Drinking in Japan is serious business. An acceptable and sometimes even mandatory part of Japanese life, laws revolving around drinking are for the most part very liberal in comparison to those of many other countries. Many bars and restaurants have some kind of time-limited all-you-can-drink (nomihodai) option, the majority of convenience stores sell alcohol 24 hours a day, and yes, it’s very possible to buy alcohol from a vending machine. Used to strengthen social ties (particularly among coworkers), and also incorporated into a variety of Shinto-related ceremonies and even traditional sporting events such as sumo, Japan is basically a drinker’s paradise.
In this article, I’ll be going over a few of the most popular choices of alcoholic beverages in Japan – what they’re called, where they came from, and which brands are the most prevalent. (Note: I shouldn’t have to say this, but if you find yourself drinking in Japan – or anywhere else for that matter – please be sure to drink responsibly! Incidentally, the legal drinking age in Japan is 20, and laws regarding drinking and driving are very strictly enforced. Seriously, don’t even take a sip. That goes double if you also happen to be a foreigner.)
For those who thought traditional sake was the most popular form of alcohol in Japan, think again. Beer is king here – in fact, Japan consumes roughly twice as much beer than all other alcoholic beverages combined (nearly six billion litres per year). First introduced by Dutch traders during the Edo period, and popularized further in the Meiji period thanks in large part to the arrival of trained brewers from Germany and other parts of Europe, Japan now has about 200 breweries across the country. Asahi and Kirin, closely followed by Sapporo, and Suntory, are the leading brands, with Asahi’s Super Dry continuously earning the number one spot in terms of sales. All four of these breweries produce mainly pale-coloured light lagers of around 5% alcohol volume, many of which have now been successfully exported worldwide.
Although first reliably documented as being consumed in the 16th century with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries from Portugal, and later begun to be produced locally during the Meiji restoration, most widely-available wines in Japan today are actually imported from the likes of France, Italy, America, and Australia. High humidity levels and an overabundance of rain right over growing season means that Japan is not particularly well-suited to wine production, and so although gaining in popularity – especially among women – wine remains a relatively small industry in Japan, with most local brands being sold as fairly cheap home table and cooking wines. However, Yamanashi prefecture produces a significant amount, from wineries such as Marufuji, Katsunuma Jozo, and Kizan.
Newcomers beware – while mostly known as ‘sake’ outside of Japan, this word is actually the general Japanese term for alcohol of any kind, with ‘nihonshu’ being the most commonly-used term for the refined Japanese rice wine. Also, unlike actual wine which is produced by fermenting the sugar found in grapes, the brewing process of sake is similar to that of beer – although in terms of alcohol volume, sake is typically far more potent, at anywhere from 10 to 20%. While the origins of sake are unclear, references to the kind consumed today (made primarily from rice, water, and koji mold) date as far back as 712 AD, and by the Heian period was regularly consumed both socially and ceremonially. Japan’s sake industry today is actually in decline, although there are still about 1300 breweries dotted over the country and countless local variations. Served either warmed or chilled depending on the season and/or personal taste, a few of the most well-known brands are Juyondai, Isojiman, Hakkaisan, and Michisakari.
Stronger than either wine or sake with an alcohol volume of about 25%, shochu has now overtaken sake in popularity in Japan – particular in Kyushu, where it originated in Japan – although it is nowhere near as popular as sake outside of the country. The exact origin of shochu is unknown, but records show that it was being made at least as far back as the 16th century, and was being produced throughout the entirety of Japan by the Edo period. It looks and sometimes even tastes similar to sake, but unlike sake is a distilled spirit, and can be made from sweet potatoes, barley, or buckwheat as well as rice. While it can also be consumed on its own and served either hot or cold, shochu is more often served mixed with water and ice, oolong tea, or even fruit juice. There are currently over 600 breweries around Japan, although it is still mainly produced in Kyushu, particularly in Kagoshima, Kumamoto, and Miyazaki prefectures. Popular brands include Isami, Murao, Maou, and Moriizo.
