I was going to start this article with some patter about the nightlife in Roppongi, how you can’t do it every night, etc. But I decided that was a lousy opener. I’ve lived in Tokyo for close to twenty years now, and I can count the number of times I’ve had a drink in Roppongi on one hand with fingers left over. What would I know about that sort of thing? Stick with what you know, I say.
And here’s what I know–I hate techno. I hate strobe lights. I don’t really care for loud music and I’m two decades past my prime years on the dating scene (and my wife would be rather angry if I tried to re-enter it).
But I do like a nice quiet drink now and then. I like to have a beer or two after work and chit-chat with whoever else is feeling talkative. Maybe have some edamame while watching the news with the bartender. So I go to bars in my neighborhood.
Becoming a Regular at a Japanese Bar: Finding the Right Spot
If you’re going to be in Japan for a long time, you want to become a regular at a Japanese bar. Neighborhood bars are not just great places to relax, but also a way to meet your neighbors and stay connected with your community. It could end up being like that one place on TV, where everyone knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. Or at least they won’t stare as much.
Becoming a regular at a Japanese bar isn’t just a matter of showing up, though. There’s a few extra steps in becoming socially acceptable at your neighborhood watering hole.
Not Japanese Enough
Let’s just get this out of the way. A neighborhood Japanese bar is for the people who live in that neighborhood. They aren’t necessarily unfriendly, but they don’t exactly welcome outsiders, either. They may not even advertise that they are a bar. You might get nothing but a kanji sign or, at best, some katakana for “snack.”
Also know this–they might not let you in. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for three years now, and have been known there even longer. But that’s irrelevant. I still can’t go into some bars that are right next to my house. So when you open the door, the owner/bartender might give you the big X sign with their arms. What do you do then?
Just go away. There are other bars. Don’t force your way in, don’t complain. Just nod and leave. Even if you are somehow able to assert your “right” to be there, no one will ever be comfortable with the situation. That’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the other patrons. Besides, there are plenty of places where you will be welcome!
As with everything else, first impressions count. The first time you go to a neighborhood Japanese bar, try to go with someone who is already a regular patron. A decent regular patron, not someone who makes an ass of himself there on a regular basis. This is the easiest way to go about it.
But you might not know anyone, so you’ll have to go by yourself. If you make the cold approach, be aware that they are going to freak out a little. The party bars of Roppongi and the touristy places outside of Shinagawa Station might be used to foreigners, but the staff in a neighborhood bar are going to freeze like a deer in the headlights. You know that scene in the Western movies, where the good guy goes in the bad guy bar? The music stops, and everyone turns to stare at him? Yeah, that’s probably what is going to happen.
At this point, it’s good to know at least a little Japanese. You’re going to want to be able to order a beer, at minimum. So sit down and order your first one. They’ll bring it to you, nervously. They don’t necessarily think you’re going to get drunk and tear up the place (though the possibility is probably in the back of their mind). They’re just nervous because they don’t know any English, and you might say something to them in English, and they will be embarrassed because they don’t understand, etc. This is fine. Beer and money speak universal languages.
Everyone Calms Down
After the initial shock of having a non-Asian foreigner sitting in their bar, everyone will settle down. This is the time for you to relax and enjoy your beer. Be nice. Watch TV. Give them time to get over it.
They’ll probably give you a small snack. Sometimes you’ll recognize it (peanuts, pretzels), and sometimes you won’t (some seaweed goop concoction, unidentifiable vegetables). Just eat it. Now’s not the time to be picky. You’re trying to make friends here!
Curiosity will eventually get the better of them. They’ll probe your Japanese ability. And despite what they think, they do know some English. Some from school, some by absorption from TV and Hollywood dramas. Finally, something you can thank TV for! So be ready, because they’re going to come out with the following topics-
- What is your name?
- Where are you from?
- Are you (fill in nationality here)?
If you know some Japanese, this is a good time to start showing it off. Even if you aren’t past the cat-dog-my-name-is stage, they’ll compliment you. And thus, a beautiful friendship is born.
