special pitcher for sake.

Shochu

Shochu

Shochu (焼酎), another Japanese distilled spirit, is made from barley (麦/mugi), sweet potato (芋/imo), unrefined brown sugar (黒糖/kokutou), or rice (米/kome). Barley shochu is mild a good for newcomers. Rice shochu also has a mild flavor. Brown sugar shochu is not common but has a sweet pleasant aroma. Lastly, sweet potato shochu has a very strong taste and aroma.

Types & How is served:
・On the rocks (ロックで/rokku de), with soda (ソーダ割り/soda wari), or with water (水割り/mizu wari).
・If you order by decanter (デキャンタ/dekyanta), glasses for number of people, ice, water/hot water, stir sticks will be delivered so that you can make the drink by yourself.

Wine

Wine

Fans of lighter spirits will no doubt find their favorites on an izakaya menu, especially if it is a nationally known chain.

Types & How served:
・In a glass (ガラス/garasu) or by the bottle (ボトル/botoru). Ask to see a wine list for the selection of whites (白ワイン/shiro wain) and reds (赤ワイン/aka wain)

Cocktail

Cocktail

If beer, sake, and shochu are not for you, try a few drinks from the cocktail (カクテル) menu. Cocktails can be made from a variety of base alcohols such as tequila, vodka and even beer.

Fans of lighter spirits will no doubt find their favorites on an izakaya menu, especially if it is a nationally known chain.

In addition, you will find many cassis liqueur based drinks on cocktail menus in Japan. The most popular ones are below.

Types & How served:
・Cassis Oolong (カシスウーロン) made with cassis liqueur and oolong tea
・Cassis Orange (カシスオレンジ) made with cassis liqueur and orange juice
・Be on the lookout for the izakaya’s original (オリジナル) cocktails

Of course, Western cocktails like martinis, cosmopolitans, salty dog and more can also be found at an izakaya

Fruit Wine

Fruit Wine

Fruit wines or fruit liqueur are very popular in Japan, especially among young women, because of their pleasant taste and aroma. They can be made from a variety of fruits, but the most common drink is made from plums. Don’t be deceived by these drinks. Though they are very sweet, the alcohol content can be as high as 20%!

Types & How served:
・Umeshu ( 梅酒) made from plums
・Yuzushu (ゆず酒) made from yuzu citrus fruit
・Mikanshu (みかん酒) made from Japanese Mandarin oranges

Fruit wines are served on the rocks (ロック/rokku), with soda (ソーダ割り/soda wari) or with water (水割り/mizu wari).

Chuhai and Sour

You’ll find chuhai (酎ハイ) and sours (サワー), both of which are highball style drinks made with shochu and sometimes soda water.

Types & How is served:

Try these chuhai rinks for an alternative taste of Japan:
・Matcha Hai (抹茶ハイ) is made with green tea and shochu
・Oolong Hai (ウーロンハイ) is made with oolong tea and shochu
・Calpis Sour (カルピスサワー) is made with Calpis (Calpico) and shochu.

Sours are made with shochu, soda water and mixer, typically a citrus fruit.
・Lemon sour (レモンサワー)
・Grapefruit sour (グレープフルーツサワー)
・Sudachi sour (すだちサワー) (*sudachi are small, green citrus fruits used to add flavor to Japanese cuisine)

If you order your sour fresh (生/nama) don’t be surprised if it comes with fruit and a juicer to make it yourself!

Special drinks

This list isn't complete without a look at a few specialty drinks served at izakaya.

Types & How is served:
・Hoppy (ホッピー) is a beer-like drink typically used for mixing with shochu
・Denki Buran (電気ブラン) is a brandy and herb drink from late 19th century Japan

Non-alcohol

Even if you don’t drink alcohol, you can still enjoy an izakaya, there’s everything from non-alcoholic cocktails to soft drinks:

Types & How is served:
・Teas (Green tea, oolong tea)
・Juices (Grapefruit, orange, Tomato)
・Soda (Cola, Ginger Ale, Calpis)
・Non alcohol Beer
・Virgin Cocktails

Food and Dessert

Food and Dessert

Izakaya are not just for drinks - you can taste a variety of Japanese soul foods. Unlike a restaurant, dishes served at izakaya are small, yet are meant to be shared among friends and colleagues.

Start off by ordering edamame (枝豆/boiled and salty salted green beans ), yakitori (焼き鳥/skewered and grilled chicken), and sashimi (刺身/slices of raw fish). If you’re hungry for more, add french fries (ポテトフライ/poteto furai) and karaage (唐揚げ/pieces of deep fried boneless chicken) on the next round.

If you’re craving something sweet, you may find desserts like a scoop of ice cream (アイス/aisu). Chain izakaya will have everything from brownies, parfaits, and even waffle and hot cakes covered in cream and berries!

Insider Tips

Insider Tips

Feel free to ask for water anytime -- it’s free! Just say Omizu onegai shimasu (お水お願いします).

If you want a refill, simply say Okawari (お代わり).

If you prefer a stronger drink, ask for yours with this phrase: Koime ni dekimasu ka? (濃い目にできますか?). Some izakaya may do this for free; others may charge an extra free.

During the colder days of the year, warm up with a glass of hot shochu, sake or fruit wine. Order yours hot (熱燗/atsukan) or with hot water (お湯割/oyu wari)!

There may be a service charge added to your bill upon check out. This is called otooshi (お通し) or seki ryou (席料).

Izakaya are a great way to enjoy Japanese food and drink like a local. Follow the tips in this guide and you’ll no trouble on your next visit to an izakaya.

*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.

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