Japanese drinking culture is unlike any other in the world. Despite the fact that these lightweights are lucky enough to get drunk after one or two beers, this does not factor into their decision to keep drinking. Japan has easily facilitated drinking by incorporating it into its festivals and cultural events. For example, most business men and women meet at a bar after work, only this is no happy hour. In fact, many bosses require that their employees drink with them into the wee hours of the morning (we’re talking about 3 or 4 o’ clock). Unfortunately, employees are also expected to show up to work without any sign of a hangover the following day. Below are are stomping grounds for Japanese locals and tourists alike in the famous city of Kyoto.
Most tourists find themselves in the bars listed in their travel guides, which generally happen to be foreign-run or foreign-friendly bars. Gaijin is a slang term for foreigner in Japan (be careful of the way it’s used, as this term could be friendly or aggressive). That being said, gaijin bars are a great place to start when visiting any city you don’t know, and we suggest you start your beer tour here on your first night. Why? For one thing, foreign bars are swarming with–you guessed it–foreigners. Most of the regulars are living and working in Japan, so they’re an ideal source to find out more about the city you’re visiting. They’ll tell you which sites are worth it, and which simply are not. Bonus: if they like you, they may even share their secret hideout in the city. Yet another reason is that foreign-friendly Japanese folk tend to flock to gaijin bars as well. This is a great opportunity to meet and get drunk with a true local. Most often, the Japanese you’ll find there can speak at least a little English. They’ll be thrilled to practice their sloppy English over a couple of bottles of Zima. And again, if they like you, they are likely to invite you somewhere else more authentically Japanese with them.
Kyoto doesn’t have much to offer in this category, so we suggest you take the 15-minute shinkansen (bullet train) ride to Osaka, which is swarming with gaijin nightlife. However, if you’re set on Kyoto, your best bet is in the Kiyamachi district. Some gaijin bars (here or here) we like there are Bar Isn’t It? and reggae bar Rub-a-Dub.
An izakaya is like a Japanese equivalent to a German beer hall. These restaurants/bars serve one purpose: to facilitate drinking. The menu is specially chosen from Japanese booze cuisine, as in all the food goes really well with alcohol. The portions are also very small so that tables can order a variety of dishes to share with one another. Some of our favorite dishes include okonomiyaki (an egg pancake with vegetables and delicious sauce), takoyaki (deep fried octopus), and fried camembert with maple syrup dipping sauce. Izakayas are also the only place where you can order a mini keg of beer sent right to your table.
Some izakayas also have nomihodai (or all you can drink) specials. This is especially worth it for Westerners, as the prices are generally set pretty low for light-weight Japanese drinkers. Additional perks to izakayas are its unique environment. All izakayas are built by traditional Japenese standards. This means you have to remove your shoes at the doorway, and then find your way through a maze of hallways to your own little nook. Every table is tucked away into a private recess. Generally curtains will separate tables. However this seclusion does not prevent customers from rallying together. More than likely, you’ll end up removing the curtains and playing charades as your only mode of communication across the language barrier. The only Japanese word you should really know at this point is kampai, or cheers.
Like most cities in Japan, Kyoto is crawling with izakayas. In fact, according to Google, there are 1,009 results for izakaya in Kyoto.
One thing that’s very distinct about Kyoto is its link to the past. It is the only city in Japan that truly reflects the balance between old and new in Japan. Women with kimonos stroll down the streets next to teenagers dressed in harajuku attire. It’s also the city where you are most likely to spot a geisha. Kyoto’s Gion district has been around since the Middle Ages. There, you can find the streets lined with ochaya, or geisha teahouses. The ochayas offer customers a unique experience to drink as the ancient Japanese did. The geishas perform music, songs, and dances while customers drink to their delight. There is a common misconception that geishas are or were prostitutes; in fact, their only purpose since their origin is to entertain. Another perk to the Gion district is the architecture. All of the buildings and in fact some of the streets themselves are designed in the fashion of ancient Japan. You will be instantly transformed into Edo Japan. The buildings are made with burnt wood and the streets are made of gravel. Be sure not to drink too much at the ochaya, or you may find yourself lost in time.
Like izakayas, Kyoto’s Gion district is brimming with ochayas.
Japan is like Vegas in more ways than one: there’s too much neon, pachinko parlors are more common than Starbucks, and you can drink on the dori (the streets). Add to this the Japanese affection for festivals, and you’ve got a city-wide party nearly every month. Festivals in Japan include carnivals, picnics, beer, and most importantly, fireworks. . Throngs of people head to the streets in their best yukatas (spring kimonos) to celebrate. Japan is better than Vegas in that they’ll celebrate almost anything. Nationwide festivals include: Shougatsu (New Year), Joshi no Sekku (Girls Day), Kodomi no Hi (Boys Day), Hanami (Cherry Blossom Festival), Tanabata (Start Festival), Obon (Day of the Dead), Shichigosan (7-5-3 Year Olds Day). The Japanese also celebrate the beginning of each new season. If you aren’t lucky enough to be in Japan during one of these festivals, fear not. During the summer, department stores turn their rooftops into beer gardens. A set fee includes all you can eat and drink. Long tables are set up in beer hall fashion, and customers chant beer songs and toasts led by waitresses clad in maid uniforms. The river is also common grounds for drinking at any time of day. We particularly like to go there with fireworks in hand, as they are also legal in Japan. If this isn’t convenient enough for you, simply stop at the nearest beer and liquor vending machine and start your own party right where you stand.
Festivals that are unique to Kyoto include: Aoi Festival, during which locals offer aoi, or geraniums, to Buddha (May 15); Gion Festival, during which parades display portable shrines (July 1-31); Jidai Festival, during which parades display attire and cultural items from Japanese history (October 22); and Gozan Fire Festival, during which beds of fire are lit on the mountainsides to form kanji (August 16). We have had the chance to participate in the Gion, Jidai, and Gozan Fire Festivals, and definitely recommend them.