6 unbreakable rules from the Japanese bar

6 unbreakable rules from the Japanese bar

The code of conduct in a Japanese bar isn't complex. Following it, however, is essential for the savvy drinker

Nicholas Coldicott“I’m writing about bar rules and etiquette for travelers,” I said to a bartender in Ginza a few weeks ago.  “Is there anything I should include?”

“Yes,” he said. “Tell them they’re not welcome.”

That seems clear enough. You’re not welcome in Ginza, and there’s no need to discuss etiquette with the likes of you.

Alas, my contract stipulates 600 words, so let’s proceed.

For the last three years, visiting writers, bloggers and drinkers have been raving about the supremacy of Japanese bartending.

Having perfected portable cassette players, marbled beef, ritual disembowelment, bonus tracks, ridiculous life expectancy, robots, retail and cars, Japan has now mastered the art of combining liquids.

So pity the poor travelers who come to sample this wizardry and find their welcome colder than a perfectly carved ice ball.

Traditional bartenders would like older customers to introduce younger customers and teach them the ways of the bar. Then everyone can drink happily ever after without you bumbling in to spoil the air.

However, should you insist on going, here’s how to conduct yourself.

1. Don’t speak to other guests

The most common and egregious faux pas, according to every barman I asked, is to initiate a conversation with another guest. When seated at a fancy sushi counter, you wouldn’t yell “How’s the fish, love?” at the woman three seats away.

A bar demands the same decorum. Even if that lady is alone and staring at the wall.

An experienced bartender will defuse this situation by standing a foot or two to your other side and engaging you in a conversation, but you’ll never be persona grata in that bar again.

2. Acknowledge the bartender

I once took two hotshot magazine editors to Tokyo’s greatest and most unforgiving bar. The boss came to greet us, the editors continued their private conversation, he waited, they kept yapping, he walked off.

We were then asked if we wouldn’t feel more comfortable in the far corner. We were then told we definitely would feel more comfortable in the far corner. Say hello. It’s polite.

3. Sit where you’re told

Gentlemen will know the tactical delicacies of urinal selection. Not only must you pick the most isolated station, but you must anticipate future arrivals and minimize the risk of them standing abreast of you. That’s much like how a good bartender assigns seats.

You might like the counter or the corner, but sometimes it’s not up to you. Groups don’t usually get to sit at the counter (people make more noise in a row than in a circle). And many bars don’t place newcomers in front of the master bartender.

4. Discuss your order

By all means, order a drink by name. But if that drink is from a 19th-century cocktail book that you found on eBay, the bartender will not know it, and will not be impressed. A better idea is to discuss what kind of drink you want and let the master impress you.

5. No cigars

Not a single bartender articulated this rule, but I’m laying it out anyway. That cigar might match your cognac, but it doesn’t necessarily suit my gin fizz. I don’t stick my bar snacks up your nose, so don’t blow smoke up mine.

If it’s a bachelor party or the celebration of a first-born child, still no. You think you look heroic, but you’re actually telling the world that you were unloved as a child and you have a teeny tiny wiener.

6. Don’t get drunk


If this hasn’t put you off, you’ll find some of the world’s greatest bartenders making drinks in Ginza. They won’t want you there, but they’ll get over it.

Nicholas Coldicott is a contributing editor at Whisky Magazine Japan.

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