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In jmac's answer to "Where can I socialize with young Japanese people?", one suggestion given was bars:

For night life, bars tend to be the best choice (over Izakaya or Night Clubs) because they are focused on smaller groups of drinkers and are generally quiet enough to talk in. These can be found in almost any city, though they probably won't start filling up on weekdays until after 7 or 8pm.

I was surprised at this, because I thought Japan didn't have pubs or bars. Does Japan have pubs or bars? If they do exist, I'd want to visit them.

To be clear, I'm not talking about hostess bars or "Girls' bars", nor "Philippines pubs" (フィリピンパブ), which, according to uncovery, are hostess bars where the staff are Filipino, which often have live music or karaoke.

I've seen plenty of izakayas, which are places that serve food as well as drink, and generally look a bit more like the Japan of yesteryear than that of today, without seeming to be "fake".

I also visited a British-style pub in Nagoya, but I felt it was deliberately British-themed and a novelty, rather than appearing as something normal in Japan. The pub was called "Oxo" - official site, critical blog post about it stating that the decoration was authentic, but the food wasn't.

By contrast, I am asking about something that doesn't go out of its way to portray itself as British or Irish or Aussie, but is similar to bars or pubs in western countries.

I don't recall seeing any such bars or pubs in Japan, and Wikivoyage says they don't exist much. Am I just looking in the wrong parts of Japan?

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What's a “Phillippines pub”? –  Relaxed Oct 22 '13 at 15:16
    
@Annoyed I think it's something staffed by Filipino women, but I don't really know beyond that. –  Andrew Grimm Oct 22 '13 at 21:57
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@Annoyed It's a hostess bar where the staff is all Philippine. There is often live music/karaoke. –  uncovery Oct 23 '13 at 12:09
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I can also recommend visiting South Korea. It has a much bigger drinking culture than Japan, more pubs and bars that have a similar feel to western ones, without trying to be western and absolutely visitable by a solo western traveller. And it will give you a new perspective on Japanese and East Asian culture because of the many obvious influences between the two yet also being totally different to each other. –  hippietrail Oct 25 '13 at 2:29
    
@Annoyed I assume you've read it by now, but there's a question asking what a Philippines pub is: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/21424/… –  Andrew Grimm Dec 19 '13 at 6:26
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5 Answers 5

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Yes, Japan has lots of them. More than you would think or can see on the street. The most dense accumulation of Bars is generally around busy subway and train stations, often under the arches of a railway bridge going through the city. You have to follow people in suits after business hours and will definitely find them. Specially around the 25th of a month when salaries are paid.

Some general styles that you might come across most frequently apart from Izakayas:

  1. Irish pubs: There are chains and individual shops all over Japan. In Tokyo there is the "Hub" chain and the hobgoblins, and there are many many more independent ones.
  2. US/UK Sports bars: Similar concept, but with larger TV screens and the one or other Beer serving girl in a short beer-branded skirt, just like you see it in many other countries. But due to the popularity of Soccer and Baseball quite frequent. Just googling "[city] sports bar" will return many results since those often have English names.
  3. Novelty Bars: One has to understand that what you might judge as a novelty bar might not be one for Japanese people. Many of them, once you know their history, aren't one at all. First of all, competition in the gastronomy is very high in Japan and due to the high costs rental and renovation, some of the bars in denser areas might seem to be a bit overdecorated or themed. That does however not change the popularity. Secondly, imagine a Japanese guy opens a restaurant in New York in the 1920s in original Japanese style and keeps it in shape until today, fills every spot on the wall with some souvenir or trinket from home. For the first time Japanese visitor it might seem "themed", but it is actually just an authentic Japanese restaurant outside Japan. So what might seem to be artificial and overdecorated at the surface, might be a 30 year old Whiskey bar whose owner is honorary citizen of Kentucky for selling so much bourbon. On top of that, imitation IS the most sincere form of flattery in Japan.
  4. No-access bars: There are many bars where you simply cannot get in, either because they do not allow non-members or non-Japanese, or because you simply dare not to go there. Tons of those around, too. Not necessarily girls here, either. But there are finally many places in some 10th floor (or on every floor) of a building without much more than a non-descript neon name-sign on the outside of the building. The name promises the one or other form or entertainment, sure. But unless someone takes you there, you simply won't see the inside. You won't walk into a building and take the elevator to the 10th floor just because the name of a place sounds like a normal bar. It might be a Yakuza-run gambling den, after all. Specially being on the stroll in search for somewhere to drink you will realize sooner or later that whole buildings are full of those bars. But I guarantee you, there are enough others around. The bar industry in Japan is huge.
  5. Hotel bars: Very common, often very standardized, specially in older hotels. A bar counter with high, soft chairs, a huge Whiskey selection, possibly a good view and highly skilled barkeepers. Quiet, maybe a bit boring if you are by yourself. Maybe live music if you have a 5 star hotel.
  6. Foreigner bars: There are of course places in larger cities where you find mostly foreigners, such as Azabu-Juban and Roppongi in Tokyo. There are cheap shot bars, expensive cocktail lounges, some famous (Article 1, Article 2) and some more hidden. And more often than not with the one or other Japanese girl who dreams of getting married to a foreigner.

