Tokyo Nightlife – Where to Go When the Sun Goes Down
The definitive guide to making the most of what Tokyo nightlife has to offer - izakayas, bars, clubs and more.
Turning in for the night at a reasonable hour is sensible, especially when a tourist in a far off land. You’ll emerge from slumber fresh; energy abundantly flowing through your veins – you will be a model sightseer, one your parents can be proud of. Or will you? Whilst you were dead to the world, the city was transformed, a warped world of alcohol and adrenaline fueled fun emerged from the remnants of the day, turning the city on its head, if only for a limited time. And where were you? Asleep.
Whilst rising early with a clear head is a good idea most days, whilst away, especially whilst in Tokyo, to sample the nightlife is to experience the other side of the city, to not do so would be to neglect an important part of its identity. If you need more justification to go out and party, you can probably just click away now. For those still reading, welcome to our rundown of the best Tokyo nightlife has to offer – from traditional izakayas, bars and clubs to alternative ways to spend the night – we’ve got it all.
The Japanese Izakaya
A trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without sampling the delights of the izakaya – somewhere between a pub, a bar and a restaurant; though transcending all of these. Such lofty language isn’t used lightly, but all will become clear once you’ve taken those first tentative steps inside. An izakaya’s main function is the facilitation of good times with friends, lubricated by alcohol and kept afloat by cheap and cheerful snack food. The drink selection is usually simple, with draft beer as the staple. Most will also serve a decent selection of shochu, sake and highballs for when the beer begins to become a chore. Prices range, with some offering beer for as little as 100 yen. Food at these places is also pretty standardised: fried chicken, french fries, sushi and sashimi being popular fare. Dishes are small and so are the prices, 300-500 yen being normal.
Most establishments justify their low prices with mandatory seating charges and the imposition of a minimum food order. The seating charge is usually around 500 yen and most insist on at least one dish per person. Do the math however and this still equates to a very cheap place to quench your thirst and rest your feet. More so if you opt for the ubiquitous nomihōdai (look for the kanji: 飲放題) or tabehōdai (食べ放題) offers. All you can drink and all you can eat respectively; these are excellent ways to push the limits of your blood alcohol level or stomach capacity. Replace conversation with rapid drinking and you’re sure to get your money’s worth.
The izakaya is where ordinary Japanese people drink and socialise, thus being the place to start should you tire of tourist traps and scarily friendly service. They are loud, smoky and a lot of fun to hang-out in. Here are a few of our favourites, though like rats in New York, you’re never too far away from one.
Well hidden behind a black exterior in the depths of Kabukicho lies Alps, a monster of an izakaya. Split over three floors and manned by a troupe of staff, this joint offers draft beer for just 180 yen and a long list of tasty snacks (with English menu!). Service is rapid and the clientele boisterous, an excellent combination to keep both the beer and conversation flowing. Open from 5pm to 5am everyday except Sunday this is the place to settle into a long session without fearing for the health of your wallet.
Address: 2-35-2, Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo
Station: Shinjuku, Kabukicho Exit
Similar to the previous entry, Kouchan, a short stumble from Shibuya train station, is a cheap and cheerful izakaya, serving beer for 180 yen (the glowing sign advertising this fact cannot be missed), with an atmosphere that could hardly be livelier. The generously portioned sharing dishes are a great choice for dining with friends and with over 300 seats you won’t be queuing outside.
Address: Shibuya, 150-0002
Station: Shibuya Station, East Exit
Gonpachi’s other name is ‘the Kill Bill restaurant’, owing to the fact that the interior is said to have inspired Tarentino’s infamous massacre scene. Avoid being slayed though and you’re in for a pleasant time. Different to the other izakayas on this list, Gonpachi is more of a ‘destination’ spot for tourists and film-fans, offering interesting dishes (avocado and camembert tempura, anyone?) and a good selection of sake in elegant surrounds. The prices here aren’t particularly cheap but not super-expensive either. Worth a visit if you’ve got some spare yen and want a different izakaya experience.
