A different side of Japan
How to Party like a Local
An In-depth Guide to a Good Night out in Japan
No trip to Japan is complete without sampling the country’s legendary nightlife. From banging nightclubs to hole-in-the-wall style local bars, Japan’s major cities have more than enough to keep you entertained until dawn. In comparison to major cities in the west, the sheer number of options can truly seem overwhelming.
Those who have visited Japan in the past may have noticed that the average Japanese city-dwellers go out a lot more than their Western counterparts. There are a number of reasons for this practice; understanding the why is crucial to appreciating the variety of options. The following list is by no means exhaustive yet sheds some light on several reasons why large cities like Tokyo have so many drinking establishments.
In Tokyo, it is quite common to go out drinking after work. Of course, this doesn’t mean just Friday night either; weekdays are still fair game and especially so if it is the boss or a client’s request. If you’re interested in reading up on boozing etiquette, I have a separate guide that you can check out.
Home gatherings are extremely rare in the inner city. Limited residential space, coupled with a lack of soundproofing, means having guests over is frowned upon. For these reasons, the best way to avoid noise complaints is to take the gathering elsewhere like one of Japan’s numerous drinking establishments.
On a similar note, many apartments in Japan are the size of shoe boxes (especially in Tokyo). This means that even if someone wanted to host a home party, chances are high that they lack available space. Besides, the constant challenges of living in such cramped quarters leaves people itching to get out of their rooms.
Believe it or not, some people in Japan don’t work the Monday to Friday workweek! The image of Japanese workers as office employees is just a myth. The truth is that there are whole cohorts of people performing a wide variety of jobs. Some industries have standardized days off which do not fall on weekends. Hair stylists, for example, typically are off work on Tuesdays. This means that Monday nights can sometimes be a decent draw for party-goers.
Contrary to what you might think, a night out on the town in Japan can be very affordable. Unlike in some other countries, enjoying yourself need not be all about popping bottles and racking up credit card debt. It is possible to go out frequently and not end up flat broke! Back when I use to DJ, I’d often go out 2–3 times per week but never spent over USD 300 during a whole month.
Now that we’ve covered some reasons why many Japanese seem to always be out drinking, let’s take a quick look at some best practices. Keep these pointers in mind while planning your adventures to help avoid the common pitfalls.
Bring cash, lots of cash! Many venues do not accept credit cards. Cash is standard and definitely a safer bet if you plan on drinking heavily. Many izakaya do not issue separate checks either so if you are splitting the bill with your group everyone usually puts in cash. Come prepared.
Popular izakaya and karaoke rooms get crowded on weekends and around public holidays. If possible, make a reservation. Without a reservation in hand be prepared to wait in line for a while or consider walking around to scout out alternative options.
Japan’s nightlife is largely synced with that of the train schedules. What one considers “late” in much of North America and many other countries is still “early” by Japan standards. If you’re going for a night out on the town, it’s best to plan to stay out until the first train at around 5 AM unless you stay nearby.
Almost all nightclubs have a discount entrance fee system that few travelers know about. It takes some advance planning but it can save you a considerable amount of money. This process will be covered in detail below.
Dress appropriately! Very few places have strict dress codes but if you are sporting tattoos then be prepared to cover them. This policy isn’t just for nightclubs as some izakaya, restaurants, bars, or karaoke rooms may ask you to cover them as well. Most nightclubs forbid beach sandals. Men’s shorts, open-toe shoes, and tank tops are also no-nos!
Clubs typically allow jeans, sneakers, and T-shirts. A button-down white shirt is NOT a good idea for most nightclubs. If you are going out after work, it would be best to change clothes before going out. Additionally, the “backpacker” look is not particularly good for nightclubs here either. Clean, stylish, casual looks or trendy street fashion styles are generally the safest option.
In addition to the above, be wary of street touts. Most are fine, but there are some scams out there. Chain izakaya and karaoke street touts are usually up-front about the pricing system. Some nightclub touts will hand out discounted entry passes. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the more dubious izakaya have staff hustling for customers. They may offer what seems like a great deal on all-you-can-drink but there is usually a catch and they are not always honest or up-front about it.
It’s not unusual to encounter street touts outside major stations such as Shinjuku and Shibuya. In Roppongi, sketchy looking staff from foreign-owned bars often try to aggressively persuade customers to enter. If someone follows you down the street pestering you to come to their bar, that should be enough of a red flag to stay clear.
If you’re going to have a long night, it’s best to have a decent amount of food in your belly first. Most Japanese nights out start with drinks and a meal at an izakaya. These restaurants are Japanese-style drinking establishments that serve a variety of a la carte dishes as well. The food can range from your standard edamame and grilled fish to more adventurous selections such as raw horse or even raw chicken.