The biggest issue will be to find them. You will see a building with many signs on the side of it and know that every floor has a bar or a club. To walk in there is often a disappointment. Knowing what you look for is important. So I recommend you to look for dedicated entertainment areas of the cities and for signs in English outside. I know that Sapporo, Osaka, Tokyo and Kyoto have quite large dedicated entertainment areas where you will always find something with an inviting sign outside. As long as you have the courage to be turned away or to go in, take a look at the prices on the menu and walk out again if it's above your budget, you are fine.

Otherwise I would suggest you to google a bit by location. There are tons of magazines like Time Out that also will bring you further. If you want to know more, I would strongly suggest that you say what kind of bar you are looking for (Beer, Sake, Cocktails, Music, Young people, Salary men, etc etc) and where. As it is right now the question is very broad to go more into details.

The hardest place to find a drink is in hotels on the countryside that are left-overs from the bubble economy. Since those are normally quite under-occupied, they have a bar, but it's often closed.

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I'm... not really sure what you're asking for. A "pub" is defined by Wikipedia as:

a drinking establishment fundamental to the culture of Britain, Ireland, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.

So yes, there are pubs in Japan, but of course they're going to be British-themed, or Irish-themed or even Australian-themed because that's what a pub is. The Japanese equivalent of a "drinking establishment fundamental to the culture" would be an izakaya, which don't look much like pubs (because they aren't), but serve the same function.

As for bars that serve drinks only, there are plenty especially in Japan's larger cities, even when excluding red-light districts and borderline establishments like hostess bars. Here's a short listing. Tokyo's Ginza and Shinjuku, in particular, are both well known for hole-in-the-wall bars that cater to a very specific clientele. Some have restrictive entrance policies that amount to "you can't come here unless you know somebody who does" (and which apply to Japanese and foreigners alike), most are happy to accept anybody, although a smattering of Japanese always helps. For example, I had the world's best martini -- certified -- at Tender Bar in Ginza earlier this year, and they'll happily serve them to anybody willing to foot the bill (around 5000 yen for entry, a cocktail and a nibble, IIRC).

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Wikipedia's definitions are terribly patchy and not to be trusted, but your observation that he needs to tell us what he means by "pub" since he's specifically ruled out both British style ones and Japanese style ones (izakayas)! –  hippietrail Oct 23 '13 at 9:17
    
Wouldn't pub generally be synonym with “drinking establishment” in many English idioms? Andrew did write “pubs or bars”, which sound pretty broad… –  Relaxed Oct 23 '13 at 9:40
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But then he ruled out izakayas, which is the closest Japanese equivalent. Hence my puzzlement. –  jpatokal Oct 23 '13 at 11:36
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@AndrewGrimm: OK but you should clarify that in the question. Instead of only using the words "pub", "bar", and "izakaya" tell us what attributes of the former you're looking for and which attributes of the latter you don't like, not everybody that could answer has been to a pub in Britain, and those are very different from Australian pubs and even more different to American bars. Izakayas are fun if you make friends with a middle aged local male and he takes you there. Also it's very true what uncovery said that many bars have themes but are not like crappy Irish pubs you buy as a kit, etc. –  hippietrail Oct 23 '13 at 15:18
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@hippietrail I've edited the question, how is it now? –  Andrew Grimm Oct 24 '13 at 10:57
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I've been to Japan only once, but it was touring with a band. We played in a different city pretty much every night. With the exception of one night, the venues were all bar/pub type places. Certainly not hostess bars and also not English themed pubs.

There was a small stage, and always a bar and some seats. Because we've been to a these places every night, they felt pretty common to me. Maybe you do actually have to look for them.

I remember that after the gigs, the locals would usually take us out for drinks and there was always food served as well. I guess these places were 'izakayas'. So it seems most of the drinking happens there. I quite liked the fact that you could have nice food with your drinks.

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Executive Summary

In virtually any city there will be a combination of:

  1. Foreign Bars
  2. Standing Bars
  3. Food Bars
  4. Shot/Cocktail Bars

Foreign Bars

As explained by uncovery, there are many different chain Irish or British-style pubs. Dubliners, Pig & Whistle, Hub, Hobgoblin, and others. There are also non-chain local versions in less major cities. While these may be designed as 'foreign' pubs, depending on the day of the week and the location, a large portion of the clientele may be Japanese.

Chances are that if you spot a Western resident of Japan between the ages of 20 and 40 in almost any city in Japan and ask, "What bar do foreigners go to?" they will point you to one of these.*1

*1: This may not apply to Kyoto and Tokyo because residents there are typically very different from your average foreign resident of Japan. If in doubt, look up the Hub in these cities, and ask a foreigner or the staff there who can likely direct you to others

These bars tend to have more than one beer on tap, are slightly more pricy than your average Japanese drinkery, and usually have good happy hour specials. They are busiest on weekends, though you may find both Japanese and foreign regulars there on any given weekday.

