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Kanpai!

Whether you're out with friends, clients, or belting out a tune at the local karaoke bar, you're sure to have a drink at least once during your stay. Things may look a little different, even before you start knocking back a few, so take note of the liquors of this island nation. And remember, shout Kanpai! (sounds like "kaan-pie") instead of Cheers! when you raise your glass.

The Sacred Drink

Sake, pronounced sa-kay, is Japan's number one alcoholic beverage. There are more than 2,000 different brands of sake produced throughout Japan. Like other kinds of wine, sake comes in sweet (amakuchi) and dry (karakuchi) varieties; these are graded tokkyu (superior class), ikkyu (first class), and nikkyu (second class) and are priced accordingly. (Connoisseurs say this ranking is for tax purposes and is not necessarily a true indication of quality.)

Best drunk at room temperature (nurukan) so as not to alter the flavor, sake is also served heated (atsukan) or very rarely with ice (rokku de) in summer. It's poured from tokkuri (small ceramic vessels) into tiny cups called guinomi. The diminutive size of these cups shouldn't mislead you into thinking you can't drink too much. The custom of making sure that your companion's cup never runs dry often leads the novice astray.

Junmaishu is the term for pure rice wine, a blend of rice, yeast, and water to which no extra alcohol has been added. Junmaishu sake has the strongest and most distinctive flavor, compared with various other methods of brewing, and is preferred by the sake tsu, as connoisseurs are known.

Apart from the nomiya (bars) and restaurants, the place to sample sake is the izakaya, a drinking establishment that usually serves dozens of different kinds of sake, including a selection of jizake, the kind produced in limited quantities by small regional breweries throughout the country.

Heavenly Spirits

Shochu is made from a variety of base ingredients such as buckwheat, sweet potatoes, or rice, and is particularly associated with the southern island of Kyushu. It's served either on the rocks or mixed with water and can be hot or cold. Sometimes a wedge of lemon or a small pickled apricot, known as umeboshi, is added as well. It can also be mixed with club soda and served cold as a popular drink called chuhai.

Havin’ a Biiru

Japan has four large breweries: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. Asahi and Kirin are the two heavyweights, constantly battling for the coveted title of "Japan's No. 1 Brewery," but many beer fans rate Suntory's Malts brand and Sapporo's Yebisu brand as the tastiest brews in the land. In recent years, Belgian beers have grown in popularity and are available in specialty shops and even supermarkets; the products of Japanese microbreweries have also become easier to find. Most recently, domestic craft beer (ji bi-ru) has become very popular, and it’s appearing on tap at restaurants and bars around the city. Yona Yona Ale is a refreshing and light beer that will pair with most foods and is available at many places.

Updated: 01-2014

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