Drinking: The Unofficial Pastime of Tokyo

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Alcohol consumption is a popular social activity in a variety countries all over this world, however few cities take it to the level that the residents of Tokyo do. From hard liquor sold around-the-clock in corner stores to clubs whose closing time is not until "the last person leaves," this mega-metropolis has a decidedly care-free attitude toward drinking. Just as the local citizens love their cigarettes, it should come as no surprise that they also love their fermented beverages -- more so than any other country I have seen in this corner of the world. Take China, for example: drinking is not immensely popular among the locals, and their big holiday, Chinese New Year, is a time most often spent with the family, not an excuse to go out drinking.

Gigantic, Multiple-Floor Clubs Lure In The Young Local Crowds

The Tokyo club scene rocks!
No, this isn't the party...just the pre-party.

The same cannot be said about Japan. They love their spirits be it holiday, weekday, or weekend! Beer, sake, wine, liquor, all are enjoyed in ample quantities. That fact is further re-inforced by the single biggest difference between drinking in Tokyo and drinking Stateside... Are you ready for this one? There is no official closing time! Forget that 2am cutoff we have in the States, that is usually just when things are getting good but then ol' Johnny Q Bartender just has to go slap on the ugly lights as he gives you the ol' "You don't have to go home but you can't stay here" line.

Sail past the 4am alcohol-cutoff that NYC residents love to brag about as well, none of those early nights here in Tokyo. As the bulk of large Tokyo clubs do not open their doors until 11pm or midnight, it will often be 2 or maybe 3am before the place really gets packed. Add in the fact that the majority of these venues stay open as long as there is a profit to be made and that frequently results in it being 5-6-7am before you stumble out into the morning sun, momentarily confused as to why it is so damn bright in the middle of the night. It is only the sobering sight of hordes of businessmen dressed in identical black suits scurrying along every which direction that makes you realize that you are now a part of the Tokyo morning rush-hour. Trains are running again and packed full of individuals en route to work alongside others desperate to crawl into bed before the hangover hits. But the night does not always stop here...

Absolut Ice Bar Tokyo

Another key difference regarding alcohol laws was not initially apparent until you find yourself leaving one of these clubs at sunrise with no desire to end the party. This is what I dubbed the memory-maker — or for some it was usually more of a memory-eraser.

Yes, believe it or not in Tokyo you can purchase alcohol 24/7 — that's right, beer, wine, even hard liquor! The easiest place to purchase it is from Lawson corner stores that are located on nearly every block. Walk fifty paces, grab a little tray of fresh sushi, maybe some ramen too, oh and what else did I need..? Ahhh yes a liter of 12yr Yamazaki, Japan's premiere whisky. (Japanese whisky is most similar to Scotch whisky and therefore contains no 'e')

Cheers in Tokyo

Although it may sound as though Tokyo and its' nightlife is a sort of alcohol-heaven, make sure that your wallet can take the hit as nothing in or around the city is cheap. Since Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world to call home, it should be no surprise that everything else in the city is expensive, including the clubs. As with most things you get what you pay for and none of these clubs disappoint, just do not be surprised to see the club cover charges are ¥3000-4000 (roughly $35-45 USD) just to step foot in the door. Drinks cost an average of ¥800-1000 ($10-12 USD). Most venues include a token for one free drink upon paying the cover but I quickly learned one important thing: when redeeming the free drink token, do not wave it around when placing your drink order or you may end up with a weak drink. Instead wait until the bartender places the drink in front of you to reveal the token.
  Curiosity piqued yet? It should be. Read more~   the dazzling Tokyo club scene

I Do Believe There Is A Bar Every 40 Metres Or Less!

Beer, wine, and mixed drinks at the bars are generally slightly less expensive than inside the clubs, not to mention there is no hefty cover charge. Another financial upside is the fact that since tipping in Japan is actually considered very offensive, need to worry about adding in a ¥200 tip with each drink. It is almost like saying that you are above the person being tipped and thus implying that they are inferior and need your assistance. Besides, as the cost of living in the city is anything but cheap, employees in Tokyo are already paid well-enough to free them from any reliance on tips. This proud self-reliance and unwillingness to accept hand-outs is deeply entwined with their culture and I believe helps explain the almost complete lack of homeless people. It is also pretty damn admirable, if I do say so myself.