Standing Bars (立ち飲み)

Standing bars are bars where you stand at the counter and drink. These come in all different varieties. Some will be connected to a liquor store, some will be in a liquor store, some will be in a tiny little hole in the wall, in Fukuoka some will be on the street, and some will just be in a regular bar-type space somewhere. Some even have seats yet still call themselves standing bars.

Virtually all standing bars are on the first floor.

These establishments are usually absurdly cheap, offer happy hour discounts, and are frequented by a marginally older crowd (and usually are a bit more 'downscale'). There are usually regulars, and are typically busier right after work (maybe from 7-9pm) rather than later in the night. In some cities there are standing bars run by women which were all the rage for a while, but are essentially the same thing with a slightly younger crowd, and women tending them instead of men.

Food Bars

Sometimes these will be called 'Food Bars', or 'Cafe/Bar' or something of the sort, but they are places that both offer food and booze, and are essentially multi-use establishments. They offer nice dinners, but after dinner hours have regulars who just drink there. They often have a combination of tables and a counter.

These types of bars are often found slightly off the beaten path, and usually not in the middle of the nightlife. They are often found tucked away on the 3rd floor of some building, and are difficult to identify if you don't speak Japanese. You could walk by them every day and never realize that it was a bar unless someone showed it to you.

This type of bar is the most common type in Japan, especially outside major cities. They are usually not chain establishments, and are run by a single person with a part-timer or two, or a couple. The owner is usually the cook, and these are the true 'locals' in Japan for booze hounds.

The regulars from these bars will often hold barbeques, or go to the beach, or go to an onsen together, etc. They are usually a small community of friends knit around the owner of the bar, and can have very different communities age-wise and interest-wise. I recommend trying to search these ones out. Asking local Japanese people where they drink will likely lead you to one of these places, though if you just ask for a bar they will point you to a foreign bar at first.

Shot/Cocktail Bars

The last type of bar is what I'd call a fancy bar. They focus around good liquor and properly mixed cocktails. Usually they are pricier than other types of bars, often have a charge just to sit down, and are a lot mellower than the other types of drinking establishments. Think of them like the bar at a fancy hotel as far as style, only a bit darker and most likely smaller.

These bars usually have a much older clientele (over 40) and strike me as a holdover from the bubble era where people had money to burn, and just never left. They usually have a charge to sit down, but make truly great cocktails. If you are a whiskey-lover, these may be the place for you too, as they often have a wide variety. I usually find these hidden on upper floors of buildings, or tucked away on side streets off the beaten path. If you ask for a shot bar or cocktail bar from someone aged 40+, they should be able to point you in the general direction.

General Tips for Finding Bars/Bar Culture

When you're wandering down a street near the center of a city, and see a sign that lists a price for beer at the top something like this:

ビール  ¥500~

You've probably found a bar. Personally at this point I feel no shame in walking in to any establishment, taking a look, and then always asking if there's a charge (「チャージありますか? Chaaji arimasuka?」). Many bars (depending on region) will charge you just to sit down, or give you a small bit of food in exchange for the charge. If it looks good, and the charge is okay with you, then go ahead and sit down and chat for a bit. Otherwise just give a smile and a nod and walk out. No harm no foul.

When you do sit down with someone who is actually interested in speaking with you (and not just feigning interest to be polite), ask them to show you to another bar. And then you know where to start your adventures the next night. Even if the bar is quiet or nobody is interested in going to another place, the bartenders are usually happy to mark on your map the location of other nearby bars, or recommend general areas to wander.

The one major difference in bar culture is that capacity is limited by the number of seats in most food and cocktail bars. Do not expect to be allowed in if there are no seats open, even if you are willing to stand.

Especially in what I categorized as 'Food Bars', if you go several nights during a couple week span, they will probably remember you even if you show up a couple years later. There is a strong community feel to most local bars that isn't present in a lot of the foreign bars, because the staff doesn't change and the regulars are regular.

Best of luck, and if you tell me what city you're going to I can probably dig you up some places to start your search.

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Yes, Japan has bars and pubs. However, you may have trouble getting into some of them as a Gaijin.

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As a rule of thumb, foreigners only have a tough time entering sex industry joints, plus the odd (and increasingly rare) members-club style bar that doesn't allow any uninvited guests, Japanese or foreign. –  jpatokal Oct 23 '13 at 0:27
    
I got the impression that the member-style bars that require invitations are still very common, but they are very low key and do not stand out. Or maybe they're just more common in Kyoto than elsewhere. –  hippietrail Oct 25 '13 at 2:31
    
Didn't expect to get this many downvotes. Things must have changed since I was there. –  Kevin Oct 25 '13 at 14:16
    
Your answer is just short and doesn't really provide any information explaining why or how. I think that's probably why it's receiving the downvotes. –  jmac Oct 29 '13 at 5:23
    
Yeah, the shortness of the answer was a contributing factor. Contrast the multiple upvotes for your "Can I side-step discrimination against foreigners in Japan?" answer. –  Andrew Grimm Oct 29 '13 at 6:09
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