Hey Tokyo travellers! I’m Rhiannon and I’m a Tokyo newbie. For the next month or so I’ll be blogging about my time in Japan and, hopefully, giving you guys some pointers so that you don’t make the same mistakes I do. Make your own mistakes – it’s more fun!
One of the main things Japanese tourists want to try when they step off the plane in Tokyo is a traditional tipple. Maybe it’s a cure for jet-lag?
With all the sakes and shochus around, trying Japanese drinks can get a little confusing. Save yourself a frantic Google on the bar’s WiFi by familiarising yourself with this short list of Japanese drinks:
Bear in mind that the Japanese don’t call it ‘sake’ — indeed, ‘sake’ just means ‘alcohol’! The traditional Japanese rice wine, known in Japan as ‘nihonshu’, is a must-try, if only because it’s the most famous drink from the country. Like wine, it comes in a range of different strengths and varieties and is served both hot and cold. You’re unlikely to get it in a modern bar, but you’ll definitely find it at an upmarket sushi joint or a more traditional izakaya. Alternatively, you can buy it in a bottle from one of the many souvenir stores in stations and other locations.
Not to be confused with soju, the Korean national drink, shochu is a pure spirit which is kind of like vodka. It’s distilled from things like rice, barley and sometimes even carrots! Rumour has it that it doesn’t cause hangovers. As someone who doesn’t stick to one drink a night, I haven’t ever been able to prove or disprove that theory! Either way, it’s a great and very versatile liquor that can be mixed with anything and everything. Try it in a Lemon Sour if you’re not one for drinking straight — but be warned, as the name suggests, it’s certainly not sweet!
Back in the UK we have a long and rich history of loving pre-mixed cans. They even made national news recently when a politician was seen drinking one on a train. The Japanese versions pack a real punch and tend to come in sweet flavours like grape, peach & melon. Not technically a drink on their own, they’re made up of a mix of shochu and soda. They’re so ubiquitous, however, that they definitely deserve their own spot on the list. Just don’t accidentally buy one for your kid at the convenience store — they look just like soda cans!
Plum wine (Umeshu)
I love plum wine — although, technically, ‘umeshu’ is more of a cordial. Maybe it’s my sweet tooth, but I think it’s the most distinctive of all of Japan’s native spirits. It might turn up in cocktails, but I think its best served on its own, with ice. It’s a great summer drink and plum is a very traditional flavour in Japan. Next to cherry blossoms, plum blossoms are the most popular flowers during hanami (flower-viewing season).
As in most places across the globe, beer is incredibly popular in Japan. In fact, you’ve probably had a Japanese beer back home at some point or another. Asahi is the big one and has a distinctive taste. For something a little darker, get a can of Sapporo. Don’t just stop there, though! Craft beer is becoming more and more popular in Tokyo, with an entire Craft Beer Market near Jinboucho. Buy some unique brands here, if only for the very chic bottle designs.
This is the second time in as many blog posts that I’ve mentioned Lost in Translation… The infamous scene with Bill Murray catapulted Suntory’s Hibiki 17-Year-Old Whiskey to international fame. Unfortunately, that specific type of Suntory Hibiki was recently discontinued, making it an expensive option for any whiskey enthusiasts. If you’re after something hedonistically upmarket, try Yamazaki, but bear in mind that there are plenty of more affordable brands like Nikka & Akashi available at any good izakaya. Drink it straight (neat-o/straight-o) or on the rocks (ro-ku).
Awamori, also known as shimazakae (‘island liquor’), is unfamiliar to most foreign tourists. It’s an Okinawan sake which is actually made through distillation, making it more similar to shochu. Confused? Not to worry! Imagine it as something in between the two more famous drinks. If you manage to track it down, definitely give it a try. Okinawan food and drink definitely deserves more attention and it’s a fun thing to say you’ve had!
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give you an idea of what you want to try during your time in Tokyo.
Above all, keep an open mind. Understanding a drinking culture is about so much more than visiting bars — it’s also about embracing that nation’s booze of choice! Enjoy!
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