Even if you've never been to Japan before, you may have heard of the term "飲み放題" (nomihoudai). The good folks at jisho.org translate this as "all you can drink" or "bottomless cup." You can find it in lots of bars, restaurants, and izakayas throughout Japan.
While the idea of being able to get all of the alcohol you want for a fairly reasonable price may seem like a dream come true, if you don't follow the (sometimes unwritten) rules, you may go from having the time of your life to trying to figure out where you are and how you went broke.
Here are my tips for surviving these parties and having a good time!
Pre-game the right way
Nomihoudai parties can last anywhere from two to three hours. Although they usually have food, the amount can always vary. Some restaurants serve traditional Japanese cuisine. Others can have pasta or other snacks. If you're not into raw fish and unidentifiable ingredients, you might want to eat a quick meal beforehand so you're not drinking on an empty stomach.
Since drinking alcohol dehydrates you, you'll also want to drink some water before heading into battle.
Start With Beer
Most places that offer nomihoudai have beer on tap. This is the first drink that most people start with for the night.
If you have a big crowd, you don't want to be one of "those people" that are holding up everyone else in the group from getting drinks while you decide what you want. Go for the draft beer (生ビール - nama biiru) and then take a look at the drink menu to decide what you'd like to get next.
If the place you're drinking in doesn't have beer, I suggest either a whiskey & soda, aka high ball (ハイボール - hai bohru), or a lemon sour (レモンサワー - remon sawaah).
Don't Mix It Up
Seeing a menu with a large variety of drinks to choose from (sometimes over 200) tends to make people want to try everything.
Although this seems like a good idea, you may become a victim of the Japanese syndrome known as champon. Named after a famous noodle soup which combines a variety of ingredients from Nagasaki, this condition is used to describe a situation where someone drinks various types of alcohol in a single sitting.
If you're an experienced drinker and you can handle it, go for it. If you want to stay on the safe side, find one drink/type of alcohol and a stick to it.
In my experience, I've found that beer and sake go together pretty well (as long as you're not taking shots of sake). Throwing a bit o shochu isn't too bad either.
You can really run into trouble when you start mixing alot of drinks together!
Beer, red wine, vodka, whiskey, and other sweet drinks together make more a bad combination. You have been warned!
When you start drinking remember that there's no rush! You're going to be seated in the same place for a good 2-3 hours. You'll want to make sure that you can get out of the restaurant under your own power when you're done!
If you find that you're drinking quickly because you're thirsty, ask for a glass cold of water (お冷 - oh-hiya) with your next round. This will keep you hydrated and stop you from getting too blitzed too fast.
You could even order something non-alcoholic like coffee, tea, or other soft drinks.
One Drink At A Time
Remember that nomihoudai is WAY cheaper than going out in most western countries. The price is usually how much you would spend on a couple of cocktails (anywhere from ￥800 - ￥2000) and you DON'T tip. If you want the restaurant that you're drinking in to stay open, then they NEED to make money from you when you're there.
If you abuse the system, you could literally drink them out of business.
One rule is to only get one drink at a time. When one drink gets low, you can order your next one (ping pong! The unofficial name of the waiter summoning device and the sound it makes). Try to have that one finished by the time the waiter brings you the next round. If you're constantly double-fisting, the staff might get pissed off at you.
If someone at your table is getting another drink, you don't have to rush to get in on their order.
Just relax and finish yours on your own time. If you're chugging your drinks to get in on the next round, you need to slow down!
Eat the FOOD!
This is something else that helps support the establishment and the staff where you like to get plastered. Some places take a loss on the drinks just to get you in the door so then they can sell you some grub (and make money!).
If you order the minimum amount of food and drink the most you can, that place probably won't be around for long.
Switch to the light stuff
The drink menu is full of options. If you find that you're getting too sloshed, it's time to turn to some weaker drinks!
Remember that this isn't a sprint, it's a marathon!
Anything with Horoyoi is pretty weak. It's a three percent alcohol beverage with lots of flavor.
Another go-to drink is an oolong-hai. It's part shochu, part tea, and all delicious! Oolong-hais are a good choice because they hydrate you as you go.
One of these drinks is like having half a beer (if they measure out a shot). There are other combinations of this drink like jasmine-hai, green tea (ryokucha-hai), and others.
Last order means LAST ORDER
If a bar has a two-hour nomihoudai, they usually take your last drink order about 90 minutes into the affair. If you still have a drink in your hand, they'll bring you one last one! You can usually stay at your seat for another 30 minutes before they'll ask you to leave.
When the staff tells you it's the last order, that means it's the LAST ORDER!
Some places have self-serve bars where you can make your own drinks. If you go and help yourself to another round, they really won't like you very much.
Remember that Japan is a country where there's no last call for alcohol and you can drink in public without being hassled by the cops (although people may think you're an alcoholic if you do). Japan will (probably) never run out of alcohol!