Address: 1-13-11 Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-00311
Station: Roppongi Station (plus short walk)
I’m sure you’re quite aware what a bar is – so I won’t explain. What I will say however is that Tokyo is crawling with them, with something for everyone. Though be warned, Tokyo bars aren’t always cheap and often add a cover charge for the privilege of a seat. Though if you crave craft beer, a cocktail or the idea of a drink in an interesting setting, you’re onto a winner. Below are a few ideas for places to seek out.
Golden Gai, Shinjuku:
It’d be a brave writer who dared to omit Shinjuku’s Golden Gai from a list of Tokyo bars. I am evidently not a brave writer. And why should I be – the Golden Gai deserves its fame as Tokyo’s go-to bar district. A warren of Showa-era miniature streets and alleys, the Golden Gai is home to around 200 bars, crammed into a tiny corner of Shinjuku. Most seat less than ten customers and serve drinks starting at around 600 yen (not including the cover charge). The prices are somewhat high and the bars cramped, so why go? The atmosphere of the place speaks for itself, a world away from the bright, clean, ordinary streets of the city; regulars and tourists mingle in harmony, savoring the taste of a slice of disappearing Tokyo nightlife, as well as that of whatever they may have ordered from the bar.
Address: 1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku
Station: Shinjuku Station, Kabukicho Exit
Ni-chome is multi-functional: at once Tokyo’s premier gay and lesbian district, a hot-spot for subversive art and politics and importantly for us, a great nightlife area. Bars and izakayas in Japan can often have a facade that give little away to the casual onlooker, hiding their purpose behind incongruous looking exteriors. Bars and clubs in Ni-chome, in contrast, couldn’t be more obvious, making the area an excellent place to head for those new to the country. Ni-chome is incredibly inclusive to all; whether gay, lesbian or foreign the good-vibes are assured, though these vibes can sometimes come at a premium, so be sure to check the price-list if you’re on a budget. Like much of this ever-changing city, sadly, Ni-chome is perennially sighted as being in the cross-hairs of developers, so get there while you can.
Address: 2 Chome Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō-to 160-0022
Station: Shinjuku Station
The Aldgate, Shibuya:
It may be considered sacrilege to recommend a British-style pub in a list of Tokyo nightlife spots, but The Aldgate deserves its due. Located in the heart of Shibuya, the interior is charming, the beer selection good (with a mixture of British, American and Japanese brews) and the food as authentic as you’ll get in Tokyo. Sometimes nothing but a full pint will do, for these times, head to The Aldgate.
Address: 3F, 30-4 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Station: Shibuya Station
Warm-up at an izakaya or bar and head to a club – a tried and tested one-two. Tokyo’s club culture may not be as established as in other big cities, with a notorious ban on public dancing not helping things, but know where to go and you won’t be left wanting. Similar to much of Europe, heading out to a club late (midnight and beyond) is the norm here, necessitated in part by the city’s public transport infrastructure shutting down completely at night, meaning ultimately, staying up until the first morning train is a must for those unwilling or unable to pay for a cab.
A Tokyo nightlife mainstay, WOMB is a good option for those who like their clubs big (4 floors) and their DJs reputable. Though perhaps not as hip as it once was, WOMB is centrally located, guaranteed to be busy (on a weekend anyway) and attracts some of the biggest DJs (drum and bass and techno mainly). Some critics have highlighted the sound-system as somewhat lacking in comparison to other clubs, but overall WOMB is a great spot for a good time and won’t break the bank.
Address: 2-16 Maruyamacho, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0044
Station: Shibuya Station
Written about on this site before, Sankeys deserves another mention. Newly opened but with much pedigree, the club is not shy in its intentions, declaring confidently: “Our mission is none other than the revitalization of the maturing Tokyo dance music scene”. Pomp aside, Sankeys is where to head for excellent music and a cool vibe.
