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Asia travel

Discover the real Tokyo after dark with new bar-hopping tour and drink like a local

Social codes, ‘locals only’ door policies and the language barrier can make the city’s nightlife somewhat intimidating for many foreigners, but a new tour is trying to break down existing barriers over a beer … or two

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 December, 2017, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 December, 2017, 6:00pm

When it comes to drinking, nobody does it better than the hardworking, hard-partying population of Tokyo. Wander the streets of the city on a weekend and you’ll see locals unwinding in a cosy izakaya (Japanese pub).

It may look fun, but for many foreigners it’s perceived as a world that is difficult to access. Social codes, ‘locals only’ door policies and a language barrier can make the city’s nightlife somewhat intimidating for tourists.

Enter a new, immersive bar-hopping tour from Tokyo-based tourism start-up, Libra. While other Tokyo bar tours on the market tend to take larger groups to foreigner-focused spots, Libra take visitors wanting to experience an authentic Tokyo nightlife experience through the booze-soaked pockets of Tokyo that are usually reserved for locals only.

“We are learning that the way travellers tend to travel is changing, in that they’d rather have a deep local experience than visit touristy places,” says Yasuhiro Suzuki, head of Libra, which offers a number of different Magical Trip tours in Japan. “They are more open-minded about seeing the world.”

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Though it’s less common nowadays, strolling down Golden Gai (one of Tokyo’s biggest bar-hopping districts) tourists will still come across the occasional sign that reads “Japanese only” or “No foreigners”.

Some venue owners defend these signs, saying that their bars only sit a limited number of patrons so the area’s resident drinkers are given priority, while others say it’s a response to bad tourist behaviour. Either way it is an additional barrier travellers face when venturing out alone at night.

“Some of our guests said they weren’t sure if bars allowed foreigners,” says Suzuki, 33, who started Libra four years ago. “Others said they were worried they wouldn’t be able to communicate in Japanese, or they wouldn’t feel comfortable drinking by themselves.”

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The Magical Trip tour hopes to break down the wall between foreigners and Japanese by giving guests a glimpse into traditional Japanese drinking culture.

“Izakayas are small and informal pubs that serve various types of alcoholic beverages as well as small food dishes. Because they are usually so small, with only a few seats, it’s not unusual for total strangers to share a table,” explains Suzuki. “It doesn’t take much time before our customers start interacting with locals.

“In the West, Japanese society is perceived as very formal, but if you get to experience an izakaya, you realise how friendly and outgoing Japanese really are.”

Suzuki points to Shinjuku as one of the most popular night hotspots in Tokyo. “But for those who want to avoid the typical tourist nightlife centres of Shinjuku and Roppongi, and try something a little more unique, then we can also take you to the best corners of Ebisu Yokocho ,” he says. “This [venue] is a well-kept local secret that houses many izakayas under one roof.” 

At the end of the night, guides take guests to their favourite ramen restaurant to fill up on soupy noodles and will show any who are feeling a little disoriented how to get safely back to their accommodation.

The tours are customisable, and come in a number of packages which range from US$32 for the standard package (food and drink not included) to a VIP Plan which costs about US$276, including food, drinks and VIP service at the bar. For more: