Just arrived in Japan and decided I’d give the dreaded happoshu beer a try. I’ve had over 1,500 different types of beers (rough estimate) over the last 10 years, so when I heard of happoshu beer I decided I’d be best to stay away. BUT…. being in Japan and being an advocate of beer I guess the curiosity in me took over.
Happoshu beer is beer that is under a certain percentage of malt. If it goes over say 67% then it goes into a new tier. The difference in price for certain happoshu to “draft” or “Nama” beer is about $3 for a 16 ounce can or $2.50 for a 12 ounce can, but a happoshu that is under a certain malt percentage is about $0.65 cents to $0.90 for a 12 ounce or $1.20 for 16 ounce can.
There is still some cheaper beers out there I’ll try next but this time, I was mildly dis-proven about how bad happoshu is and how other people hype it up…. maybe I’m just getting the decent stuff?
Nomihodai – Meaning, Etiquette and Precautions Before Ordering
Nomihodai, what does it mean and why is it so important… mostly to foreigners? Nomihodai means “All you can drink” or in Japanese the literal translation is Nomi 飲み = “Drink” and Hodai 放題 = “all you can” or sometimes called “Free Drink System”. This is a sort of option you can have with certain izakaya to bars and restaurants. There is also all you can eat (tabehodai) that at times couples with this type of promotion. From what I know of nomihodai, is that it ranges from $5 to $20 for 1 hours to 2 hours of all you can drink face wrecking fun. Now many times you have to be aware of what you’re getting into, you may think that $5 is super cheap, and I’d say you’re right, especially to sit there for 1 hour to 2 hours sucking down alcohol. But you’ll find when you visit Japan that many of these places that offer nomihodai will also have some clauses in their “Terms of Service” which you should ask about before agreeing to nomihodai.
For example, you may enter into a bar and request nomihodai, you may actually have to pay an entrance fee and it can vary from place to place, which could range from $3 to $10 depending on where you go. Now, that’s not where it stops, you will want to also ask the greeter or host/hostess about the plate minimum. Now… what is a plate minimum? A plate minimum is a requirement to order X amount of dishes while you are drinking per person (usually). But usually this shouldn’t be a problem I’d hope for most people. You’re sitting there drinking, you think you would want to eat too right? So as to not entirely punish your liver, this usually is a wise idea.
So the $5 to $20 all you can drink ends up many times for 2 people being more like $40-$50 for an all your can drink fiasco, I’d say still for 2 people to go all out and spend only say $40 to have a hell of a time and get a bite to eat is pretty cool.
Now let’s get into more nitty gritty about the infamous nomihodai!
One thing to note is if you’re planning on a night of sorrowful drinking because your ex left you, then think again, as generally nomihodai can ONLY be ordered when 2 or more people are par-taking in the fiasco of controlled liver destruction. Of course I’m sure if you REALLY wanted to slam it home, you could possibly negotiate for 1. But, the fun of nomihodai is to have that unsuspecting friend to ambush with your recent breakup. Although there are izakaya, restaurants and bars that offer nomihodai openly, there are also several places that reserve this right to people who RSVP for a larger group, just keep your eyes open.
A Few Etiquette Rules to Keep in Mind:
Foreigners usually abuse the hell out of nomihodai, with that in mind at least have the courtesy to drink your current beverage all the way first before asking for more. About 20 minutes before your time is over you’ll be given last call, don’t be rude and order 5 drinks effectively wasting the drinks because your dead drunk on the floor.
All drinking Etiquette applies here. A few rules are: Not beginning until your entire group/party is ready to sign on for the onslaught of their liver with a proud and forceful ‘KANPAI!’. So make sure you’re not holding people up! Another is pouring for others and not yourself, if you want more pour for someone else and they’ll pour for you and if you see anyone with a empty cup, be courtesy and refill their cup. But note leaving your cup full indicates your finished drinking. This is something you might want to take note of if you ever nomikai… your liver will thank you knowing this information.