Good friends and good drinks in Tokyo, Japan

There is only one place which I can recall that may have had a tip jar on the bar was ShibuyaNUTS — and because I know you are curious, 'NUTS' stands from the Next Underground Techno Scene. Every few weeks I would pop in for a couple hours during NUTS' weekly Sunday night ReggaeFest and it wasn't long before I had made friends with one of the young bartenders. Realizing that I prefered my whisky half-and-half with 7Up (never Coke), he made sure to start pouring my drinks with a wicked heavy hand. In return I never bothered to take my change. Whether it made it into his pocket or the tip jar that may not have even existed, I haven't the faintest idea and nor do I care. All I know is that being a young cat (or whatever the reason may have been) he certainly not offended in the slightest about accepting extra cash from me.

The Classic Charlie Brown Football Gag
Replace poor Charlie Brown's body with mine and
swap Lucy out for the lower portion of that staircase

Yup, that's exactly how it happened!

(And a good reason why I need a cameraman to follow me around)

But this much I do remember: one night that bartender got me so damn drunk that I took not one, not two, but three nasty falls during my drunken stumble back to my flat. On the positive side two of these falls were quite hilarious, if I do say so myself. Luckily this was while Jared was in town, so he was able to get a couple pictures of my injuries.

  Remember the classic Charlie Brown football gag where Lucy lifts the ball up precisely as Charlie goes to kick it and his momentum causes him to fly up into the air, feet up over head before slamming back down to the ground?

Well that my friends is exactly what happened to me. That night after leaving ShibuyaNUTS I was descending rain-covered steps on the far side of a pedestrian walkway over a busy intersection when one of my feet slipped due to my rapid multiple-steps-at-once pace combined with — c'mon, let's face it — my high level of inebriation. As that foot flew past its anticipated step my forward momentum carried me out off the stairs and forward thru the air, both feet rising up nearly level with my head as I continued to sail past the last remaining eight or so steps. My spine hit the sidewalk first followed a split-second later by a resounding thud as the back of my head bounced against the concrete a mere couple inches from the lowest step on the staircase.

  Jared took photos of my injuries after we returned to the flat. I still have those scars to this very day, too.

Derek Freal got injured while drunk in Tokyo

Thankfully I was considerably drunk and did not initially feel much pain. After struggling to my feet I managed to follow that spectacular show up with two more subsequent self-induced falls in as many minutes. One was chest-first (resulting in cuts to my right hand, wrist, and arm) and the other a second blow to the back of my skull yet again. As you can see in the pictures, rather than clean my wounds I decided to pass out bleeding. Not my brightest idea, especially considering the wound on the back of my head. I had to throw away that pillow the next morning.

Whisky from the depression era!

Personally, I had never before in all my life and certainly never since done so much daily drinking over not just a week or two but multiple months. The month that Jared was here visiting me was the worst, out in the clubs all night and then grabbing a bottle afterwards to continue the party with local friends. But even once he left and I hooked up with Mayu, my Japanese cougar, we started to frequent the more sophisticated and upscale places which she was used to. Despite the prices increasing dramatically that did little if anything deter our alcohol consumption. She and I From fancy restaurants owned by Japanese celebrities and random upscale bars, many of these were places I would never have found or never been able to gain access as a lone gaijin wandering aimlessly. One of the upscale whisky bars we visited in Hiroo even had a bottle of whisky from the Prohibition-era. That is me with said bottle on the right.

I firmly believe that anyone who enjoys a good night out on the town should consider visiting Tokyo while they are still young and able enough to survive an entire night of drinking. Go for the full experience and trust me, you will have a memorable time.

Ready For Another
Unexpected Surprise?

Despite the relentless drinking that many locals engage in, never once in my three months did I observe a single fight or even any minor disagreements between friends or lovers. Nothing even remotely close. Not like back Stateside, where disputes or fights occur with an all-too-common frequency at the slightest provocation. Of course a couple friends have recently pointed out the fact that my Japanese is limited at best, so how can I accurately judge what I heard? Regardless of the language, words themselves are but a mere 10% of the actual act of communication. The real message lies not exactly with the wording but in the body language, pitch, tone, and general context of the speaker, and to a lesser extent in the reaction of the listener. In all my people-watching never once was there anything resembling animosity. Talk about refreshing! Even random strangers are friendly and respectful, albeit sometimes a little shy. What an amazing culture! I love everything about you Japan.