Often times, the more hip izakayas will sport menus revolving around a certain theme. For example, some specialize in their sake and shochu selections whereas others may revolve around regional cuisine. There’s even apizza themed izakaya that I’ve stumbled across in Roppongi! While you can always wing it, doing a bit of research can go a long way here.
With only a handful of exceptions, prices typically fall within affordable ranges. Also, most izakaya have a “seating charge” called an otoshi that is actually a small dish you are served upon seating. Note that some budget izakaya do not have seating charges but also do not accept reservations. It’s first-come, first-serve, and as a result, you may find yourself waiting in line.
One of the best budget izakaya is Torikizoku. This spot is the epitome of “balling on a budget” and specializes in chicken-based dishes. Almost everything on the menu is roughly 300 yen and there is no seating charge. If you can’t find yourself a Torikizoku other popular budget izakaya include Ikkenme and Kin no Kura.
If it’s still “early” in the evening (as in, before midnight) consider hopping over to a bar. Tokyo and Osaka have all kinds of bars, from major chains to tiny hole-in-the-wall joints. Many bars have a theme; some are British pub style, others are rock music bars, and some have DJs spinning house music.
Most Japanese cities have no shortage of bars to try out. Some have seating charges and others do not. Bars with no seating charge usually have a sign at the door indicating so. Major chains such as The Hub do not have seating charges except for their Asakusa location which has live jazz music. Generally, expect most bars with musical performances to have a sit-down charge.
Tachinomiya are a special kind of bar well suited for the budget drinker. The drinks are cheap here and there is no charge if you choose not need to sit down. The number of tachinomiya in Tokyo seems to be declining but Tatsuichi in Shibuya is a reliable mainstay. In Osaka, head over to Ame-mura for the best bar-hopping. The establishments in this area also tend to be foreigner-friendly.
If budget is less of a concern, you could even consider trying a hostess or host club for an “only-in-Japan” experience. Fully delving into this world of ostentation is outside the scope of this article nor is it something I’m interested in writing about. If you’d like to try one of these venues, I suggest doing a fair bit of research in Google first.
The last trains of the night are ending nevertheless Tokyo nightlife is just beginning to blossom!
It’s time to head over to the clubs. Most nightclubs remain open until as late as 6:00AM. Japanese patrons normally show up around 12:30 to 1:30 AM and stay until closing time. If you go to a club too early, you’ll likely see mostly tourists there. Don’t get discouraged if you enter a club before midnight and it’s empty though. This is fairly normal for Tokyo. Osaka clubs, on the other hand, tend to get off to a slightly earlier start than the Tokyo clubs.
Japanese clubs usually do not allow re-entry without paying a cover charge again. They also do not let you inside for a peek before paying or refund entrance fees. Bringing in outside drinks or food is also not allowed. If you want to bring in camera equipment, you will need to get permission in advance. This may seem like common sense stuff but it is not unusual to see foreign travelers bickering with club staff over these points.
Shibuya, Aoyama, and Roppongi are practically overflowing with clubs to choose from. Instead of rolling up randomly, it’s best to plan ahead. Use sites such as iFlyer to search events. Find ones that suit your musical tastes and location. You only need to buy pre-sale tickets on rare occasions. In most cases, you can get better discounts via discount list.
What is discount list, and how do you get on it? Glad you asked…
The dark truth about Tokyo’s nightlife is that DJs and event staff are responsible for filling a customer quota. To encourage customers to RSVP for an event a lucrative discount is offered in exchange. Discount lists are so common that almost all Japanese clubbers know about it and use it. All you need to do is check the event line-up and see who the DJs are. Try to find some of them on Facebook or Twitter. The headliners/guest DJ are not likely to respond but support DJs will be happy to do so. Send them a message or a tweet, and ask for discount list for their event. Give your name and number of people. Voila! More than likely, they will hook you up. Just give them enough advance notice before the club opens. Some clubs cut off their discount list registration early.
Tokyo clubs are generally NOT about VIP seats or popping bottles. Most people buy drinks by the glass or as shots. You won’t see much seating or tables in the bigger Japanese clubs. If the music is good, you will see packed dance floors though. Techno, drum n’ bass, and trance are long mainstays in Tokyo’s club scene. Because of the large population, innumerable niche genres can also be found if you look hard enough. There will often be major international guest DJs on the weekends at the popping clubs but the established local acts are of top-tier quality as well. Japan is home to a number of internationally renowned electronic music artists featuring techno, trance, and hard dance.