Loud drunkness is not only okay, it’s promoted as long as it’s within normal means, but outrageous drunken behavior that takes the joys of nomihodai from other customers is something to avoid, if you’re a straight out crazed maniac when you drink, perhaps you should buy a six pack and stay home.
What REALLY To Be Cautious of With Nomihodai or General Izakaya/Restaurants in Japan?
Now here comes my main concern to all you Eggs out there looking to have your first izakaya, nomihodai or nomikai experience. There is something YOU MUST be aware of, there is an imposter that lurks in the darkness, claiming to be something of great value to the lives of Japan, but it’s sneaky, it’s not what it claims to be. What is this mysterious imposter?
What is happoshu you may ask? Well to shine a light from heaven on to the sin of what happoshu is, it’s simply pretend beer. What do I mean by that? I mean that it’s light beers 2nd removed cousin, and it’s not just light it’s LIGHT beer. It’s considered a diet beer many times and has been quoted by some to taste like ‘weasel urine’ (you’ll see what I mean). The reason this wannabe beer… or rather alcoholic drink exists is to avoid tax margins that are imposed by the government of Japan. By either brewing the beer with non traditional ingredients like corn, soy, rice and potato’s they can effectively sell their beer for much much less as well effectively ruin your liver twice as quickly. The rule is that if there is less then 67% malt used in the beer it can then apply for tax cuts, and if there is NO malt, it’s consider a 3rd Tier Beer, I believe imported beer can also fall into this tax cut category as it’s not brewed in Japan so they can avoid this tax altogether (don’t quote me on that though).
Who drinks 3rd Tier Beers? Find out in Tokyo Desu’s article about Japan’s Gretest Faux Beers. I believe you should get an idea of why you should avoid these beers altogether, but more importantly you’ll discover useful reasons why you would even want to drink these ‘beverages’.
So when you go out to a restaurant or izakaya, make sure you ask if they have draft beer (nama biiru). If they act funny afterward, you know it’s for sure a sign to respect the liver god has given you and carry forth to the next possible choice. To really shine a light on the horrible-ness of these beverages take a look at the general rating (if you have not already) of the fake beers at beer advocate, you’ll notice only 3 out of the 65 listed ‘beers’ have a rating of 4/5 (80%) then quickly it buckles down into the high 1’s. For the most part, they’re pretty bad. But to be fair those ‘top’ rated happoshu beers only had 1 or 2 reviews.
The idea of nomihodai was take from the ‘All you can eat’ buffet restaurant types that were inspired originally by the Swedish back in the 1950’s in Tokyo… So you can certainly play this stuff your face attitude with nomihodai, but I’d say in ending have fun but know for the majority of Japan, nomihodai is not a place to smash your face in with a beer bottle, Japanese people actually are well known to keep it to a threshold they can manage (for the most part), so enjoy yourself but just know you might get a ‘yappari’ or ‘baka gaijin’ throw your way if you make an ass of yourself.
All you really need to know about Izakaya in Japan
It’s said that the infamous izakaya of Japan are basically small (sometimes large) restaurant/bars. This is where a lot of Japan goes before they end up going home for the night. Many will either visit a izakaya before or after their last train home. This is what makes Japan so alcohol friendly, there’s no need for designated drivers as long as you jump on the last train for the night (Usually between midnight and 1am).. but if you’re drunk as hell, you might want to remember your manners on the train.
Want to impress the local Japanese with your izakaya etiquette elite skills?
Try this one: Open the door to the izakaya, enter slightly inside (mostly with just your head), and say the following “haitte mo ii desuka?” which means, “may I come in?”. Now since you’ve totally just impressed everyone, lets move on!
When you arrive at a izakaya you may hear “otsukaresama deshita!!” (You look tired and deserve a drink!) and Kanpai (cheers)! This is a great place to unwind, relax, get wasted if you so choose and enjoy a great variety of izakaya foods. It’s not solely about the drink! During the weekdays you’ll notice a lot of coworkers sitting together talking and laughing to end their day before going home, and on the weekends izakayas are a popular location for get togethers, parties and the like.