Nonbei Yokocho, Shibuya ward, Tokyo, Japan
Drunkards' Alley is actually two parallel alleys jam-packed with
dozens of miniature bars, the biggest only about 10'x10'

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

No matter where you may be in Tokyo the ambiance is always pleasant. Streets are clean and every public trash can is divided into sections for recycling and compost. Even the tiniest bars are clean and well-maintained, another stark contrast to the US. And believe me, I did plenty of drinking in these hole-in-the-wall bars. I even found a full neighborhood of nothing but miniature bars! It was so amazing that I would end up at least popping my head in for a few minutes on an almost nightly basis as a sort of warmup before our nightly loop along the drinking circuit. The neighborhood is called Nonbeiyokocho and is also known as Drunkards' Alley or the Alley of the Drunkards (pictured on the left).

  If you are eager to enjoy a beer in one of the world's smallest bars or looking to meet some great people and make new friends, well then this is the spot! I cannot stress that enough.

I have been informed by several individuals over the years — although I have yet to confirm this one personally — that if you get too drunk and happen to pass out on a street corner during a cold night, someone walking by will take off their jacket to cover you before continuing on their way, sans jacket. Now c'mon, is that not incredible!?! Where else in the world would someone, especially a stranger, demonstrate such compassion for an unknown individual? Not just a stranger but a passed out drunk person that could well be a vagrant. Nowhere but Japan! That is but a small part of what makes this such a unique and unparallel country. (Kind of wish I had tested it during my injury night and just passed out laying there on the sidewalk, bleeding)

Drinking with friends at a darts bar in the Ebisu ward of Tokyo, Japan

Included below are some random pictures from an assortment of my many drunken nights in Tokyo. Photography is strictly forbidden inside all the clubs, so all my photos come from various bars. However, just below this paragraph you will notice a large photofrom inside of random Shibuya club. Towards the end of my trip I met this fantastic local "businessman" at Non. Despite the fact he would never elaborate any more about his work, he was still a very worldly person to spoke with and we had a lot of great conversations. We also went to a lot of fun clubs and parties together on a variety of different nights. Not only did this mysterious gentleman always get us into the clubs via the back door — no cover charge, no security search — but the staff also kindly looked the other way whenever Shige would break any of the rules, such as taking flash photos inside.

Shibuya friends
Oh man this picture tells a thousand stories...if you know how to read it ;)

Our mysterious friend is at the forefront alongside the Japanese wrapper whose private, closed-club birthday party we were currently attending (I cannot believe I have forgotten his name!). On the far right is one of the dudes from the rapper's posse, in the back middle is my drunk ass, and on the far left is my sometimes traveling buddy Jared.

Even more impressive than backdoor access to everywhere when with him was the fact that regardless of where we went, steady streams of people were slowly yet continuously approaching Shige and bow to show respect. Unfortunately because any exchanges would be spoken quickly, quietly, and in Japanese, I was never able to pinpoint why everyone respected him. The plot thickens... One evening Jared and I had accompanied Shige to one of his flats in a dark corner of Shibuya, where among other things he showed us a collection of enlarged photographs featuring him with Hugh Hefner and three bunnies. Others photos were with a variety of American and European celebrities, mostly actors. There was even one photograph with him and the old man from Orange County Choppers, so I would be willing to wager a bet that stashed somewhere in this great city Shige also has a custom NY chopper.

Lots of beer on tap in Tokyo, Japan

After returning to Tokyo from the Philippines was when Jared flew back home and I began dating Mayu. One evening I brought her along for dinner with Shige. Big mistake. Mayu behaved strangely and was quite hesitant to join in our conversation. Despite the limited time I had known her I could tell she was being uncharacteristically silent. Only later that night did I find out the reason why: she squeeked out something about him being Yakuza and then would never speak another peep about it or even join me if she knew that my "Japanese father" would be there. Uncertain of Shige's reaction, I never asked him myself — although that certainly would have explained a whole helluva lot!

