So you've had your fill of sushi and now you want to finish off your first night in Tokyo with some masterfully crafted cocktails to combat the jetlag. After countless neon signs you've managed to find a place that seems to be a cocktail bar. Or is it?
You stand in front of the door, hesitant to enter. Despite everything your guidebook tells you about how you can point at wax models outside to order, that's obviously not happening here. There's no menu, no prices, no hours of operation, and certainly nobody welcoming you inside. Do they even speak English?
Although everything in Tokyo and Japan may seem exotic and foreign, when it comes to cocktail bars, you've probably already been to a place with the same setup. However, I've made the answers to these common questions especially detailed for those readers who have limited experience drinking at more formal bars.
Welcome to the Tokyo Bar FAQ
Sometimes it’s not very obvious if that hole-in-the-wall you’ve stumbled upon is even open. Sometimes it’s not even obvious it’s actually a bar. Generally, if there’s a light illuminated the sign, entrance, etc. then yes they’re open. If you still can’t figure it out, just try to open the door (don’t bother knocking), assuming there isn’t some requirement to use a doorbell or intercom. If the door is locked, you have your answer. If you go inside and there’s no staff and the place looks closed, you still have your answer. If it’s late and you’re not sure how much longer the bar will remain open, just ask the staff what time they’re open till. Most likely you’ll get an answer what time their last order is, and most places will remain open 30-60 minutes after that.
This really depends on the bar. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and despite the fact that you’re at an after-hours bar in Kinshicho, the staff is fully fluent in English and you have no problems whatsoever. However as a rule of thumb, the more famous a bar is, the higher chance you have that they’re used to dealing with non-Japanese speakers. Of course hotel bars are by far the safest bet here, but if you are just going to drink at your hotel, you probably wouldn’t have come to this site. Right?
Even if you speak no Japanese at all, don’t worry. Hop on over to the Japanese Bar Phrasebook and start gettin’ your Japanese on.
Depending on how many staff are on duty and whether or not there are other customers, you may be ushered to a specific seat. The bartender may also ask you to take any seat you like. You also may be asked if they can take your jacket and/or umbrella.
It’s important to note here that cocktail bars in Japan are structured more like restaurants, i.e. the staff considers the bar full if all the seats are taken. There may or may not be space to stand, but either way, everyone must have a seat. The concept of a seat doesn’t go away just because there isn’t a physical seat — even standing bars may be considered full when the standing seats are full.
The answer lies in how many are in your party.
- Alone: Always sit at the bar
- 2 people: Unless you really need a table for some reason, sit at the bar. You’ve probably come to see the bartender work his or her magic anyway.
- 3 people: Take a table if there’s one available. If not, sit at the bar.
- 4+ people: Always take a table. Even if there are that many seats available at the bar, it’s unlikely you’ll be offered them — groups of 4+ sitting in a row means those at the ends will have to be louder to be heard.
Although tipping does not exist in Japan, you may find yourself charged for things you didn’t actually order. Below is a list of the kinds of charges that bars may add to your bill.
Otōshi: Otōshi is a small dish served upon ordering your first alcoholic drink. There charge is typically 200-500 yen per person, and at cocktail bars the dish is generally some sort of bar food like nuts, olives, or smoked ham. Technically speaking it’s within your legal rights to decline the otōshi but it’s also within the bar’s legal rights to not serve you as a result. Some bars, recognizing that otōshi doesn’t exist outside Japan, will directly ask non-Japanese customers if they want otōshi or not. This is of course up to you, but since they’re the ones asking, this shouldn’t impact the quality of service you receive.
Seating charge: This is essentially an upgraded version of otōshi and tends to be charged by higher end bars. The costs can run as high as 2000 yen per person. The dish you receive in turn should be of higher quality. Generally, the menu will indicate what the seating charge is, if applicable.
Service charge: If you’re charged this — the menu or signage should indicate — it will be a percentage of your bill, typically 10%. Don’t think of this as a tip for your particular bartender or service staff though; this is just extra revenue for the bar.
Late night charge: If you’re staying past 11:30PM you could find this added to your bill. Like the above service charge, the menu or signage should indicate. This will likely be expressed as a percentage as well, potentially in addition to the service charge. When in doubt just ask for clarification.
Music charge: If there’s live music, there could also be a music charge on your bill. Unlike the other charges listed above, the staff will let you know directly if this is to be charged. Pay attention since it could cost quite a lot.
After you’re seated, the bartender of staff will take your order and help you through the menu. It could be a few minutes if the bar is busy, but don’t worry, they haven’t forgotten or ignored you because you’re a gaijin. You don’t need to get up, wave, yell, hold some bills in your hand, or anything of the sort. Just wait! If there’s clearly something amiss, then a simple sumimasen is the most appropriate way to get immediate attention from the staff.
Feel free to order from the menu if they have one and you’re capable. But depending on what kind of experience you’re after, this might not be the best way to order given that bar menus tend to appeal to as wide a variety of drinkers as possible. You came all the way to Tokyo, and you’ve made it this far. You want something special and unique, right?
Already have a drink in mind? Bartenders in Japan tend to have a massive quantity of recipes memorized, so they’ll probably be able to immediately tell you if they are capable of making your drink of choice.