Commercial sounding clubs are also abundant. Mainstream EDM and hip-hop are not difficult to come across. Many of the mainstream venues are discos rather than clubs though. What’s the difference between a disco and a club? I’ll give you a hint; it’s not the throwback to the 1970’s that you have in mind. As with other words, Japan will often import English vocabulary but then fall short on updating the nuances as times change.
Put simply, a Japanese “disco” is less about dancing and more about meeting people of the opposite sex. Dancing DOES happen but for most patrons it’s not the main purpose. It’s just something that happens once everyone is really drunk. The music is usually commercial/open-format. Yet, some Roppongi discos actually do play classic hits from the 80’s and 90’s.
The customers at discos are generally not what you think of as “clubbers.” They’re usually office workers going out after work. For this reason, discos in Roppongi and Ginza are apt to be more crowded on Fridays than Saturdays. Some discos go all night while others close by last train. Pricing is usually significantly more expensive for men than for women. There is often free entry for women during early hours. At normal clubs, there is usually no price difference based on gender except during special events.
Some “clubs” in Shibuya also more closely resemble discos than actual clubs. The key difference in Shibuya is that they cater to a younger crowd than Roppongi or Ginza. In Shibuya, apparel staff are sometimes more predominant than office workers. The music leans heavily towards commercial EDM and some examples of such venues are Camelot, TK Shibuya, and Atom. Camelot is the most foreigner-friendly. They usually offer free or heavily discounted entry fees for foreigners.
Most Osaka “clubs” in Higashi-Shinsaibashi and Umeda areas are actually more akin to discos as well. What’s more, these venues are mostly all owned by the same parent company and occasionally offer special club-hoping deals to multiple venues. On the other side of Shinsaibashi, many clubs in Ame-Mura offer free entry for foreigners.
Finally, one more major difference between clubs and discos. It is not unusual at all for people to go to clubs by themselves in Tokyo. Many regular clubbers prefer to go alone because they know they will have many acquaintances also going to the event. Discos on the other hand, usually feel awkward if you are alone. You’d do much better to bring along a few friends to share the adventure.
Musical tastes differ between Tokyo and Western Japan (including Osaka). In Tokyo, techno and underground genres are consistently strong. Osaka and Western Japan on the other hand lean more towards hip-hop but EDM is also popular. Nowadays, Osaka has relatively few places for underground music. Circus Osaka is one of the few keeping the torch lit while their Tokyo branch is flourishing simultaneously.
Drugs are not particularly prevalent in Japan’s club scene in general. High costs aside, the risks of getting caught are just not worth it. Japan doles out harsh penalties for drug offenses, even for marijuana. If you’re not keen on checking out what a Japanese jail looks like, just don’t do drugs!
After dancing the night away, you still have plenty of fun options remaining. For those beginning to feel fatigued, a popular local favorite is to head for some post-club ramen before catching your train home. Ramen is the meal of choice for people who have been drinking all night. It surely isn’t healthy, especially after drinking, but it does cut down on hangovers.
If you’re still itching to dance or enjoy music though, I recommend that you head over to an after party! R-Lounge in Shibuya often holds after-hours events on weekends. That said, Oath and Tent in Aoyama are the most reliable spots for after-hours goodness. Just remember things start to get weird the longer you stay out after the first train.
If you’re with a big group of friends, the perfect way to keep the party going is to hit up Karaoke. Not only does it keep you off the streets, Karaoke is a great way to bond with friends. Some places even offer significantly lower rates for rooms after 5:00 or 6:00 AM so be sure to look for the best deals.
Heading home drunk or exhausted on public transport can be a real walk of shame. Do not ride the train if you are feeling nauseous. Any long-term Tokyo resident has definitely witnessed the consequences that are bound to happen. Trust me, they aren’t pretty. On the same note, do not ride in a taxi if you feel nauseous either. If you vomit in a taxi, you will be charged a cleaning fee. If you are too drunk or exhausted to safely go home by yourself then rest-up at an internet cafe for a few hours. Most cafes even have shower rooms where you can freshen up.
It’s easy to tell how safe Tokyo’s streets are by the number of drunk people passed out on them. Nobody robs them or causes them physical harm. However, passing out drunk in the streets still isn’t something I recommend. It’s certainly not clean or comfortable and let’s not forget, embarrassing. You may still have your wallet when you wake up but probably not your dignity. When alcohol is involved, get to know your personal limit. A night out should be fun and end on a high note. Try not to drink yourself into a stupor while it’s still “early” by Japanese standards, you will not last the whole night.
If you are sober enough to go home by yourself, just be careful not to fall asleep and miss your stop. Nevertheless, this happens to the best of us sometimes, Japanese included. Just try not to wake up unexpectedly in a far-away location like Atami or Narita Airport!