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Japan holds a special place in our hearts at Great Big Story. For one, there’s no shortage of classic and cool options for a fun night out on the town, from traditional standing bars to inventive cocktail lounges. We’ve got the tips, phrases, and know-how you’ll need to navigate nightlife in this incredible country.

How to Navigate Japan’s Nightlife Like a Local

How to Navigate Japan’s Nightlife Like a Local

Japan holds a special place in our hearts at Great Big Story. For one, there’s no shortage of classic and cool options for a fun night out on the town, from traditional standing bars to inventive cocktail lounges. We’ve got the tips, phrases, and know-how you’ll need to navigate nightlife in this incredible country.

Part of what makes nightlife in Japan so thrilling is the endless variety of old and new, traditional and modern places for food and drink. Just as you’d stumble onto a monastic shrine off of a busy street, you’re bound to also find an unassuming bar for a cold beer and a quick bite.

Knowing the types of places to look for and understanding some basic customs around Japanese drinking culture will help you navigate your nights out like a native. To make the most of your experience, check out our guide to some essential common phrases and the etiquette of popular evening spots before you travel to Japan.

This Great Big Guide is by SUNTORY.

most important phrases for eating out in japan
Photo: Suntory

Remember These Key Phrases

Whether it’s grabbing a quick drink or sitting down for a delicious meal, you’ll hear (and use) some common phrases over and over again. Get to know these everyday sayings beforehand.

Itadakimasu /ee-tah-dah-kee-mah-su/:
“Thank you for the food. I’m excited to eat it now.”
This phrase is used at the beginning of each meal when everyone is ready to start eating.

Toriaezu, nama! /toh-lee-aye-zu, na-ma/:
“In the meantime, a fresh beer please!”
It’s a colloquial way of ordering the standard beer that is served by a place.

Kanpai! /kam-pie/:
“Cheers!”
It’s the polite custom to always toast before everyone starts drinking.

Mouippai onegaishimasu /mow-ip-pie oh-neh-guy-shi-mah-su/:
“Another drink, please!”
It’s used to order a new drink for yourself, but it’s generally custom to wait until everyone has emptied their glasses before you order more for yourself.

Okaikei onegaishimasu /o-kai-kay oh-neh-guy-shi-mah-su/:
“Check please!”
It’s a casual but still polite way to ask for your bill.

Mouikken! /mow-eek-ken/:
“Let’s go to one more spot!”
This is an informal way of telling everyone you’re with you want to stay out.

Where to Eat and Drink-Up Japanese Nightlife

japanese cocktail bar etiqutte
Image: Cocktail Lounge

Duck into a Cocktail Lounge

Japan is home to some of the most renowned cocktail lounges starring world-class mixologists. The best spots are often tucked away in bustling city neighborhoods, like Tokyo’s Ginza district and Osaka’s Amemura area where the bars are destinations for serious cocktail aficionados.

Extra tip: The Whisky Highball is a popular aperitif and a Japanese staple that’s made with 1:4 parts whisky and soda water. Order one with a Suntory whisky for a true taste of local flavor.

Lounge to Live Jazz

Japan’s long love affair with jazz is no secret, and the genre is a mainstay in the country’s nightlife scene. Treat yourself to a night of smooth cocktails and live music at a cozy jazz bar. Across Japanese cities, many jazz venues are legendary. Jazz’s influence even reaches as far as the northern city of Sapporo, where you’ll be transported back in time to Japan’s golden age of ’70s and ’80s jazz.

Extra tip: There’s no better place to order a classic Whisky Sour than a jazz lounge. The cocktail is popular in Japan for its fresh, tangy taste.

japanese jazz bars
Image: Jazz Bar
tachinomi standing bars in japan
Image: Tachinomi Standing Bars

Drink & Snack at a Tachinomi

For a uniquely Japanese bar experience, stop by a tachinomi. They’re casual standing bars—tachi which translates to “stand” and nomi to “drink”— where people gather around high-top tables to enjoy small bites and a few beers. It’s a great way to kick off your night before a late dinner or some bar-hopping.

Some popular tachinomi spots specialize in takoyaki (delicious flour-batter balls with diced octopus) that is best enjoyed with a crisp Suntory Pilsner beer.

Experience an Izakaya

Make it a point to go to an izakaya, a traditional Japanese pub with good eats and affordable drinks that is the most common hangout for happy hours and after-work gatherings.

If you’re looking for a no-frills experience, try one that offers nomi-hõdai (all you can drink) and tabe-hõdai (all you can eat) within a 90-120 minute timeframe.

Extra tip: Order shareable dishes like yakisoba and yakiudon (stir-fried noodles).

Izakaya culture in japan
Image: Izakaya Gastro Pubs
karaoke culture tips in japan
Image: Karaoke Lounge

Stay Out Late at a Karaoke Spot

A trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a night out at a karaoke lounge. They’re everywhere and you’re sure to come across one in any city’s main entertainment hub of bars and restaurants. Grab a private room by the hour and hang out with friends while singing and enjoying pitchers of beers. While the song selections are largely Japanese, you’ll find seriously solid ’80s and ’90s jams as well as some new releases almost anywhere you go.

navigating Japanese nomiyas
Photo: Kageaki Smith

Do Like The Locals Do

There are plenty more food and bar options if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path for the local experience.

Yakitoriya: For the perfect low-key local food-and-drink experience on a weeknight, get cozy at a yakitoriya with a beer and grilled chicken skewer dishes, such as tsukune (chicken meatball skewer) and momo (chicken thigh).

Nomiyas: If you want to drink like a local, get off the main streets and explore some nomiyas in the city. Literally translating to “drinking spots”, nomiyas are alleys and streets packed with tiny hole-in-the-wall watering holes, ranging from 80s-themed bars to tropical-themed hideouts.

Yatai: For an unforgettable foodie experience, grab a seat at a yatai, one of Japan’s famous late-night food stands. They’re open in the early evening along pedestrian walkways, a few stick around well into the late-night, and serve some of the best ramen, yakitori, and oden (a hot pot with a delicious broth and various vegetable and seafood ingredients).

japanese bar etiquette
Photo: Suntory

Learn These Five Dos & Donts

Being aware of these five basic dining and drinking customs not only shows respect for Japanese culture but will also set you up for a welcoming experience.

1. Do Accept Your Oshibori
The oshibori is a warm towel that is provided to you to wipe your hands before every meal. When you are offered one, it is polite to receive the towel with both hands.

2. Do Pour for Everyone
If you’re first to buy a round of beer, it’s customary for you to pour everyone else their drinks before filling your own glass. Someone else will then pour your drink. No one should drink until everyone’s ready to raise their glass for a toast.

3. Do Wait, Don’t Wave
In most bars and restaurants, your server will come for your order once you’ve had time to settle in. Try to resist the impulse to flag them down. In some izakayas there may be a button that you can press to request your server to come to you.

4. Don’t Drink From the Bottle
It’s the biggest taboo! Be it a pitcher or a large bottle of beer, you’ll always be given a glass to pour it into, so be sure to use it.

5. Don’t Tip, Ever!
Even at the most upscale restaurants, tipping your wait staff is not necessary. On the contrary, it’s considered rude, so simply pay what you owe for your meal and drinks.

Whether you’re going to be in Japan for one night or many, you now have the know-how to enjoy the tastes of Japanese nightlife like a local.