And That My Friends Is Tokyo — A City Where Anything Is Possible!

  Been to Japan? What did you think about the culture, the nightlife? Share your thoughts below!
  Maybe you even recognize the rapper from my photo or possibly know his name? I feel like that could even possibly be it on his hand...?? If you know, please let me know. Thanks!

Even Once The Party Is Over, Tokyo Still Leaves You Impressed

Besides Booze, The World's Most Successful Metropolis Is Also Host To An Abundance
Of Other Surprising And Often-Unexpected Features, Especially For First-Time Visitors

Given that Tokyo is home to a staggering 36.9 million residents, it should be downright shocking that the world's most populated metropolis does not suffer from those key issues plaguing nearly every other metropolis with a multi-million population: crime, pollution, trash, traffic, a homeless population, sections of deteriorating infrastructure, even a public disdain for strangers or the inability of the local government to properly streamline important functions such as emergency medical services or public transportation. However I am proud to say that amazingly Tokyo has all of those items well under control. The only one that could even remotely be considered to have room for improvement is the traffic, and that is debatable.

Drunk Derek Freal always knows how to wow the ladies, even in Tokyo, Japan when he doesn't speak the language

Due to the efficiency and reliability of the Tokyo metro system, combined with the high prices and taxes for personal vehicles, only the wealthiest of businessmen drive. As such often the only cars on the roads alongside the taxis and delivery drivers are sparkling new Audis and Mercedes that appear to have just rolled off the showroom floor only minutes before. The miniscule proportion of private commuters in local traffic is just not a serious issue -- I've sat through worse in dozens of cities, including my hometown of Austin, Texas — and the population of that entire greater metropolis region is not even a paltry 4% of Tokyo's. Further illustrating the significance of these amazing achievements is evidenced by the fact that Tokyo has a harmonious, realitvely efficient, and overall smooth-running city despite the fact that the region is not only located in an earthquake hotspot and plagued year-round but also boasts a population that is a whopping 75% greater than even its closest competition, Delhi. That is an extra 15 million people more or the entire population of Beijing!

Drinking in Tokyo, Japan

Toss in some of the best cuisine anywhere, a one-of-a-kind fashion industry, amazing shopping, diverse districts that are home to never-ending sights, and a vibrant, respectful, and deeply historic culture...

Well now that my friends that is my beloved Tokyo! You would be hard-pressed to find a better all-around combination of technology and efficiency anywhere. On the depressing day three years ago that I said goodbye to my flat in Ebisu and moved back Stateside I swore to return once I had traveled the globe to the point of exhaustion and start a family there.

  I made this map while in Ebisu to help familiarize myself with my new home and the local neighborhood. Includes are mostly clubs and bars in the Shibuya/Ebisu area, making it a perfect fit with this article. Plus there are also a few extra shopping locations, the closest 24/7 ATM that accepts all foreign cards, and maybe even a hidden restaurant or two. Oh yes, and the ex's flat. Don't go there.

{jumi [*5][shibuya]}

  So let's hear it! What are your thoughts on Tokyo? Could you keep up with the local rate of alcohol consumption without getting cirrhosis of the liver? Share your thoughts below!

Derek Freal

" ǝʌıʇɔǝdsɹǝd ɹǝɥʇouɐ ɯoɹɟ sƃuıɥʇ ǝǝs oʇ ǝʌol ı "
Derek is a perpetual wanderer, cultural enthusiast, and lifelong traveler. He loves going places where he does not speak a word of the local language and must communicate with hand gestures, as well as places where he is forced to squat awkwardly to poo (supposedly its healthier and more efficient). Say Hello On Twitter!

Website: blog.theholidaze.com

Comments  

0 # Tierra Duffield 2013-02-01 01:00
I really enjoyed this article. I bypassed Tokyo on my way to Japan and just flew into Sendai, too nervous about navigating the rail system. Sendai seems to be very similar to Tokyo, just on a smaller scale. The main area of the city has something like a few thousand bars in it. Granted they are very tiny and pretty expensive, but still a lot to explore. They do love to drink here, but I've noticed for the most part they are 'light weights.' At each of the work parties or bars I've gone to, a few beers in and the whole group has bright red faces and becomes very giggly. I can't wait to check out Tokyo.
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