Drinking on a Budget in Japan – A Wallet-Friendly Guide to the Nightlife

by Callum Howe
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If you’re reading this, I can only assume that you’ve just ordered a ¥1000 Asahi at a Tokyo restaurant, and been served a tiny half-pint glass that will barely last 10 minutes. I feel your pain: alcohol prices can really sideswipe your Japan vacation budget if you enjoy a beer or three with your meal like me, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly what you’re paying for (especially when tax and table charges are tacked on at the end).

But never fear — you can always trust a Scot to sniff out cheap alcohol, so here I am to share my ever-inebriated wisdom. After burning through hundreds of thousands of yen on overpriced drinks, I’ve come out the other side with some helpful tips on how you can avoid the same fate. 

Gather round, and let’s take a look at some of the best places to get drunk in Japan without spending a fortune. We’ll also discuss the best general strategies for maximizing your yen when heading out on the town. 

Happy Hours

This one is pretty universal, but happy hour is actually a little different in Japan than in other countries. For one, it usually happens in the mid-to-late afternoon rather than the evening. While in the US and UK, happy hour happens around 7 PM, in Japan you tend to find it lies somewhere between 2 PM and 7 PM. 

The exact timing usually lasts 2 or 3 hours, and you’ll find it advertised in English outside of bars (the Japanese language borrowed the phrase from English). Deals are often pretty good, with big discounts of up to 50% at some places. Almost every bar will have a happy hour at some point, so just ask the staff or read the signs at places near you. 

Some of the best happy hour deals in Japan can be found at ‘family restaurants’. This is the Japanese name for casual Westernized restaurants like Denny’s and Johnathan’s, which are great places to grab some cheap drinks and quick grub. For example, as I write this I’m sitting in Gusto Mizonokuchi enjoying ¥200 jugs of Asahi, a deal which runs from midday until 6 PM at all of their outlets. Yes, I’m drinking during the day on a Thursday — what of it?

Here are a few other places with decent happy hours:

  • Hub British Pub: this chain pub is admittedly the McDonald’s of the Japanese bar scene, but if the price is your main concern then you can get ¥200 drinks here before 7 PM.
  • 6th by Oriental Hotel: from 5 PM to 7:30 PM this high-class Yurakucho bar turns into a luxury-budget paradise, with premium drinks dropping to just ¥500!
  • Havana Cafe: located in Roppongi, this Cuban-themed bar has one of the city’s best happy hours from 4 PM to 7 PM, with cocktails and beers around ¥200 to 400.

All-you-can-drink Deals

In Japan, these deals are known as nomihodai — a word you’ll want to add to your vocabulary right away. It’s the greatest achievement of Japanese drinking culture, available at loads of bars and restaurants. Basically, for a set price which can range from around ¥1000 to 4000, you’ll get endless drinks for 2 hours or more.

Many places have quite an extensive menu included with the deal, meaning you can sample some local drinks like umeshu plum wine, as well as familiar favorites. Be aware though: if you spent your university years plowing through as many cheap vodkas as the bartender could legally serve you, then you might have to hold back just a little.

Nomihodai isn’t so much a challenge to your stomach and drinking ability, as it is a way for groups of Japanese diners to save some money while bypassing any awkward conversations about who drank what when it’s time to split the bill. That being said, staff will be quite happy to match the service to your drinking pace — just don’t try to order 10 beers at once or anything. 

Here are some of the best places to enjoy a refined evening of nomihodai madness:

  • Torikozouko: this chicken-based chain izakaya offers cheap food and 2-hour nomihodai for around ¥1400 — a great place to start a night out.
  • Cona Pizza: every pizza at this Tokyo chain is ¥500, and nomoihodai costs just ¥1500 for 2 hours, with a menu which covers beer, wine, cocktails, and Japanese liquor.
  • Suzume no Oyado: this ex-geisha house in Shibuya is filled with traditional charm, and a 2-hour nomihodai is just ¥1200!

Standing Bars

If you don’t mind spending the evening up on your feet, then standing bars are excellent places to soak up some Japanese bar atmosphere while saving a few pennies. These places have a faster turnover than seated bars, and their prices are generally lower. They’re called tachinomi in Japanese, so fire that into Google Maps to find the nearest ones to you. 

While some of the other places in this guide might sacrifice authenticity in favor of affordability, standing bars offer the best of both worlds. They’ve been around since the Meiji Era, and some establishments have been running for 100 years or more. Ever since those days, they’ve been a favorite place for hardworking Japanese folk to let loose after clocking off.

You’ll usually also find a decent menu of small plates to line your stomach for the evening, such as yakitori skewers, gyoza dumplings, and sashimi. You might still have to pay a cover charge at some standing bars in Japan, but they’ll definitely be lower, and will often include a small appetizer too. 

Here are some of the best standing bars in downtown Tokyo: 

  • Bar Champion: this karaoke bar in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai may be foreigner-heavy, but drinks are only ¥500 and there’s no cover — consider it a decent-priced access point.
  • Tasuichi Shibuya: this Shibuya bar is a favorite among expats for its ¥400 drinks and lack of cover charge — it’s also perfectly located for access to the late-night venues after closing time at 2 AM.
  • Standing Bar Nagi: for a more authentic Japanese experience, this Shibuya bar is a Fukushima sake specialist with drink and food pairings from ¥500.

