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 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 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.