Move over Koh Phangan. Take a hike Ho Chi Minh City. The nightlife in Japan is something else entirely. It’s listed among the best in Asia because it’s not only off the proverbial hook but also downright quirky and different, unfolding in a medley of sake-doused sushi restaurants and edgy beer bars known as izakaya. Tempted? This guide to the five best party cities in Japan has you covered…
From the neon-hazed streets of Tokyo to the beer-splashing city of Sapporo up in the snowy north of the country, this collection of heady towns and party places is a must read for anyone looking to hit the after-dark venues in the land of udon and sashimi. It’s got options for all sorts, whether you’re looking for fancy cocktail joints with high-up views of the capital or gritty music dives where you can listen to the local talent.
Remember that things go a little differently at night before you dive headlong into the best party cities in Japan. Table service is the norm at the izakaya bars. You might be asked to remove your shoes in certain rooms. Karaoke is a rite of passage and cannot be dodged. Tipping simply isn’t done. Oh, and be ready for Nomikai, the local drinking tradition of guzzling to oblivion once you’ve finished work on a Friday evening.
No list of the best party cities in Japan could possibly be complete without starting the ball rolling with the colossal capital of the country. A whopping 14 million people live, work, and play in this seemingly endless megalopolis, so it should hardly come as a surprise that there’s a raucous nightlife scene to match the numbers. It’s so booming and so hedonistic that it can be tricky to know where to begin. Here goes…
Shinjuku is the sleepless beating heart of the modern Tokyo nightlife. East Shinjuku specifically gets wild. That’s where you’ll find the postbox-wide lanes and alleys of the Kabukicho neighborhood, the self-proclaimed red-light district of Tokyo where strange niche bars hide in the alcoves. The Golden Gai Street comes off that, unfolding with 200+ drinking venues that each have weird and wonderful themed. (There’s one that makes you think you’re entering a doctor’s surgery, another – Hair of the Dog – that channels the grit of 1980s and 90s underground punk dives.)
It most certainly does not end there, either. The happening international and business scene of Roppongi is whole different world away. Go there to mix with expats in Irish pubs and shimmy the night away in mega clubs that play global chart music. Ginza cranks up the style even more, with its rooftop cocktail venues and tuxedo-warranting hotel lounges.
Those are all the mainstay places that visitors often flock to right after leaving the airports. If you want to sample something more local in Tokyo, then you’ll need to stray further afield. Options for that include the local hipster area of Shimokitazawa. It’s got vintage warehouses for fashionistas by day but off-beat music clubs at night. Then there’s the workaday area of Ebisu, where casual drinks in low-key pubs are the name of the game.
Mhmm…all budding partiers heading Japan way should start in this here town.
The second city of the country lies three hours down the high-speed train lines from the capital. It’s the perfect next pitstop for those after the best party cities in Japan, offering perhaps the only nocturnal scene that could rival Tokyo. It’s quite similar stuff: A mix of expat bars and quirky Japaneseizakaya(casual bars where the name of the game is sinking as much beer as you humanly can!).
Again, Osaka is big enough to break down into separate districts. Top of the list for hedonists here has to be the brightly lit walks alongside the Dotonbori River, an area that’s occasionally called, simply Dotonbori. Things are super casual in these parts, with open-air bars serving grilled fish and cold beers so you can walk, meet, and mingle as you go. It’s a great way to begin the evening.
Next up, we’d move across to the atmospheric alley of Hozenji Yokocho. That’s a haven for izakaya bars where you can score cheap grub and frothy hops drinks with the locals. Later, you could scoot to Shinsaibashi, which has a much more international vibe, along with some of the largest clubs in the city – the out-there Pure Osaka is often hailed as the finest, with its curious array of antiques, dance podiums, and vintage cocktail lounges.
The other great thing about partying in Osaka is that it’s pretty simple to hop on local transport and check out other, far more local, areas. Go north to hit Amagasaki, an industrial city where tourists hardly ever set foot. It’s got sake bars and beer halls that will be filled with after workers. There’s also Sakai a short train ride to the south, where a clustering of cool cocktail and food outlets crowds the streets around Oshoji station.
Avid drinkers are likely to have already heard of Sapporo. Why? Well…it’s the beer city of Japan, the home and namesake of the most widely drunk brew in the country. That means every jaunt here should begin at the Sapporo Beer Museum, where you can get a good grounding in the hops-barley mashup that you’re likely to be imbibing in high quantities when you hit the town later on.
The capital of Hokkaido Island isn’t anywhere near as massive as cities like Osaka or Tokyo. It doesn’t have the double figure millions of populations. That means that the bars and discos should be easier to navigate. And so it is: The vast majority of places to let loose are wedged into the blocks south of Susukino Station, running along one main road south to the Toyohira River.
A couple of names stand out from the crowd. Hit the gritty music hall of SPiCE SAPPORO for rocking live bands. Head to Riviera Sapporo for funkier chart and electronica hits. Those are for later on, though. Earlier, check out the craft creations at the Beer Inn Mugishutei or Beer Bar North Island, or visit one of the leading LGBTQ+ options in the city at Bar Sign Oh!
Kyoto is best known for its 2,000 temples and Shinto shrines, its traditional tea-drinking establishments and its serene parks that bloom so famously with pink cherry blossoms every spring. But this otherwise peaceful city just to the northeast of Osaka also has a wilder side that comes alive when the sun dips below the surrounding Honshu hills and mountains.
The long run of Kiyamachi-dori, a boulevard that clings to the sides of the Kamo River, is the main heart of the action. It’s more than a mile long and has all sorts of places on the roster, from sleek sushi joints to steakhouses to award-winning sake tasting rooms. Adjoining that roughly midway down, the narrow side street of Pontocho Alley cuts through Kashiwayacho, unfolding with its moody izakaya joints and multi-cultural Asian eateries.
Once you’re done with the pre-drinking and pre-dining session, it could be time to head to one of the larger club venues in Kyoto. These are often exclusive affairs, requiring booking ahead of time or guestlist entry. The two that stand out are KYOTO Chambers and Kitsune Kyoto, both of which draw big-name acts and have striking light and sound systems installed.
The booming port city of Nagoya, one of the largest ports in the whole of Japan no less, is the last of our picks on this list of the five best nightlife cities in Japan. It’s worthy of the place thanks to its collection of classy clubs and down-to-earth pubs, which cater to the local student population but also the forever-changing international clientele that floods the city thanks to the ebb and flow of the boats.
The closest thing to a party quarter in Nagoya is the area that spreads east and west from the central Hisaya Odori Park, specifically through the blocks of Nishiki and Sakae. The streets there are packed to bursting with drinking options, including the English-themed pub of Queen’s Head, the throwback retro dive of Dekada 90’s Bar Sakae, and the dimly lit sports club of Bar LIBERTY.
For all-nighter parties then you’re looking at hitting one of the bigger club names. There are a handful on offer in Nagoya. First up should be Club iD Café, which is among the highest rated in the city, famed for its neon-lit bar space, Pop Art displays, and thumping EDM shows. Mago is an upcoming alternative, especially if you’re into international music acts and more niche DJ names.
The 5 best party cities in Japan – our conclusion
Japan really knows how to party. No matter if it’s an after-work shindig on a Friday, a backpacker session in the capital, or a sake-filled evening the sushi kitchens, there are events to suit all types in these parts. Toyko is the obvious stand out and a must for anyone looking to let loose in this corner of Asia. However, we also love the buzz of second-city Osaka, and the more local vibes you get in Sapporo, Nagoya, and Kyoto.