What common alcoholic drinks are there in Japan?

Japanese Beer in a big glass

Japan is a country that likes drinking – especially drinking socially. Bitter foreigners who’ve spent time in Japan often remark that this is the only way the Japanese can actually communicate, as when they’re sober they’re bound by formalisms and politeness. In my esteemed opinion, these people are wrong and bitter-husks of their former foreign selves – slaving away in a country they don’t like. Japanese people actually drink for the same reason everyone else drinks – to relieve stress, to perform stupid regrettable acts, to witness stupid regrettable acts and to wake up in the morning with a hammering head and vow “Never again!”

Japanese people love drinking so much that companies have mandatory drinking parties – money will often be taken out of your wage for these, before you even get the chance to see it. The big party is at the end of the finical year; it’s called an enkai and tt’s almost guaranteed that, unless you’re driving, you will become quite drunk. The pathway to drunkenness is a long and trying one – let me introduce some of the things to help you on the way!


[hitotsu / futatsu / mittsu] Nama-biru onegashimasu.
[One / two / three] draft-beers, please.

There is limited choice of beer in Japan – Asahi, Sapporo or Kirin are the big three. To the uninitiated they all taste exactly the same. Each is a light larger that’s pleasant and fizzy. After a few months you will be familiar with each beers distinct and subtle difference. Not only that you will be quite sick of the same three and will tend to long for something with a little more body – possibly something dark and German, you sordid spencer you.

Asahi Extra Dry is Japan’s number one beer. It’s tastes very similar to normal Asahi but I prefer extra dry a little less – it has a metallic after taste. My beer of choice (and we talking the difference between pepsi and coke-a-cola here) is Sapporo – especially out of a big brown cold bottle with ice stuck to the sides. Japanese beer tends to be served extremely well. If you go to an Izukaiya and ask for okii beer (it means big and isn’t the standard usage but they’ll understand) you’ll get a very large frosty mug of sweet sweet beer. Usually a bit too much head but this is more than made up by the huge glass, holding more than a pint and encrusted in ice and frost.

If you’re not in a restaurant fear not – nearly every convenience shop sells beer. There are also speciality alcohol shops. Here you will get a choice of can size going from very big (probably more than a pint) – to normal soft-drink can size - to baby-can size.

Baby asahi beer
The smallest size is a bit of a mystery, as it barely hold more than a mouthful. Maybe it’s taster size – but with there only being three major brands in Japan – is there such a great demand?

Beer may also be served in unconventional ways. Once in an izukaiya (bar / pub) I was playing my favourite game of order-at-random. My prize was a glass, nearly a quarter full with whiskey, the waiter then topped it off with a low calorie beer. A more common combo is the beer and tomato juice. I have never tried this but it’s an oft order drink and, frankly, I’m curious.


Happoshu – or fake beer. Why oh-why oh-why would anyone ever wish to fabricate fake beer? Well, in Japan there’s a tax on malt and it makes beer quite expensive. Don’t worry you can still drink well and cheaply in Japan but Bars that charge by the drink may demand a shocking 500yen (£2.50, $3.00) or more! That extortionate price probably wouldn’t net you a large glass of beer either – rather a small crappy one!

So Happoshu is basically a chemical substitute to beer – it’s made to taste nearly the same but with no natural beer ingredients at all. Watch out when buying beer – not to buy hopposhu – the cans look very similar. Hopposhu will never have the word beer on it. Asahi Gold is an example of happoshu, by all means try it once, it’s cheap, you’ll get drunk, the next morning you’ll wish you were dead – it’s a Japan experience not to be missed!
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