Sake, Beer, and Other Drinks

Alcohol is part of the Japanese culture, so much so that you can buy whiskey from vending machines. Though sake (which is also the generic term for alcohol) and Japanese beers are familiar to Westerners, there is a range of other Japanese alcoholic beverages you might encounter, not to mention the widest, strangest range of soft drinks/sports drinks/interesting drinks known on the planet. Tokyo makes vending machine technology seem exciting again.

Most restaurants serve Japanese beers (these are excellent), green tea, and sake. However, it’s interesting to note that one of the most popular beers in Japan seems to be Guinness stout (many restaurants feature¬†huge¬†mugs of plastic Guinness in their food displays). Guinness has become so popular that most of the Japanese brewing companies have started making their own stout (or super dark) beers.

Since we can’t cover all options, we’ll stick with adult-oriented beverages.

Awamori

Awamori is Japanese via Okinawa. Made of distilled rice, the drink differs from brewed sake. Awamori is traditionally aged. The older the awamori, the mellower the flavor.

Beer

Beer is cheap, easy-to-find, and excellent quality. Though Americans are likely most familiar with the lighter Japanese beers, they run the gamut in styles from a pale ale to a rich Guinness-like brew. Japanese beer is ideally suited for the cuisine. Top brewers include Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, and Sapporo. Imported beers are also available.

Beer gardens and pubs have increased in popularity. The gardens generally appear in warmer weather on the roofs of department stores. Pubs, like the Lion Beer hall (where we sent a Planet Tokyo operative), recreate the traditional pub experience with a twist.

Happoshu

The closest analogy we can find for happoshu is a sparkling beer. Though it has the same alcohol content as beer, less malt is used in the brewing process. As a result, happoshu is generally less expensive than beer. Happoshu is brewed by the major beer-brewing companies.

Rice Wine (Seishu, Nihonshu, or Sake)

Seishu, also known as nihonshu or sake, is a rice alcohol. Sake is enjoyed hot or cold, with quality ranging from so-so to very good. There are several big producers of sake and many smaller, regional producers. Sake has an alcohol content similar to wine.

Wine

Though some wine is made in Japan, grape-based wines are generally imported. Wine bars are trendy, though American tourists may find the prices on the high side. If you prefer the domestic product, there are a few major producers, mostly centered in the Yamanashi region.

Umeshu, the traditional Japanese plum wine, remains very popular. Its sweetness makes it suitable for aperitifs or dessert.

Shochu

Shochu, like sake, is indigenous to Japan. Shochu, distilled with bases of rice, sugar cane, sweet potatoes, or buckwheat, features a high alcohol content. The flavor of shochu varies with the ingredients, ranging from earthy to light. Flavored drinks, called chuhai, are based on shochu, but contain far less alcohol.

Western Alcohol

All of your favorites are available in Japan, though we did encounter some strange recipes for margaritas. Imported items come with comensurate prices, so be aware of costs.

Rice

The staple of Japanese cuisine, rice is generally eaten with every meal. It is prepared in a manner that makes it sticky enough to be easily maneuvered with chopsticks. Rice is the basis of sushi and often eaten for breakfast. Rice can also be included in soups served at the end of meals such as shabu-shabu.

Rice may also serve as the base for other dishes. Kamameshi is a popular rice casserole dish made with meats and vegetables. Onigiri are rice balls (or shaped rice cakes, depending on how you view them) filled with salty or sour ingredients (differentiating the rice from the sweeter sushi). Sekihan derives its red color from azuki beans and is seen as a celebratory dish.

Donburi are single dish meals of steamed rice and various toppings. Tonkatsu, chicken, beef, eggs, and vegetables are used to flavor the rice dish.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki are savory pancakes filled with meat, fish, and vegetables (not always at the same time. Diners choose their ingredients much in the way toppings for pizza are chosen. The chosen ingredients are often cooked right at the table. First-timers at okonomiyaki restaurants will find it helpful to watch other diners for guidance — learning to flip the pancake and gauging doneness take some experience. Restaurant staff are often willing to help newcomers. For those on a budget, okonomiyaki are filling and inexpensive.