Don’t know what to drink? Here’s your chance to experience Japan’s famed omotenashi culture if you haven’t already. Have a think about what you like. Have a conversation with the bartender if possible. Did a bottle on the shelf catch your eye? Ask to see it. Ask if you can smell the aroma. You may even get a complimentary taste. What base do you like? Something with bubbles? What fresh fruits do they have tonight? Can the bartender offer a recommendation? Talk your way through what you like, what you don’t like, and let that guide the bartender to come up with something for you.
Rather that paying per drink or opening a tab as you may do back home, in Japan, you’ll just get a bill at the end.
If the menu is only in Japanese and you can’t read it, or there isn’t any menu at all, you’ll need to figure out another way to order. See the question “How should I order?” for advice about how to order off menu.
Once you’ve had your fill and it’s time to head out, you’ll need to settle up the bill. Once again a sumimasen will work fine here to get the staff’s attention. You can ask for the bill by simply saying okaikei. If you can’t get that out for some reason, just make a small X by crossing your index fingers: this is Japan’s equivalent of the “writing” gesture used to get the check in other countries.
Cocktail bars in Japan rarely provide itemized checks, nor can they split across multiple credit cards. Generally you’ll receive a small piece of paper with just a single number written on it. This is your bill and is inclusive of all required charges and taxes. It may be higher than expected — see “What is otōshi?” for more details.
Tipping is neither required nor expected. Just pay the amount on your bill.
In Tokyo, you should be able to use credit cards to pay at the vast majority of bars. Even so, it’s always safer to have cash on hand just in case. When in doubt, ask if it’s possible to use credit cards before ordering your first drink.
Assuming you can handle the Japanese to make a phone call, or your hotel concierge will for you, it’s a good idea to make reservations for popular bars. Although there are figuratively tens of thousands of bars in Tokyo, they often only have a few seats. The population density here means that those seats will fill quite quickly, so you’ll be turned away. Online reservations have not caught on in Japan, especially at the high end.
Reservations are especially useful if you plan on going on a Friday or Saturday night, since like everywhere in the world, people tend to go out these nights.
Most cocktail bars will open around 5-6PM for aperitifs and close around midnight, and 8-10PM is prime hours since many people will have eaten dinner prior to drinking cocktails. And you probably should too, says your liver.
All that said, many bars simply do not take reservations. Other bars do not take reservations but may hold seats for your for 15-30 minutes if you call and ask.
As anyone who clicked on this question is probably aware, shots and shooters have a tendency to make people lose control. Many cocktail bars in Tokyo pride themselves on their relaxed atmospheres, enabling customers to have a few lazy drinks before calling it a night. That’s clearly not the environment where bartenders would want people becoming loud and annoying because they put back too much tequila. Certainly there are plenty of places with completely different atmospheres, where they are happy to serve you as many shots as you like. If you must have shots, drink them there instead!
Welcome to drinking in Japan! This may be what happens to you when you drink in a country that has no blue laws, where liquor licenses do not exist, there are no open container laws, and never had Prohibition or a Gin Craze. Which is to say that when it comes to controlling your intake, you’re truly on your own. Bartenders will not cut you off for being too drunk, so long as you’re capable of ordering. The phrase “please drink responsibly” is especially important in Tokyo because you’re not driving anywhere, it’s perfectly legal to be drunk in public, and you’ll have unfettered access to alcohol anywhere anytime.
So in Tokyo: please drink responsibly… because nobody else will stop you!
The vast majority of bars open to the public do not have written dress codes, but be realistic. For guys, at the bare minimum you should be wearing jeans and a collared shirt. For ladies, stay away from anything particularly revealing or pajama-like.
Though bars like this have been steadily declining in number since the end of Japan’s bubble era, you may still run across a few while walking through the city (especially Ginza). As the name indicates, members-only bars require you to be a member yourself or be the guest of a member. Usually you’ll be required to pay some kind of registration fee in addition to yearly membership dues for the privilege of drinking at that particular bar.
With some notable exceptions in hotel bars, happy hour is very rare for cocktail bars in Tokyo. However, there are some excellent happy hours with good cocktails to be found at restaurants throughout the city.
Cocktail bars generally do not run discount promotions or offer coupons. If you get in the good graces of a particular bartender/owner, there’s a chance you could eventually score some free drinks here and there. But this is not something to count on or aim for.
For better or worse, it’s socially acceptable to smoke indoors in Tokyo. To be polite, when seated at the bar, ask the person(s) sitting around you if it’s OK to smoke. If there’s not already an ashtray nearby, just ask the bartender for one. Although Tokyo introduced rules concerning indoor smoking in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, many bars are exempt and/or obtained the licenses necessary to allow customers to smoke.
Outside of cigar bars, cigars and similar with stronger odors are generally not allowed as this may impact someone’s ability to enjoy the flavors of his or her drink.
If you prefer to smoke outside the bar, the staff should be able to advise where the closest acceptable smoking spot is. If it’s at street level, it’s worth noting that certain districts of Tokyo have ordinances concerning smoking on the street, some even involving fines to be paid on the spot. Where these ordinances are in place you should see signs and designated smoking zones.