Address: 2-11 Sarugakucho, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0033
Station: Daikanyama or Shibuya Station
Ruby Room, Shibuya
Though I realise this list is somewhat Shibuya heavy, it would be criminal to exclude the Ruby Room. This small bar/club is one of the city’s most enduring venues, in no small part due to its variety. Hosting bands and DJs alike, there is bound to be something that peaks your interest here. Free entry is not unusual and drinks prices are middling, depending on what you order.
Address: 2nd fl, 2-25-17 Dōgenzaka, Shibuya-ku
Station: Shibuya Station
Sometimes the best nights can be had when you forge your own way, dodge cover charges and entry fees and go a little free-form. Here are some ideas for alternative ways to spend the nighttime hours.
Granted, an evening of karaoke isn’t particularly alternative for the Japanese, but for you or I it may be, so indulge me. Whether karaoke is the sum of your evening or just a way to pass the time before the first train home, it’s always fun. Karaoke joints proliferate: big and small, cheap and expensive, classy and not so. Your best bet is usually one of the many chain bars which offer good rates, a large selection of songs (Japanese and foreign), private rooms and importantly (dangerously) nomihodai.
Uta Hiroba, one such chain with branches all over Tokyo, is the cheapest you’re going to get. The basic rate is 330-400 yen per half-hour on a weeknight, 410-500 yen on Friday or Saturday, which includes a non-alcoholic drinks bar. Nomihodai on alcohol pushes the prices up to 600-800 yen on weekdays, and 670-850 yen on Friday and Saturday nights which, split between a group of people, is pretty damn good. The rules regarding writing about Tokyo karaoke clearly state the need to mention Lost in Translation at lease once, so here goes. The filming for the movie’s karaoke scenes were done at Karaoke-Kan in central Shibuya (rooms 601 and 602), so if you fancy emulating Bill Murray or Scarlett Johansson, head there.
Though I’m sure my recommendations have you chomping at the bit, should you exhaust the list, there is always a more DIY form of alcoholic excess. Drinking on the street in Japan is surprisingly common and perfectly acceptable (as long as you’re not drawing too much attention to yourself); the sight of a salaryman wandering down the street armed with a Strong-Zero (9% fruit drink) is a common one and as a foreigner you’ll be given a degree of leeway anyway. On a warm evening, al-fresco drinking is a lovely way to pass the time and doesn’t come with a seating charge. Find a semi-secluded spot and sup away. Alternatively, head to the park. Yoyogi Park in Harajuku comes highly recommended for this, being one of the few that remains open all night. If you’re lucky enough to be in town during cherry blossom season, this is also the time that Tokyoites embrace park-drinking most fully. “Hanami”, as it is known, involves sitting on a plastic sheet in the shadow of the sakura, eating and drinking copiously. The country is thus no stranger to the sight of park based inebriation.
What to drink is up to you. The already mentioned Strong-Zero is popular, as are other brands of high-proof fruit drinks. Sake and shochu (a kind of strong rice-wine) are cheap and effective but not to everyone’s taste. A wide selection of drinks can be found in any konbini (7-eleven, Family Mart etc), though it’s often cheaper to seek out a larger supermarket.
Drinking, crowds and parties are not for everybody and this doesn’t need to be a problem when in Tokyo. A great way to spend the night is to simply walk. During the day, for my money, Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world to walk around. There is always the potential for new finds and surprises, even in neighborhoods you think you know. At night, this experience is enhanced by the beauty of the neon glow and the added energy that fills the air. To make the most of the bright lights, head for any of the major entertainment districts (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ginza, Ikebukuro), for history in a new light (and without the crowds) have a wander around Asakusa or admire the city from afar on Odaiba island.
And don’t forget…
Tokyo is a very safe city but the dangers that come with excessive alcoholic consumption are myriad, especially if you don’t know the city well or don’t speak the language. Always have a plan for getting home (whether this be catching the last train, saving enough money for a cab or pacing yourself well enough to stay out all night), keep a written record of where you’re staying in case the booze causes you to forget, and stick with your friends (no one likes being lost in a new city). As said, Tokyo is very safe and there will always be someone willing to help you should you need it, so don’t worry too much.