Learn about some of the characteristics of Japanese drinking culture.
Japan has a rich drinking culture. Sake, known as Japanese sake in Japan, has been brewed since at least the 3rd century, with techniques recorded and refined from the 7th to the 10th century. Beer was introduced later, but famous Japanese beers like Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo are now ubiquitous, and a recent trend is the rise of local craft breweries across Japan.
But what defines Japanese drinking culture is the rich cultural tradition surrounding alcohol. Drinking parties, known as enkai, are a staple of Japanese culture, and if you want to avoid dummies, you need to observe certain etiquette.
1. Do not drink alcohol before toasting:
Receptions should always be organized, whether informal or work-related. At work events, this sometimes involves speaking, while gatherings of friends may just involve kanpai (cheering). But drinking before everyone is toasting is a bad way to go.
2. Do not serve your own drinks:
Offer alcohol to others to show respect and friendship. Try pouring drinks for someone older or higher rank than you, or just out of respect and gratitude. Continue to refill your glasses with friends so no one runs out of them. It is considered polite to water with both hands instead of just one.
Multi-course activities with specific food ingredients. The first course, usually fresh or raw, usually consists of a series of sashimi lined on grated radishes and fancy shiso leaves (these side dishes are meant to be eaten!). The menu then continues with a variety of other dishes and flavors, depending on the location, from roasted to teriyaki to deep-fried, and ends with a bowl of noodles or rice.
Also, at an izakaya or Japanese bar, you will always have an otoshi before ordering. It is usually a small plate that can also be used as cutlery. Usually, it’s something simple like edamame or cucumber or even a potato salad, but sometimes it’s more complicated. It’s a great way to grab a bite to eat before your first order arrives, but you never know what you’ll get (and there are no substitutes!), so it’s best to approach it with a sense of adventure.
While every city has excellent izakayas, Pontocho in Kyoto is a great place to experience izakaya culture. A traditional nightlife district dating back to 1670, you’ll find plenty of izakaya options as you explore the narrow streets lit by lanterns and traditional wooden buildings.
Drinking is also about letting go and often involves gaming. Kochi Prefecture in southern Shikoku is famous for its sake culture and offers many unique drinking games. One of them is Beku Hai, which includes a uniquely shaped cup and top. The player spins the top and the player with the glass on top has to drink; they usually have to empty the cup because the bottom of the cup is hard to remove and even has a hole. In Kiku no Hana, the cup is placed upside down on a chrysanthemum. When the player turns the cups over one by one, the player who finds the chrysanthemum must drink sake from all the previously overturned cups. As you can imagine, Kochi also has a proud tradition of sake brewing, with 18 breweries known for producing fresh and dry sake. Some are open to the public and offer tastings and tours.
After all, no wine night is complete without entertainment, from karaoke to modern office parties to more professional performances. For one of the most historic places, head to the famous Dongshan Hot Spring, one of the three largest hot spring towns in the Northeast. Discovered over 1,300 years ago, Higashiyama Hot Spring has long been a destination for poets and writers. You can watch a traditional Higashiyama geisha (geisha) performance, which includes shamisen and taiko dancing and drumming.
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