This is a guest post from Imogen Reed.
Drinking plays an important role in Japanese society and due to the use of local ingredients like wheat, rice, potatoes and water causing products to have an intimate link with regional climate and culture, Japanese drink production is often referred to as a process that crystallises the very character of the country (Highlighting Japan,2012).
Japan is home to some of the world’s most interesting alcoholic beverages and to a phenomenally energetic bar scene. Well known for its rice brew, Sake; Japan has a unique alcohol culture and offers many less explored drinking options and traditions such as; shochu, awamori, beer, wine, and Japanese whisky.
This makes it a perfect destination for those seeking to explore more unusual beverages, broaden their knowledge or even just integrate tasting into their annual holiday. One thing to remember is that drinking in Japan is always combined with eating food and good behaviour is a must.
Best time to visit
For those wishing to sample the countries many varieties of Sake the winter months of December to February are when Sake is brewed as the cold is essential for the brewing process.
January is also a great month to visit Japan as the breweries celebrate Kurabiraki, a Sake festival where visitors are invited for free tasting. Most of the breweries are within walking distance of each other (cntraveller, 2013) and there are a lot of Sake varieties to be explored and tasted.
How Far Would You Go For A Good Drink?
Many may view Asia as being too far to visit; however exploring Japan is now easier than ever with many of the big name cruise companies offering travellers the opportunity of a cruise to Japan to visit many of it’s nine regions. Increasing interest and popularity of the country as a tourist destination has encouraged many travel companies to start offering Japanese inspired holiday packages and experiences.
The cruise line Princess Cruises creates a truly local experience of Japan via it’s Japanese cruise programme which incorporates Japanese clientele and crew on board, traditional Japanese meals, noodle bars and sake menus.
Porting in areas such as; Kobe, Nagoya, Matsuyama, Busan and Tokyo the cruise programme offers travellers the opportunity to experience the popular wine producing region: Yamanashi Prefecture which lies just west of Tokyo as well as the famous Sake breweries which are located in the regions of Fushimi-Ku – Kyoto and Kobe.
For something a little bit different visitors can visit Yamamoto Honke and make their own Sake cups out of rakuyaki porcelain or perhaps take a trip to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum in Fushimi and see the different kinds of brewing tools and listen to ancient brewing songs.
More Than Just Sake
As well as it’s famous Sake (called nihonshu in Japanese because sake merely means alcohol), Japan offers a wide variety of Whiskies, Beers and wines. However perhaps of bigger interest are the countries more unusual beverage choices, which are all widely available and can be sampled in various bars and restaurants across the regions.
- Happoshu : Happoshu (meaning “sparkling alcohol”) is a relatively new invention by Japanese brewing companies (Japan-guide, 2013). It has a similar flavour and alcohol content as beer but is made with less malt.
- Third beer : “Third beer” (known as “Shin Janru” or “Daisan”) is the most recent development in the Japanese beer industry and contains no malt, instead it is made using pea, soya, or wheat spirits (Trends in Japan, 2005).
- Shochu, Awamori: A distilled spirit it is commonly made from one of the following; rice, sweet potatoes, wheat or sugar cane. It is usually served mixed with water, ice, fruit juice and sparkling water, though the most common versions are with cold water or hot water. The alcoholic content is usually 25%, although sometimes it can be as high as 42% or more (Sake-World, 2013). Awamori, from Okinawa, is the strongest version of this drink.
- Chuhai : Chuhai (shortened from “shochu highball”) is the Japanese version of an alcopop. These fruit-flavored drinks are available in flavours such lemon, ume (plum), peach, grapefruit and lime (Japan – guide, 2013).
- Highball Whiskey : Often simply called highball, is a carbonated drink made of whiskey and soda water. Popular with young people it has placed its position in the market as ‘the cool drink’ (CNN, 2009).
- Plum wine : (Umeshu) is made of Japanese plums, sugar, and shochu or nihonshu. Its sweet, fruity, juice-like flavour and aroma appeals to those who normally dislike alcohol (Japan – guide, 2013).
A Unique Approach To Alcohol
Japan has a unique approach to the sale of alcohol and is the only country in the world where it is sold in vending machines; which can be found all over cities, towns and even the countryside.
The country has a relaxed approach to alcohol. It is perfectly legal to walk down the street drinking and being drunk carries less of a social stigma than other countries. However the laws on drink driving are extremely strict and the countries legal age for drinking, 20 is higher than average.
Keeping Up With Traditions
Japan is well known for having strong traditions and the subject of drinking brings with it it’s own specific etiquette. Travellers are encouraged to make themselves aware of the countries drinking etiquette so as not to cause offence.
It is customary to serve one another, rather than serving yourself because pouring your own drink is seen as being lonely and without friends.
Replenish your friends’ glasses before they are empty. If someone wants to serve you, you should drink to make room if your glass is full,
Hold up your glass for the person while they pour,then take at least one drink before putting the glass down.
At the beginning of a meal or drinking party do not start drinking until everybody at the table is served and the glasses are raised for a toast, which is usually “kampai” meaning cheers.
It is considered bad manners to become obviously drunk in formal restaurants however it is ok in some types of bars such izakaya as long as you do not bother other guests.
These customs apply to everyone in your party even if they are not drinking alcohol, although visiting Japan and not tasting at least one of many alcohol experiences could be viewed as a very wasted journey!