Plum wine (Umeshu)
A tart but sweet and syrupy Japanese liqueur, umeshu is made from steeping green and unripe ume fruits (Chinese plum/Japanese apricot) together with sugar, and has an alcohol content of 10 to 15%. The specific type of ume used is said to have been originally introduced from China sometime prior to the Nara period, when it was used for medicinal purposes. Today, umeshu is occasionally mixed with green tea, but is more often served on the rocks or else combined with tonic or soda water. Easily found in 350 ml cans as well as in larger plastic cartons in most supermarkets and convenience stores, commonly served in most bars and restaurants, and legal to make at home, umeshu is a popular choice among people who dislike most other forms of alcohol. Though it can be served hot in the winter, it’s generally preferred either chilled or at room temperature. There are over 200 brands of umeshu throughout Japan – many sake breweries also produce their own umeshu – but Choya can be found just about anywhere, as can Takara.
Another sweet, fruity drink, chuhai is traditionally made from shochu and soda water and flavoured with lemon, although some brands use vodka rather than shochu, and there are now a large variety of flavours available including lime, grapefruit, orange, green apple, grape, and peach. The drink appeared shortly after World War II, when alcohol was in short supply; unlike whisky, shochu was inexpensive and could be distilled from a variety of ingredients that most Japanese homes were likely to have on hand. As with umeshu, premixed cans are a common sight today in convenience stores and supermarkets and are also served at most bars and restaurants. Alcohol content can vary greatly; the percentage of chuhai sold in glasses in restaurants is often relatively low, but canned chuhai is more likely to be 8 or 9% in alcohol volume. Kirin, Suntory, and Asahi produce many of the more popular chuhai brands – one of the most prevalent of these is Suntory’s Strong Zero, which is not only sugar-free but also cheaper than beer.
Question of the post: Do you have any favourite Japanese types of alcohol and/or brands?
26 thoughts on “Drinking in Japan”
I love Sapporo beer. Here in North America it is actually brewed in Canada though. I was wanting to drink some of that Hokkaido snowmelt : )
Would you believe I drank Sapporo for the first time while I was actually in Sapporo? I don’t know why I hadn’t tried it before then, but when I went to Hokkaido a couple years ago for the snow festival, I drank it then. Pretty good, too! 🙂
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If I’m drinking beer, I find it hard to go past Kirin. Asahi Clear is the other major beer contender for me. Chuhai is what I go for when I want something sweeter, although readers beware if you’re sampling Strong Zero for the first time! It can really kick your ass, two cans and you lift off on a pillar of flame. Under no circumstances choose the supermarket cheap knock-off brands, like On 365. It tastes like chewing gum mixed with old overcoats, and is almost as good for you.
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Yeah, Asahi Clear is usually my beer of choice, at least if I’m just having a drink or two at home. I found it much more to my taste than the Asahi Super Dry. And if I’m out and about, I usually start off with a Chuhai or two and end the night drinking umeshu, both of which are almost too easy to down.
On company drinking party mandatoriness, is there any socially acceptable way in Japan to skip a party at least once without making yourself a social pariah? A Japanese friend of mine who recently moved to Australia said the party part is one aspect of the home life she won’t miss, since she had to go all the time.
On alcohol, I’ve heard of a brand of sparkling nihonshu that recently went on sale in Japan.Have you tried that yet?
For me, it often depends on what the party is for and who else is attending. I could never get away with skipping a graduation party for example, especially because not only my co-workers but also the PTA are there – it becomes a social obligation rather than just an invitation. On the other hand, a more informal drinking party that doesn’t mark any special occasion is usually okay for me to skip if I have other plans, and I’ve seen other teachers sometimes skip out on these too.
Oh, I’ve heard of that new sparkling nihonshu as well. I haven’t gotten around to trying it yet, but I’ve been meaning to.
I learned a lot from this! In general I do not have much interest in alcohol, but life in Japan has taught me to a like a few things–especially umeshu and chuhai, since I can’t taste the alcohol as well!
As far as wine is concerned, there are a couple wineries not far from where I live, with mixed reviews (the smaller and more inaka one is nice, the larger and more accessable one is just juice). What’s really funny is hearing French people start talking about Japanese wine.
I wouldn’t exactly call myself a seasoned drinker either, but I’ve come to appreciate drinking a little more since moving to Japan – in hindsight, probably inevitably.
Oh man, I can just imagine what those sorts of comments would sound like! XD
I’ve had a fair bit of umeshu before I believe, though I’ve never liked Japanese beer at all. Count me as learned after reading this post.