Oden

The return of oden stalls is the hallmark of the Fall season. These outdoor restaurants feature fish cakes and other ingredients such as tofu. Often located near train stations, oden stalls offer hot, fast food and cold beer. Oden dining represents the epitome of casual dining.

If you’re looking for a more formal experience with a wider range of choices, try an oden restaurant. In addition to the traditional fish dumplings, a variety of vegetables is also available. Our first experience in a true Japanese restaurant was oden, and while we nervously placed ourselves in the hands of our waiter, we were soon happy that we had (although to this day, we maintain that the staff kept yelling out that the gaijin wanted another beer — which was not far from the truth).

Noodles

You can buy noodles on just about every street corner in Tokyo. Shops serve a variety, including soba (buckwheat noodles served hot or cold), udon (fat, white noodles), ramen (actually these are Chinese noodles, but still very popular in Japan), yakisoba (fried noodles), or somen (cold summer noodles). Noodle shops are great for quick meals and are generally inexpensive.

Noodles serve as the basis for dishes such as yakisoba (though the noodles resemble ramen more than soba), which is a friend noodle dish containing meats and vegetables. Noodles also make an appearance in sukiyaki and other dishes.

Nabemono

Nabe is old-style cooking consisting of a stew served in its pot. In restaurants, nabemono is generally prepared on the spot, with diners adding ingredients to the broth. The stew is made from a variety of ingredients. The stews can be flavored with chicken, beef, fish, shellfish, and a variety of vegetables. The quick cooking process ensures that the ingredients retain their flavor.

Diners serve themselves from a communal pot, making the nabe experience ideal for groups. Ingredients are generally added in the order of cooking length (meats first, herbs last).

Kaiseki

This expensive cuisine appeals to highly aesthetic diner. Meals are modelled on the four seasons, and the consumer is treated to many small dishes, each involving much time and skill, that evoke a particular time of year. Kaiseki meals are generally served as “set” menus, although some restaurants serve mini-kaiseki for lunch.

Kaiseki was traditionally a light meal served with tea, though it has evolved into a more elaborate dining process. Traditional kaiseki is strictly vegetarian, though meat and fish may now be included. The experience of kaiseki dining does not stop with the food — everything from garnish to serving pieces are chosen to enhance the the senses. Kaiseki restaurants generally require reservations.

Fugu

Often served as sashimi, fugu is possibly the most exotic and dangerous food known to the world. If not properly prepared, it really can cause death (an episode of the The Simpsons provided a public service by alerting its fans to the inherent dangers of fugu). The most toxic parts of the fish are treated as hazardous waste.

Fugu chefs in Japan are strictly licensed and highly trained to prevent accidents (in other words, don’t try this at home), so fugu offered in restaurants is safe for consumers. Though true connoisseurs can appreciate subtle flavors of the fish, many find it bland. That being said, some highly trained chefs include a tiny bit of the toxin when they serve fugu. The toxin will create a prickly, numb feeling on the tongue. Fugu is forbidden to the Emperor of Japan, for obvious reasons.

Curry

Curry took a roundabout route to Japan, traveling from India to Britain back to Japan. Beef, chicken, and vegetable curries now comprise a staple part of the Japanese diet. Indian restaurants are easily found throughout Tokyo, though we found the heat a little less than we were accustomed to. This is a common practice with many spicy foods imported into Japan.

Bento

Bento are box lunches. Fast, easy and cheap. What more could you ask for after wandering the streets of Tokyo? The ingredients in bento vary greatly (some have sushi, some have pickles, etc.), and most bento stands will offer a wide variety, so it usually isn’t difficult to find a combination you’ll enjoy.

While bento boxes in all their lacquered glory are available at many restaurants, to-go meals are easy-to-find. This allows visitors to Tokyo to enjoy lunch in the park. Bento generally follow a standard of four parts rice, three parts main dish (meat or fish), two parts vegetable, and one part pickles or dessert. One caution about bento on hot days: make sure the ingredients are well-cooked or covered. Raw items should be consumed with caution unless the meal is prepared immediately before consumption.