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Easing into Izakayas

Drinking in Japan can be the most entertaining way to meet new people and have fun, however a lot of the more interesting bars often have limited English service. Therefore, learning a little Japanese will go a long way at these places.

By 3 min read 1

In Japan, not all drinking establishments are created equal as there are usually two main types of venues; 居酒屋(いざかや) which is a kind of restaurant-bar hybrid and バー which is more of a Western-style bar.

Regardless of which you go to, the vibe is usually friendly and informal. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the bartenders can skip the politenesses and they will most likely greet you with the Japanese equivalent of ‘what can I get you’

注文(ちゅうもん)(うかが)いします or sometimes simply ご注文は?

Notice the ご before 注文 which makes it more respectful and word お伺い meaning ‘request’. Of course, bars can vary a lot in their politeness. In the more casual, friendly 居酒屋s in the Kansai region you will often hear なにしましょう? instead.

Choosing a drink can be an interesting experience in Japan. One of the great things about drinking in this country are that a lot of drinks have slight twists on the standard formula. 発泡酒はっぽうしゅ・low malt beer is a classic example. The low malt thing is actually a means of reducing the tax paid while also making the beer easier to drink. As a result, はっぽうしゅ is often a lot bigger than a regular beer.

A similar story explains the 第三(だいさん)のビール. In these beers, the malt is completely cut to make the drink significantly cheaper. These beers are definitely buyer-beware as sometimes the malt may be replaced with things like soy which can be pretty tough on the palate.

Other interesting drinks include:

梅酒(うめしゅ): which is a semi-sweet wine made from plums,
(さけ): a kind of strong rice wine
焼酎(しょうちゅう) and its sister product 酎ハイ (Usually written as チューハイ)

The チュー in the word チューハイis from 焼酎 which forms most of its ingredients and the ハイ is the short form of the word highball, which usually means a soda mixer.

To order one of these beers you will usually say 生一つなまひとつ. Of course, this only works if the beer is a draft beer. If the beer is sold by the bottle it is instead called a びん ビール.

Wine can be a bit more tricky. Much like in English, wines are divided into グラス (A glass), フルボトル(で) (By the full bottle) and デキャンタ (A decanter) depending on size. Luckily, spirits are usually a lot simpler and Japanese people usually order them by saying the brand name with the counter 一つ. While spirits are often listed as 一杯 (One cup) or グラス (Glass) on the menu, it is unusual to hear Japanese people use these terms to order them.

Be careful as some places have a 席料(せきりょう) which is a charge simply for the pleasure of sitting down! A サービス料 for the pleasure of being served or the pseudo-English テーブルチャージ are other ways these additional charges may be phrased.

As a general rule, you will find that trendy bars with lots of seats, especially those with nice views, have this surcharge. In some of the uber-chic bars in Tokyo expect to pay at least 2000-3000 yen, often with nothing more than a tiny entree called an お通しおとおし as a thank you!

The worst thing is that asking if a place has a table charge on a date or business function is considered a big no-no, as it basically makes you look like a pauper who cannot afford the cost. This is where the beauty of the Internet comes in as you can look up reviews of the place on the web and usually their charges are listed there.

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  • The actual drink (酒) that we call ‘sake’ is the nihonshu (日本酒), and not particularly strong (15-20%), while shochu (焼酎) is slightly stronger (25-35%).



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