The Konbini is King

When I tell you that grabbing a few beers from the convenience store and wandering around the streets is actually quite fun, you might discount me as some broke college student — but it’s true. In fact, come springtime, everyone is at it! During cherry blossom season, every park is rammed full of thousands of revelers, almost all of them toting plastic bags filled with konbini drink cans.

And in Tokyo, almost every expat knows “that FamilyMart in Shibuya” — a specific convenience store which is a popular gathering spot on Center Gai street, where you’ll often see crowds of visitors, expats, and a few locals knocking back cans of Strong Zero (9% chūhai). It’s not for everyone, mind you, but even if you don’t want to join in with the crowd you can still grab a few drinks and enjoy the human safari of wandering around a Japanese nightlife district. You might even spot a rare red-crested salaryman — his bald dome flushed pink after one too many sakes: truly a magnificent creature. 

Prices are extremely cheap, with cans of chūhai (a kind of shōchū and fruit soda mix) starting below ¥100, and beers for around ¥120. This is the perfect way to start a night out in the warmer months, so you can reach a decent buzz before even stepping foot inside a bar. There’s literally a convenience store on every street in Japan, so no more need be said about where to find them.

Go Native 

If you’re only visiting Japan or have just been here for a short time, then you probably don’t know much Japanese. If you do, then good on you — you’re doing better than me already. However, unless you have some really well-polished language skills, it might feel like much of the bars in the cities are sealed off. Don’t let this intimidate you, or you’ll miss out on some great deals.

If you go to some of the local izakaya (Japanese gastropubs), where fewer foreigners tread, then you’re almost guaranteed to spend less than at touristy places; prices at these bars can be as much as 50% lower than at foreigner hotspots. The best part is that many of these places still have English menus on hand for the odd foreigner who walks in, and some staff will have at least beginner English. 

However, this money-saving tip may be true of izakaya and restaurants, but not so much for smalltime bars. Although small Japanese counter bars ooze character and charm, they tend to have hefty seating charges and higher prices, since highly personal service and chitchat is part of the experience. Penny-pinchers should stick to the larger bars. 

Here are a few places in downtown Tokyo where you can save some cash while getting a more authentic experience too:

  • Izakaya Kouchan: this place has a decent range of food, is located just 5 minutes from Shibuya Scramble Crossing, and serves beer starting from ¥180!
  • Shinjuku Sakaba Genki Kaifukudou: if you’re in Shinjuku, this is an excellent place to grab budget food and drinks, with beers and many dishes costing just ¥290.
  • Befriend a local: ‘going native’ can also mean befriending some Japanese people yourself. They will 100% have better insights and recommendations than any expat, so if you can integrate with a group of boozehound salarymen or rowdy uni students, jump at the chance! You’ll find that the Japanese open up a lot after a few beers, so this is a pretty common occurrence.

What NOT to Do

In closing, here are some final tips for what to avoid if you’re down to you last few yen.

  • Avoid craft beer places! These bars are great, and craft beer is really booming Japan. Companies like Spring Valley Brewery have gorgeous locations in Tokyo and Kyoto, which are perfect for a casual date night. You’ll also find plenty of multi-tap craft bars all around the country, in the Belgian style. However, craft beer is still new enough that the hype and prices haven’t simmered down yet; expect to pay ¥1400 for a pint if you sit down in one of these places. 
  • Don’t ignore cover charges! Coming from the UK, it was completely alien to me to be charged just for the privilege of entering a bar and sitting down. In Japan, seating charges are usually justified with a small snack plate, but the price can range from ¥200 to a ridiculous ¥1000. Just be aware that this extra charge will be tacked onto the final bill at many bars and restaurants, so look for places with specifically state ‘no charge’ on their outside signage. 
  • Avoid Roppongi! Although some will argue against it, this tip is true even if you’re not bothered about saving money. Arguably Tokyo’s most popular clubbing and entertainment center can be a minefield of crowded clubs, overpriced bars, and questionable music choices. It’s better to stick to places like Shibuya, or — even better — old-school-cool areas like Koenji (although if you want to continue way into the early morning, then the more central the better).
  • Don’t only go out on weekends! While the best days to get involved with Japan’s nightlife are Friday and Saturday, they’re also the most expensive. Instead of blowing it all on one weekend of fun, subbing out your Friday night for a Thursday can save quite a bit of cash; club entry is cheaper midweek (free at some places), and drink deals are abundant. And after all, Japan has some of the most populous cities in the world, so you can bet that most of the main nightlife areas will be reasonably busy even on their quietest nights.

Kanpai!

So now you know how to save some cash while navigating the drinking culture of Japan. If you play your cards right, you can actually end up spending less than in the States or UK. But if you’re not careful, you might find — like I once did — that your Japan budget has suddenly tripled thanks to the beer-loving devil on your shoulder.

If you like the sound of everything on the list, then I challenge you to tackle it all in one day, in this order: happy hour lunch at a family restaurant — convenience store chūhai on your walk to the next place — 2-hour nomihodai alongside dinner —  knock a few back at a standing bar — then go native with some locals until the first train. If you can pull all that off, then I’ll happily pass you the Alcoholic Cheapskate of Tokyo crown, and bow to your superior skill. 

I’m now 6 beers deep at Gusto, so it’s probably time for me to sign off. Cheers. 

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