Japan is neon heaven for the after-hours wanderer and this year it got the additional stamp of approval when Japan took 20 out of 50 places on Asia’s 50 Best Bars List for 2021, more than any other country! Tokyo’s The SG Club located in Shibuya placed third in the rating but the recent craft beer revolution, with unique local breweries producing everything from beer to gin, should keep your options wide open.
That said, Japanese nightlife can get a bit confusing with so many options to choose from. Where does a bass junkie go for a big night out on the tiles? And what are the best ways to while away the wee hours in rural Japan?
There are many different ways of enjoying nightlife and you can have a great time both with a pint of juice and beer in your hand. Many a good night in the city will start at an izakaya, a Japanese style pub where you are sure to find groups of friends or co-workers unwinding after a hard day's work, or revving up for the weekend. Izakaya tend to serve a variety of small plates of food and exciting drinks so are a great place for trying new things and finally making up your mind if you prefer your sake hot or cold. Bigger Izakaya chains often have tablets with images of the food but go for a smaller local one for the traditional feel and the chef's recommendation. Don’t forget to press the buzzer on your table or yell ‘sumimasen’ to get the server’s attention. After sitting down at an izakaya many places will serve you a small side dish - this will be added to your bill as a small cover charge so don’t be surprised! Tipping is not a socially accepted practice in Japan so the wallet worries tend to balance out.
If you want to go with something a little more ritzy, or would like to sample a wider range of drinks, pop into one of Japan’s award-winning cocktail bars, often with spectacular views. For those missing home, visiting one of the local Irish or British pubs like the HUB can be an eye-opening experience. They usually host a mix of Japanese people looking for something different and expats craving a pint of Guinness.
Don't be fooled, though - Japan has just as much for the dancefloor bunnies as it does for the casual cocktail sipper. Every large city in Japan has at least one go-to area for nightlife and with less major cities, the clubs are definitely there if you look for them, albeit fewer and smaller in size.
In Tokyo, first place prize goes to Shinjuku for the myriad of different types of izakaya and famous alleys like Golden Gai or Omoide Yokocho. Our LGBTQ readers should take note of the Shinjuku Ni-Chome district here, which is a hub of Japanese queer culture. To bop to the biggest pop bangers, head to Roppongi, where the local and expat communities mingle on bustling dancefloors, and if you want somewhere more open plan and a little more experimental, then Shibuya also has some impressive clubs on offer (and the third best bar in Asia!) with world-renown DJs. Otherwise, see what's on at Ageha that weekend, a reclaimed waterfront industrial site not too far from Tokyo Disney that has a 1000+ person capacity and a rooftop pool.
In Osaka, Dotonbori will be your #1 drinking destination but try Ura-Namba for hipster eats and wacky drinking spots, or head to Shinsaibashi and Doyamacho, Osaka’s gay area, if you're looking to throw some shapes.
Sapporo on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido may feel remote, but boasts an exciting nightlife in the alleyways, arcades and hole-in-the-wall bars of its famous Susukino entertainment district which packs out during the city's famous Snow Fesitval.
Meanwhile, Sendai, City of Forests, has the largest entertainment area in whole of the Tohoku region in its Kokubuncho district, an authentic accumulation of bars, izakaya and late-night kaiten sushi places that throw open their doors under the neon lights.
Okayama on the main bullet train line is a common overnight stop because of its size and proximity to Japan's Seto Inland Sea. Check out the area around the station for the best late-night venues aimed at way-faring travellers.
And finally, down south in Fukuoka, the southern city that never sleeps, the Nakasu district offers up the best clubbing experiences that side of Hiroshima and a tonne of retro bars to explore in Ningyo Shoji. Famous for the yatai food stalls that line the streets and riverbanks at night, Fukuoka makes for an unmissable night on the town, full of local flavour.
After the after-party
Some Japanese restaurants, bars, and karaoke offer ‘nomihoudai’ (all-you-can-drink) or ‘tabehoudai’ (all-you-can-eat) so if you’re ready for some competitive shovelling then that’s your best bet. They have a time limit so be aware of that and choose wisely!
Trains and the metro tend to run until midnight, and 1 am at latest, so of you decide to venture out far away from your accommodation and you don’t want to take a taxi back, you have two options: dance until 4 am when the clubs close or take a well-deserved rest in one of manga cafes or karaoke venues. There are many karaoke chains like Karaoke Kan, Big Echo or Jankara which you can find all over Japan. They are usually open 24/7 and serve food and drinks but remember to note that karaoke parlours will have different rates depending on the day and time.
© Warren Stanislaus
Once you choose for how long you want to stay, you will be taken to a private room with a tablet which controls the karaoke equipment. They always have an English language option and some of them have really impressive collections of international songs! Nevertheless, if you want to put yourself to the test and finally sing an opening from your favourite anime, you will have to search through the Japanese menu. Check out our guide to getting your Japanese up to speed before your trip to boss it at karaoke! In many places you will have to order food through the phone, and the person manning the front desk will call you 10 minutes before your time is up.
But if you're looking for a more immersive experience, a more social way to indulge in this grat national pastime is by visiting a karaoke bar. Depending on the size you’ll be either seated by one of the tables or at a long counter with the owner serving everyone and asking for their song requests. These joints tend to be a lot more intimate but provide a fantastic way to see another often overlooked side to Japanese culture.
Finally, visiting smaller cities and villages, many find themselves at a loss in the evening. But wander down a backstreet and you are sure to find charming izakaya open late into the night. Same as in Europe, in case of villages we definitely advise you to check the opening hours before you hunker down but this is where you’ll be able to try some regional produce and chat with the locals. Finding a nightclub or a western-style bar will be more of a challenge here but, just like with convience stores, you'll never likely to be more than 10 minutes from a bit of karaoke.
Alternatively, for a true deep dive, you can try a 'snack' bar. Generally tucked away somewhere inconspicuous, these are intimate (often smokey) after-hours hideaways where you'll be welcomed and catered to by the owner and host themself. These aren't to be confused with host clubs, and hostess clubs - a uniquely Japanese phenomenon that tend to come with a higher price tag so make sure you are aware of all the fees and stay on top of the time limit.
Going out at night in Japan is generally really safe and you shouldn't have any issues - more often than not you'll be thanking a stranger for returning your lost wallet - and the sheer amount of night-time options will keep you entertained well past when the first trains start running in the morning.