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10 Expressions You Need to Know before Drinking in Japan

Gathering around food and drinks in an izakaya (Japanese-style pub) to smooth relationships (including and especially work-related ones) is an important part of Japanese culture nicknamed ”nomunication.”  

Joining Japanese people at the izakaya is a good way to break the ice and get to know them better. If you go to small, five- or six-seat places, you may even make new friends. However, there are some words that are useful in these situations that are usually not taught in school or in your typical Japanese language manual. Here are 10 useful expressions and concepts that may come handy for your first (or next) drinking experience in Japan.

1) Nomihoudai (飲み放題), Tabehoudai (食べ放題)

If you are going to an izakaya with Japanese people to celebrate something, chances are they will have made some research about the best courses and this often includes nomihoudai, and sometimes tabehoudai plans as well. 

Nomihoudai (from 飲む [nomu]: drink, and 放題 [houdai]: as much as you want) is, as the name indicates, an “all-you-can-drink” planFor a limited time (two- or three-hour plans are most common), you can order as many drinks as you want from a limited menu. Some places will ask you to finish your current drink before they bring you your next one.

Tabehoudai (from 食べる [taberu]: eat) is basically the same but for food.

2) O-tooshi (お通し)

A beer and a small basket in which are soybeans in their green pods
Edamame (soybeans in the pod) is a common o-tooshi.

O-tooshi is often a source of misunderstanding for foreign tourists. People unaware of it often complain that they have been charged for a dish they did not even order. It is a reaction that I can understand: most izakayas will serve you a small dish, called o-tooshi,” as soon as you are seated, before you even order anything. The dish is often underwhelming, and you may refuse it if you wish, but you will have to pay for it anyway: o-tooshi is the local way to express table charges, usually around 500 yen per person.

Just check for the word ”お通し” on your receipt, often written before the total. Some places will not serve you an o-tooshi, but will ask you to order two or three snacks per person instead.

3) Nama (生), Non-aru (ノンアル)

Nama literally a “fresh” one, is short for nama biiru (生ビール), meaning tap beer, opposite of bin biiru (瓶ビール) or bottled beer. Nama is often the first drink ordered in group gatherings in an izakaya because it is served most quickly. You may also opt for a non-aru biiru (ノンアルビール), a non-alcoholic beer. Do not feel bad if beer and alcohol is not your thing: you are free to order something else!

4) Haibooru (ハイボール), Chuu-hai (酎ハイ), Sawaa (サワー)

Some of the most popular drinks in Japan are drinks that are not very common or popular in other countries. The ones you should absolutely remember are:

  • Haibooru, from the English word “highball”: it is spirits mixed with soda. In Japan, this usually refers to whiskey mixed with soda.
  • Chuu-hai, short for shochuu highball (焼酎ハイボール): it is shochuu (a Japanese hard liquor made from potato, barley, or rice) mixed with carbonated water and flavored with fruits. The most common one is lemon-hai (レモンハイ).
  • Sawaa, comes from the English “sour.” It is very similar, and often confused, with the chuu-hai. It is spirit (for example vodka, but it can actually be shochuu too, adding to the confusion) mixed with carbonated water and flavored with a sweet fruit juice. Here again the most common one is lemon-sawaa (レモンサワー).

Chuu-hai and sawaa come in many different flavors: grapefruit, oolong tea, lime, apple, lychee, etc.

Two people having a toast and holding glasses in which there is a transparent drink with lemon
These are lemon-hai. Or maybe lemon-sawaa. They are almost the same anyway. (photo credit: Pakutaso)

5) Torizara (取り皿), Haizara (灰皿)

If you are learning Japanese at school, you may have learnt that a plate is called sara (皿) in Japanese. However, in an izakaya, the custom is to share the food from bigger dishes, and your small personal plate is called torizara (from toru [取る]: to take, and sara [皿]: plate). If you are eating many different things, especially with sauce, you may want to get a new set of clean plates. In this case, just say “Torizara kudasai,” (取り皿下さい) or “Plates, please.”

Not to be confused with haizara (灰 [hai]: ashes, and 皿 [sara]: plate), which means “ashtray.” Yes, many restaurants and izakayas in Japan are still smoking spaces… for now.

6) O-hiya (お冷)

If you want to have a glass of water (in Japan, it is free), and are learning Japanese, you might find yourself asking, ”お水下さい,” or “O-mizu kudasai.” You fool! Well, yes. Izakayas also happen to have a specific term for water: o-hiya, literally “a refreshed one” (in Japan, water usually comes with ice cubes in it). 

Asking for ”o-mizu” will get you water, but you will sound much more of an expert if you order it this way: “O-hiya kudasai.”

7) Shime (締め or 〆), Shimeru (締める or 〆る)

If you are learning Japanese, you maybe know the word “shimeru” (閉める), meaning to close, as in closing a door. The other shimeru (締める or more informally 〆る) is very similar, but it means closing, as in ending the gathering. On the menu, ”〆” indicates dishes that you usually eat at the end of the party, like for example, shime-udon (〆うどん) if you are eating a hotpot: you put udon noodles in what is left of the broth to finish it.

During bigger parties or after-work gatherings, when the time to go home approaches (or maybe your nomihoudai time is soon over), you will hear people say ”Shimemasuka? (締めますか?) or “Shall we end?”, often followed by ”Shime no kotoba,” (締めの言葉) a final word often said by a person of authority (or someone thought to speak better than others).

After which, usually, people will all clap their hands at the same time (usually only once, but there are variations), a gesture symbolizing the “closing” of the party. This gesture is called ”tejime (手締め), from te (手): hand, and shime. For some reason, I love it. It gives a final feeling of unity with the group you have spent the evening with (I have this weird thing for gestures and symbols).

8) The o-kanjou (お勘定) gesture

O-kanjou, or the bill, is often asked for before the shime no kotoba, but there is a reason I am only introducing it to you now. If you are in a smaller, more intimate izakaya, you may ask for the bill in a more silent and discreet way using the following gesture (and the optional silent mouthing of ”O-kanjou kudasai, (お勘定ください) or “The bill, please.”:

ネクタイを締める男性

中程度の精度で自動的に生成された説明
This is the gesture to ask for the bill in an izakaya. (photo credit: pakutaso)

Have you noticed the similarity with the kanji ”〆” for shime? That is where it comes from.

9) Nijikai (二次会), Sanjikai (三次会)

Japanese people do like to party and go to different places on the same night. If at the end of the main event you hear “Ittan shimemasu ka?” (いったん締めますか?) or “Shall we close once?”, then you can be sure some of your fellows are intending to go to a nijikai, literally “second gathering.” A part of the group will have an after-party in a nearby bar or izakaya. Do not feel pressured to follow if you do not feel like it, but certainly join if you want more fun. It may even be followed by a sanjikai or “third gathering.” I know some people that have even been to a gojikai (五次会), a “fifth gathering!”

10) Takuru (タクる)

After the sanjikai, chances are you have missed the last train home. If you do not want to be seen sleeping on the streets like many salarymen, and do not feel like sleeping in a karaoke box or a capsule hotel, a good option is to takuru together with people living near your place or on your way home. This informal word comes from takushii (タクシー) or taxi, and the common verb ending ru: it means grabbing a taxi.

It’s late, there are no trains and you want to go home? Just takuru!

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Amélie Geeraert

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.

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