Drinking in Japan
The Japanese and Alcohol
The Japanese love their alcohol and have for some time. An ancient Chinese document known as the Wei Chih, dating from around 292 AD, states that the people of Wa (as the Japanese were known to the Chinese of the time) were fond of liquor. And although, the sake of seventeen hundred years ago was guaranteed to be rough around the edges, the sake of today is as refined a drink as one could ever hope for. Sake of course, isn't the only libation available in Japan, there are fine beers, several varieties of shochu and even Japanese brands of whiskey. These are all available to anyone in Japan, assuming that you are at least 20 years of age, which is the legal drinking age in Japan.
Sake in Japan
In Japanese, the word sake can refer to any alcoholic drink. What foreigners call sake is technically called nihonshu, although the Japanese use the word sake, or more commonly O-sake, to refer to it as well.
Sake is commonly served hot, warm, room temperature and chilled, although higher quality sake is almost always served either slightly chilled or room temperature. The tradition of heating sake arose from the fact that most of the original sake was in no way a refined product (in other words, it likely tasted terrible) and heating the sake was a way to kill the taste. I love atsukan (hot sake) and drink it often, but you will be looked upon as odd if you buy a high grade sake and then ask for it to be heated. For hot sake, stick to a table sake level of quality and you'll enjoy it all the same.
Many Japanese, particularly those outside of the big cities, are surprised to find that foreigners drink sake. Many a time have I walked into a small, out of the way izakaya and seen the surprised look on the patrons faces when I order up a tokkuri of atsukan. Of course, they already looked somewhat surprised by the fact that I even walked through the door to begin with (gaijin are certainly not common in those remote country spots).
As odd as it may seem, sake is not as popular in Japan as most foreigners would assume. Don't misunderstand me. Sake definitely has it's place in Japanese society. No traditional Shinto Japanese wedding ceremony would be complete without the couple sharing sake, it's a common gift item and some Japanese still take it as an afternoon drink, but beer, whiskey and in particular, shochu are much more common after work libations here in the land of the rising sun.
This is one of the most popular alcoholic beverages in Japan. Unlike sake, Japanese shochu is actually distilled and rings in at around 25% alcohol therefore packing a stronger punch than either beer or sake. Shochu is commonly served mixed with warm water with an umeboshi at the bottom of the glass. At other times it's served straight on the rocks or mixed with a cold water. Since it keeps well after opening, unlike sake or wine, shochu is popular with the bottle keep system and most izakaya will have several different brands available.
Japan has many varieties of shochu butt I've only frequently come across two in my travels, imo and mugi. Mugijochu is made from barley and has a somewhat mild taste. Imojochu, made from sweet potatoes, originally hailed from Kagoshima prefecture in southern Japan (where Japanese sweet potatoes are grown) and has a stronger, more distinct smell and taste. Imojochu is one of those things that people either like or they don't like. Very few Japanese drinkers are on the fence about it.
Japan's Bottle Keep System
This is a cool one that I wish we had state side. It is common practice in Japan, for a bars and some smaller restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages in a larger bottle size. When a customer purchases the bottle, it is then kept by the restaurant or bar, usually lined up against a back wall with a fancy name tag hanging around the neck. When that customer returns he, and any friends he has brought along, are then served from that bottle. The customer is only charged for the glass and ice service. When the bottle is empty, the customer has the option to purchase another and so forth. Note that this only applies to certain libations. Sake, wine or a keg of beer are not options in the bottle keep system since they do not keep well over time and should be drunk when the bottle is opened. Shochu and whiskey are the primary options.
This "bottle keep" system is extremely common and is practiced all throughout Japan. Don't worry however, if you're not ready to commit to an entire bottle. The option to order single drinks is almost always available to you in these same bars and restaurants. It's just nice to have the bottle option if you so wish.
Hot Whiskey and Cloves
I recently had the opportunity to try an unusual drink preparation. While in a small snack bar in Sansegawa, I noticed a small space jar labeled "cloves". I was curious as to how cloves would be used in a bar and after a couple of questions, they showed me first hand. The drink starts off with a highball glass half filled with warm water. Quickly add to that a shot or shot and a half of whiskey (Japanese whiskey or foreign). Here's where the cloves come in. You take two cloves from the jar and briefly heat them with a cigarette lighter, then drop them in the glass. The heating the cloves releases an intense, but somewhat relaxing scent that hit's your nose just as you take a sip of the warm whiskey. It would not be my everyday drink but I could see it being something nice on a cold afternoon.
The Japanese Muddler Controversy
For some unknown reason, the Japanese refer to swizzle sticks (the small stick used to stir a drink), as "muddlers". Of course, in the USA, a muddler is the bartenders tool used to bruise leaves before mixing them into a drink (example: crushed mint leaves for a Mint Julip). What then do they call this crushing tool, if the word "muddler" is already taken? To the best of my knowledge, nothing. I've yet to find a native drink that requires anything to be "muddled".
BTW: The word muddler actually comes up somewhat frequently as two of Japan's favorite drinks, shochu and whiskey, are often served in a mizuwari style that requires stirring.
Shots are NOT a Japanese Tradition
Want to get the attention of everyone in the bar? For kicks, order up a shot of whiskey neat and shoot it straight. I guarantee that you will get at least one (if not ten) audible responses from this. I'm not saying that this will happen if you try it in some trendy Tokyo night club, but in your local izakaya or pub, this will crank up some conversations (assuming you're able to maintain a conversation, as you may imagine, the difficulty of the Japanese language goes up proportionately with the number of shots you've taken). Drinking strait is simply not common here. That's not to say that there isn't plenty of drinking done here, it's just usually a bit more subtle.