Ordering Alcohol, a Guide to Becoming Japan Savvy
If you have spent a good deal of time in Japan, you are most likely aware of the friendly drinking culture here. The icons of Sake and Japanese lagers like Kirin or Asahi quickly come to mind. So what are the next steps, past “nama biru,”, toward enhancing your experiences in Japan? Understanding the menu before stepping foot in a restaurant will help you cross that language barrier as well.
1. Toriaezu Beer! (とりあえずビール)
You’ve just been seated and you’ve started looking through the menu for what potential combination of sauces, noodles, and rice you might want to order. While you may not yet be certain about what you want to eat, you know you’re thirsty. Turning to your waiter you confidently say, “toriaezu bi-ru,” which comes across as “I’ll start with a beer.”
The incantation may end right there and conclude with a glass of suds appearing before you, or it might be met with a question from the waiter inquiring, “Nama?” Nama Beer (生ビール, “Nama Bi-ru”) means draught beer. Usually Asahi, Sapporo, or Kirin. A simple “un” or “Okay,” would suffice to have your thirst quenched.
If you join an after-work Nomikai (飲み会, literally ‘drink meet’), as is very common in Japan, once the first round arrives, people will raise their glasses and say “Otsukare!” Otsukare is a phrase that doesn’t literally translate well into English but is an expression that recognizes the efforts a person, or group, have spent in their labor. Then “Otsukare” would be followed with a joyous “Kanpai!” (cheers!).
Another note about the Nomikai - if someone else has said, “Toriaezu biru,” and you would like one too, you can simply say “Ore mo,” which literally means “me too.”
But what if you are not a beer drinker? Or at a restaurant that doesn’t serve beer? You can easily substitute beer for your drink of choice: “Toriaezu mizu.” “Toriaezu kohi.” (Water and coffee, respectively.) From sushi bars to pizza joints, “Toriaezu ~” is a useful phrase that will help you fit in better with the Japanese speaking community at large and get you drinking sooner.
2. The Second Order
While it is almost expected that everyone will order a quick “Toriaezu biru,” for their first drink, your second drink might be a little telling of how Japan-savvy you are.
If you are at an Izakaya, a good place to start might be to order a High Ball. High Balls are generally a whiskey and soda water cocktail.
Another Japanese cocktail you will hear frequently is an Oolong High, which is Shochu (a Japanese liquor) mixed with Oolong tea. While they’re tasty, they carry a connotation of being a drink for people with a low alcohol tolerance.
Japanese drink menus will also include drinks labelled “Sours.” For example, a lemon sour is a mixture of lemon syrup, Shochu, and carbonated water. Similarly, a “Lemon High,” is identical aside from not mixing in carbonated water, and is a bit on the stronger side of the alcohol spectrum.
Continuing down the savvy path, if you are in a restaurant with a specialty, then you should of course order accordingly. For example, some restaurants will specialize in Sake. If you find yourself in this kind of establishment, you should definitely try the Sake. Likewise, some places will specialize in Shochu. It’s also safe to expect French and Italian restaurants to offer a wider selection of wines.
If you don’t have much experience with these drinks, you can always ask, “Osusume wa nan desu ka?” Which means, “What is your recommendation?”
3. All You Can Drink (飲み放題)
At many kind of Japanese establishments ranging from Izakaya to Karaoke, from Shabu Shabu to Yaki Niku, you can often find yourself with an all-you-can-drink menu. The way Nomihodai (all you can drink) works is you pay a set fee and can order from a select menu. This usually will include a variety of drinks, such as beer, cocktails and wine. This is a great option if you have a strong tolerance and really enjoy drinking.
However, be aware that there are two stipulations. Most of the time there is a 90 or 120-minute time limit, after which you are expected to leave the establishment. The second is that normally everyone at the table or no one at the table will choose Nomihodai – basically an all-or-nothing situation (though exceptions can occur).
When going to an unfamiliar Izakaya, if you are interested in all-you-can-drink, a good question to ask the staff is “Nomihodai arimasu ka?” Meaning, “Do you offer all you can drink?” If they say yes, then you will know just how reasonable nights out in Japan can be. Kanpai!