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Sick of being ripped off? Bored with going to the major chains? Check out some small, independant and well-worthy places to stop for a drink

Shinjuku

MARU

Narrow rowdy upstairs izakaiya, with self-service. You can mix your own cocktails from a sticky selection of brandless spirits, or get a mate to surprise/traumatise you. The beer pumps are particularly cool, automatically tilting the glass for you and spraying on a liberal head, so all you have to do is push a button.  Nomihoudai is 300yen for half an hour, so about 1,200 yen for the average 2 hour binge. The food isn’t great but from 60Y for a yakitori what do you expect? You have to order some food to get the drinks deal but they don’t force you to actually eat it. The staff are a lot less polite than the norm in Japan but since everyone there is completely hammered I guess I can’t blame them.

Overall; Fun, cheap, but not fancy. Definitely not good for a first date.

Take the South Exit out of Shinjuku Station, go straight down the main road. Take the 3rd left, its the building near the end of the street with a big orange sign, on the 4th floor. Shinjuku 34-14, Shinjuku 3-Chome, 160-0022

Ikebukuro

Standing bar

Often busy with a good atmosphere, this small bar has a retro feel. The usual crowd is older drinkers and salarymen leaning on the wooden tables and unwinding after a long day. They dont offer nomihoudai but its only about 300Y for a beer, which you pay for as they come so there`s no big bar tab to come as a nasty surprise at the end of the night. No seats, but this means no table charge. Good for a quick drink, or a few if youre not hungry and still capable of standing up.

West exit,__________ second floor

Shimokitazawa

Barba

Upstairs bar, hard to find twice. Pirate themed, the arching roof, murals and assorted nautical tat make it feel like drinking in a boat. usually quiet. Nomihoudai advertised for 700yen for 2 hours – if you want beer and tequila its an extra 200Y, and the table charge is about 400y. The waiter told us half way through we had to order food (about 400Y, standard fare) but since he didnt say this at the beginning we could argue it. You can make your own takoyaki at the table, takes a bit of practise if its your first time though. Not much atmosphere early on but good for a quieter drink, and the unusual design plus extensive cocktails/ sours menu make it worth checking out.

Overall; Cheap, but check what you pay for before you start

Take the south exit out of Shimokitazawa Station, turn right, go past McDonalds, go two blocks and look for it on the left hand side near am-pm, its on the second floor   http://www.hotpepper.jp/strJ000789228/

Kichijoji

For a real change of drinking style, take the Chuo line to some of the best cities in Tokyo. Kichijoji is the perfect example of this – tiny rock bars, theme bars, Okinawan-esque wooden shacks with overpriced cocktails… but there’s some really unusual stuff once you get onto the side streets

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Yurei – Ghost Bar

Not the cheapest on this list but definitely worth heading to, if only for how unique it is. This horror-themed ezakaiya offers a range of ghoulishly presented food and drinks, in a creepily decorated black-lit basement bar. The friendly staff are dressed as traditional Japanese ghosts – trailing white dress, shockingly pale. Think Sadako in the Ring … only serving you beer instead of crawling out the tv. The best deal is for 3 – 4 people, doing nomihoudai/tabehoudai. The food is a bit pricey but fantastic, and the presentation is cool. We ordered spare ribs – the lights go dim, something in a shot glass is poured over the meat, the spark of a lighter, and a foot high flaming inferno is placed in front of you. Wow.Some specials too, like the Valentines Day “Russian Roulette” – the theme being “heaven and hell”. Two identical looking gyoza arrive on a plate – one tasty, the other a burning nightmare of wasabi. Go in on your birthday and get a surprise.

Kichijoji Station south exit, head towards Inokashira Koen, go past Marui, and its on a small street to the right (B1, 1-8-11 Kichijoji Minami-cho). Or just follow the sound of wailing and screaming.

Harmonica bars

You can find these in loads of towns along the Chuo line. Most drinking holes in Japan you’re at a table, set a bit apart from others, inside a bar that probably doesn’t have windows.

The harmonica bars are very very different. These tiny places sit side by side on maze-like narrow streets, each only about the size of 6 tatami mats, or a handful of metres square, cluttered with small tables and chairs pushed together back to back, the walls decorated with old movie posters, graffiti, toys, memorabilia, books, found … things.. One wall is open onto the street, with sheets of plastic like a shower curtain to pull across if its raining. The chairs overlapping with the bar next door, the music and shouts mingling; its  more like drinking outdoors than in.

