Fun in Japan #6–Bars and Izakaya, and How I Won a Drinking Contest

With houses being so small and work so intense, the Japanese rely on bars for stress relief.  Bars in Japan are great fun, ranging from massive themed bars to karaoke dens to tiny, intimate izakaya, a traditional Japanese pub.  You’ll find them everywhere, from the tops of skyscrapers to the basements of apartment buildings.

My first experience with drinking in Japan was in Komaki, a little rice-farming town outside of Nagoya.  I and my four fellow English teachers were the only foreigners in town.  We lived in the same apartment building across from a tiny local izakaya.  My coworker brought me there my second night to introduce me to the locals, who turned out to be a group of men who worked on rice farms or in a nearby factory.  The bar was run by a boisterous woman everyone called Okaasan (Mom) and her daughter Mina.  They welcomed me immediately, gave me bowls of edamame and spicy fried chicken, and a mixed drink of blueberry juice and rice wine.  Japanese drinks tend to be strong and laced with fruit nectar.

I sat and chatted with the group for a couple of hours.  One of the old men asked to take a picture with me, and when Mina took the photo, he leaned over and rubbed his face in my breasts.  One thing to note about Japan is that what one does while drunk is typically brushed off, so women should attend bars in groups, or, ideally, with trusted male friends.

Okaasan went after the old man with a wet dishtowel, nearly knocking him over in the process, and declared that for that offense he should by me a drink, preferably several.  He agreed, and Okaasan told him he’d be buying me sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine served warm.  Each prefecture in Japan has it’s own special sake blend, some of which include dead snakes fermented in the bottles.  Okaasan began giving me different shots of sake from all over Japan.  The factory workers started watching and cheering, since I was able to drink so much without getting drunk.  Finally, Okaasan passed me a shot of sake that was from Aomori and tasted like battery acid.  I managed to get it down, but it was horrible.  One of the men walked up next to me and said, “Can’t take it, huh?  I’ll show you how REAL men drink sake!”

Okaasan passed him the shot, and he drank it–and promptly spit it all over the bar.  “Guess she’s the real man here, eh?” Okaasan said, and the guy turned beet-red and walked silently out of the bar.  Okaasan let me in on the joke that the Aomori sake is the worst in Japan, and they were impressed that I drank it.  From then on, I had a reputation in town for being “a real man” when it came to sake.

A note about izakaya: not only are they a great place for local culture, the food is fantastic.  Typical dishes include braised scallops, fried chicken, pickles, a spicy rice and nut mix, and noodles.  One dish you may find is spicy fried chicken foot tendons.  I have a love/hate relationship with these things.  They’re disgusting, yet I want more.

Izakaya can also be found in skyscrapers, though they’re different.  They tend to be dimly lit, quiet and split into tiny booths for more intimate conversation.  You can often shut your booth completely for privacy, and look out over the city.  My friends and I spent many hours tucked into little booths drinking and laughing.

For a different spin, head to a themed bar, more commonly found in big cities.  In Tokyo, my two favorites by far are Butto-Trick and the Lockup.  They’re actually in the same building in Shibuya; Butto-Trick is on the top floor and Lockup is in the basement.

Butto-Trick is designed like a massive Buddhist temple, complete with a monstrous Buddha statue and gardens inside.  The food is phenomenal, a mix of Italian, Japanese and Thai.  Drinks come preblended, or they have a long list of various flavored liqueurs, fruit juices and cream that you can blend yourself as you like.  Strawberry liquor, orange juice, peach nectar and cream are really good together.  The staff is wonderfully fun and the atmosphere is great.

Down below is Lockup, where the waitress handcuffs you to lead you to the table in this prison themed bar.  The booths are prison cells that are actually locked.  The drinks come served in chemistry sets, so you can blend your own drink like a mad scientist.  Periodically, the lights go off, and they play Michael Jackson’s Thriller while the staff runs around screaming and being chased by people in wild costumes who will also leap into your booth and shriek.  It’s gets progressively funnier the more chemistry sets you’ve had.

There are other themed bars in Tokyo–pretty much anything you can think of, although I hear “Toilet” and “Funeral” didn’t do very well.  Many of the buildings will host a variety of bars and izakaya, so you can bar hop without ever leaving the building if it’s raining.

Bars are a great way to meet friends and soak up culture.  If you’re an adventurous foreigner, many people find it fun to buy you weird snacks and see if you’ll eat them, and if you do, you’ll usually get a drink too.  Try the spicy raw octopus and you may get two.

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