There are plenty of Japanese beers that I don’t like, but I eventually found some that I do. I don’t much care for Asahi Super Dry, for example, but Asahi Clear has a markedly different taste. But yeah, I generally prefer umeshu to any kind of beer, probably because of my sweet tooth.
I used to drink Kirin Ichiban in my younger years, though my beer palate is now pretty much limited to wheat ales (think Blue Moon or Bell’s Oberon in the summer months), so a Japanese equivalent of that would be interesting. At least I could drink something Japanese while I consume terrible anime. I can confirm plum wine is delicious and could get one drunk before they even realize it. Chuhai sounds similarly dangerous, and I’ll have to ask my friend if he has any shochu he’s willing to share when he gets back to my area.
If you like umeshu, then I think it’s a pretty safe bet that you’d like chuhai as well, since both are quite sweet and go down pretty easily. Personally, I usually start off a party with a green apple chuhai or two and finish up with umeshu, which is smooth and sweet enough to feel like my version of a nightcap.
Reading the description for Shochu, one goes, “So how is it any different from X drink?” and in the end, it comes down to tasting >.>
I don’t like alcohol. Not the taste, and not really looking for the “buzz” either, so no favourite brand. I take a tiny sip from Friday night blessing wine and that’s about all the alcohol I consume. Sometimes I try fruity things in weddings and such, but not always.
I’ve had sake once, tasted like bad water, and that was it for me.
Also, this post reminded me. A friend of mine considered moving to Japan to work for a while (he has a Masters in Japanese translation), and was training in drinking so he could handle that part of the culture. I was greatly entertained.
Shochu is definitely the drink on this list that I find the most difficult to describe, because apart from tasting (to me) quite similar to sake/nihonshu, I don’t have many other thoughts on it. I dislike the taste of shochu myself (not a fan of nihonshu either), so I guess to get a more fleshed-out description I’d need to talk to more of an enthusiast.
What about those jars with the snakes in them? What’s that all about? I’ve wondered about wine drinking/production in Japan. I make my own wine from various berries that grow on my property hence the interest. Surely, Japan has berries. What about cherries? Don’t the Japanese make cherry wine? I would.
The jars with the snakes is a photo I took while I was visiting Okinawa. It’s an awamori-based liqueur known as habushu, or sometimes habu sake or Okinawan Snake Wine, in which pit vipers are one of the ingredients – some brands come with the snake still inside the jar, I suspect mostly for advertising purposes. The snake supposedly has medicinal properties, which I assume is why the drink became a tradition in the first place.
Yes, Japan has berries, and probably cherries among them. I’ve never seen cherry wine here though.
You gotta watch out for the happoshu… but right now I’ve been searching the sakeya in the area of Onojo here in Fukuoka for Habushu… it’s a crazy process of course, but I’m totally interested but it’s not super popular obviously in the area.
Yeah, the only place I’ve ever seen habushu is in Okinawa. I imagine only specialty stores in Japan would carry it otherwise.
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I wonder if I might be able to fumble through a conversation with a local sake shop owner and see if he could get any 😛
That’s certainly possible. I’ve been to bars in Japan before where the owner has actually imported liquor for me from overseas, so presumably sake shop owners could do the same.
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So I just found Habu-Ball down the street from me at this SU-PA- … Still not the real thing though. But I had a Thai friend go to Okinawa and bring back the concretrated form of this Habu-Ball… Tastes bad… didn’t like it.. Zannen ne!?
I mean, if you’re not overly fond of whisky (which most highballs are made with in Japan), I imagine it wouldn’t be to your taste, assuming you liked the habushu itself to begin with. Personally, I just tend to stick to good old umeshu, or else chuuhai if I feel like something sweeter and bubbly.
Yeah I actually like some Japanese whisky, but I’m not fond of the habuball… I’ve yet to actually have real habushu to this point besides the habuball.. closest thing anyway. I did just get a chuuhai tonight called Miracle Body-Hi … tastes kind of like Jolt back from when I was just a kid in the States… I realized once I looked at the ingredients it’s loaded with caffeine too so pretty similar except with alcohol, thusly why it’s a “miracle body-hi” … wasn’t too bad.