Everyone Warms Up
After a bit, someone will break out the karaoke. This is your chance to shine.
In a neighborhood Japanese bar, the karaoke is usually free. It’s not a karaoke box, so don’t ask for it. Wait for someone to offer it to you, especially if no one is singing right now. Don’t worry–there is a stereotype that all English speakers sing really well. Someone will eventually ask if you want to give the English catalog a try.
One thing many karaoke beginners don’t know is that just because you like a song doesn’t mean you can sing it. You have to find something suitable for your voice. I have a Midwestern American accent, which goes well with southern rock bands. Your accent may make you more suitable for something else. But if all else fails, do Johnny Cash. Anyone can do Johnny Cash.
Other points of Japanese bar karaoke etiquette are as follows–
- Don’t sing along with a Japanese singer unless they ask you to. Sing-alongs were pretty common the last time I was in the US, but in Japan it’s time to let someone live their singing star dreams. Don’t worry–someone will get around to asking you to duet something. Many Japanese people have a favorite English song, even if they only know the chorus.
- Always clap along with the song and applaud the singer when the song is over. It’s just good manners.
- Don’t hog the mike! Order one song and pass the song selector around.
- If you know enough Japanese to sing a Japanese song, do it! There is no better icebreaker. Even if you don’t know the difficult kanji, give it a try. Japanese people love this.
A Bottle of Your Very Own
To be fair, you’re going to have to do all of the above steps a few times. You have to come around more than once in order for people to get used to you. You’re just going to be that foreign guy or gal for awhile. But with a little karaoke and a few rounds of drinks, you’ll be doing fine.
That’s when you do the coup de grace of becoming a regular. You buy your own bottle.
In Japanese bars, a patron can buy a bottle of booze from the house. Sometimes it’s good whisky, sometimes it’s cheap Korean rotgut gin. Hey, you’ll have to decide what you’re going to tolerate.
You buy the bottle by saying, “Blah blah blah.” I don’t know. I did it by saying “bottle ga kaitai-n desuga” (“I’d like to buy a bottle”). It’s up to you how you’re going to do it. Let your language proficiency be your guide.
The bottle fee might seem kind of pricey, but there’s a good back-end to this deal. You’re a regular now! When you come in, they’ll greet you by name and bring your your bottle, along with ice, a glass, and whatever else you need. Instead of paying by the glass, you’ll be paying by the hour.
After you buy your bottle, the owner will give you a grease pencil. The idea is that you write your name on the bottle (bonus points if you can do it in katakana), maybe along with a message (my favorite is “hands off!” in English). You can also decorate your bottle to personalize it. This is not strictly necessary, but a lot of people like to do it. I was in the US Navy, so my bottles are decorated with Navy challenge coins. Other people use whatever else they can loop around a bottle neck.
Having a bottle is also a great way to share drinks with other patrons. Make friends by pouring a glass for your barstool neighbor. It keeps the conversation going!
Other Good Reasons to Become a Regular in a Neighborhood Japanese Bar
- Even if you’re only going to live there for a short while, it is a good way to get to know your neighbors.
- You can make friends. Maybe the patrons have interests other than drinking! It’s been known to happen.
- Neighbors gossip. That’s what bars are for. You can get a lot of interesting intel about your neighborhood and the people in it.
- Someone is more likely to think of you in the event of an emergency. That foreign guy lives nearby! He might need help!
- Going to a Japanese bar is cheaper than taking Japanese language lessons. Think about it! A one-hour lesson could cost 2000 to 3000 yen. A couple of beers costs about 1600 yen per hour (depending on where you go), and you get to talk with real people about common interests instead of with someone who is going off of a lesson plan. Not only will your language skills improve, what you learn will be more relevant to your daily existence. No one is every going to ask you about the different ways to say “snow” or have you to describe the last book you read or ask you to write a 600-character sakkabun about your favorite historical figure. You’ll probably learn all of the right words for baseball or all of the grammar you need for regular conversation, though.
And that’s all there is to it! So pluck up some courage, pick a bar, and go settle in. Don’t forget to pass the karaoke, and be sure to buy a bottle once you are able!