But it’s good to know when you first get there you will most likely be brought what they call a “o-tooshi tsuki-dashi” it means, “first snack, with the first drink”, and they can range from a basic cabbage mix to a bowl full of recently frozen edamame from China to a delicious seared tuna. But be sure to say something immediately if you do not want these appetizer/hors d’ourve then say “o-tooshi katto shite kudasai/お通しカットして下さい！” It means please remove or cut the appetizer. You can learn more about how to say Japanese hor d’ourves and Appetizer by reading this post.
But lets get to the good of an izakaya. What kind of foods are usually available at a izakaya in Japan?
The Top 7 Foods from Izakaya in Japan
#1: Okonomiyaki It’s usually a build your own pancake if you will, and it’s one of Japans more popular dishes believe it or not on street corners and izakaya. The Japanese meaning behind it is “as you like it”. So you can throw anything and basically everything you want into it!
Many times you’ll have cabbage, pork, fish, squid, or shrimp on the inside. The crispy and gooey meal is usually then drizzled with Kewpie mayo, blasted with some bonito flakes and layered with a bit of tonaktsu sauce!
#2: Korokke is a famous drinking appetizer in Japan at izakaya’s, it’s a fried croquette with potatoes and crabmeat.
#3: Yakitori of course is also a famous Japanese choice of appetizer and many times full meal. Yakitori is basically a skewered piece of chicken meat that it served with dipping sauce and a side of vegetables which are also skewered. You can also expect to see the skin, liver and heart of the tori (chicken) to be served as well
#4: Ikayaki is a basic type of o-tooshi (appetizer) that is a soy marinated squid (Ika) which is then grilled and sliced into pieces. It’s also a favorite street food in Japan and many street vendors will sell Ikayaki
#5: Omusubi and Onigiri are similar foods to sushi. These are basically rice, salmon, pickled plums, code or teriyaki spam or bacon wrapped in a nori (seaweed) wrap and severed with a blast of vinegar on the top.
#6: Karaage is Japanese fried chicken which is coated in potato starch which is called katakuriko. It’s a much lighter fried chicken then what most westerns are use to.
#7: Gyoza is a traditional Japanese food which is stuffed with vegetables and ground up pork meat. Gyoza is actually a potsticker, it’s a crispy meal that is covered in a sauce which is based around rice vinegar, soy and rayu which is a chile oil, this can be found in many real Chinese restaurants.
It’s great to know these izakaya will pair their food nicely with the alcohol they serve.
Izakaya Basic Etiquette
Izakayas are most of the time casual in their atmosphere, which overly means you leave the formality at the door!
#1: If you are with a group of people, it’s best to order the same drink as everyone else for the first round. Many times this will be a ‘nama biiru’ (which is a draft beer), this is normal and it’s something you will order before looking at the menu. You can ask for draft by saying ‘ Toriaezu, biiru’ (just beer for now).
#2: Using the phrase ‘Kanpi’ (cheers) before drinking and the phrase ‘itadakimasu’ (time to eat/thank you for the food) before you eat is a great way to be apart of the energy of the izakaya and to politely express that you are ready to eat.
#3: It’s considered polite to pour for others while in a group if you are drinking from bottles of sake or beer when they finish their cup, of course you can use this as a reminder for others to pour for you by pouring for them. If you are done drinking, just leave your cup full to avoid anyone else pouring for you.
#4: If you happen to be at a traditional izakaya, they may have bathrooms with bathroom only slippers. You’ll take off your shoes and use the slippers while in the bathroom, then you will take off the slippers when coming back out. It’s said that wearing the bathroom slippers out of the bathroom is one of the most embarrassing etiquette slip ups that you can make in Japan. I suppose it would be similar to have a piece of toilet paper sticking out of your shoe or pants.
You should be able to make your way around Japan and enjoy all the Izakaya you can possibly find!