Dont expect a huge range of food and drink – there literally isnt space to store it. The bar counter in most of these is smaller than my kitchen sink. Theres bar snacks and maybe a yakitori grill or a couple of pots of something simmering away in the cramped space behind the bar. These aren’t places designed for eating a big meal in with a more limited selection than in most izakaiyas, but they compensate for the lack of choice by serving a few quality dishes. Theyre designed for banter – something you don’t get much sat at seperate tables, with everything brought to you by a waiter. The layout forces you to talk to others, passing their drinks over, squeezing past their chairs. It’s a great place for chatting to strangers, making new friends, and of course flirting.

Most of them are too small to have their own toilets, but there`s usually a public one nearby. For example in Kichijoji a few of the harmonica bar owners clubbed together to build a block of loos and they give you a key to use them. Just try to remember which bar you were drinking in so you can give the key back. There`s no table charge, beer around 500Y

Overall; Friendly, lively and great for having a chat or getting a few phone numbers

Kichijoji: Come out the main entrance of the train station, turn left and the harmonica bars start in a small sidestreet just across the road near Sunshine Dori.

Shibuya

standing bar

This is a great place to meet foreigners outside the Hub Trap (Hub Trap: you start a bit of conversation waiting at the bar, they seem reasonably cool, come over to join you, then rapidly descend into arseholes). The staff  understand a fair bit of English if you’re not too great at Japanese. It’s a standing bar, so good for mingling, or if there’s a big group of you, or if you just want to skip the table charge most places will insist you pay. They do a small range of beers, including dark beer, which makes a refreshing change from lager. Theres a few bar snacks available but no real food – if you want something a bit more substantial there’s one of Tokyo`s few kebab shops just up the street, opposite the McDonalds. I tried the snack pasta, initially disappointed by what appeared to be dry pasta covered in salt, but crunchy and good drinking food.  They show major league European football and baseball, although good luck keeping your attention on the game.

Happy hour is until 7pm where a medium sized beer is 300Y, about 400 after that.

Shibuya Station, exit 3a. Go straight down the main road, turn right at Shibuya Flag, turn left, and its on your left hand side. Udagawacho 33-14, Shibuya, 150-0042

Nerima `Ten Ten`

Another standing bar, pretty laid back and entirely covered in wooden panelling, so you get the nice fresh wood smell. You buy tickets from a machine, just like in the cheaper kind of ramen shops, then tell the staff behind the counter what you want, everything is 300yen. The food is pretty good but the portions are small.

Come out the central exit, cross Senkawa dori, and turn left at Mr Donut. The bar is on a right hand corner on the next street.

Ooizumigakuen `The Moon`

One way off the beaten track in so many ways, The Moon is a 1950’s style American diner bar full of chrome, red leather booths, vintage style posters and neon signs. Small bowls of popcorn are refilled for you, and there’s even a notebook and biro on the table in case you want to do some doodling or grab someone’s number. The service is really quick, the drinks are good and its super cheap.Nomihoudai is around 1,300 yen at weekends, and if you fancy early doors mid-week bingeing you can start from 4pm for 150yen a drink

The bad news? Madonna or slightly out of date Top 20 hits on repeat. The same forty minutes of taped MTV videos, over and over.  The opening hours are kind of random and they host a lot of private parties too, so phone first to confirm its open before heading all the way out here.

From Oozumi station pass Mizuho and keep going down the hill, cross at the main intersection with Geos on the corner and its across the street.

Torikizoku

Well worth a mention, this relaxed and super cheap izakaya chain gets its own entry. They sell a lot of cocktails, whiskey, beer and yakitori style food. Everything is 270Y, theres never any table charge, no waiting around. The staff are always really helpful and they usually have an English menu kicking around too if you need it. Nomihoudai/tabehoudai deal is 2800Y per person and only for groups of 8 or more for some reason – you probably won`t end up saving much unless you pillage the food deal

Branches mostly along the Seibu-Ikebukuro line,  in Ikebukuro itself (West exit, go through the Metropolitan Park and turn right,  left at Marui and left again at the police box, its near Lawsons), Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa, and even one in Kyoto in the middle of Pontocho.

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