Man doing virtual happy hour (オンライン飲み会) at home

Some Japanese Izakaya Go Virtual During COVID-19

Picture: MediaFOTO / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
From free high-speed wi-fi to shamizen serenades, enterprising bar owners in Japan are going virtual to soften the damage wrought by COVID-19.
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This week, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo extended Japan's state of emergency from seven prefectures to include the entire country. That means that Japan, following in the footsteps of other countries, is officially shutting down large swaths of its economy. That's bad news for Japanese izakaya (居酒屋), pub-style restaurants that serve drinks and small plate dishes. But a few are attempting to weather the storm by inviting their customers to join them from the safe, socially distanced comfort of their own homes.

Japan's Already Suffering Izakaya

Regular readers know that, as an avid drinker myself, I'm a fan of Japan's drinking scene. Regular readers also know that Japan's izakaya were already in rough shape before COVID-19. A general flight from drinking, especially among the young, has bars and izakaya looking for ways to increase revenue. Strategies include offering a wider variety of non-alcoholic drinks and even offering booze as a subscription service.

With the COVID-19-driven shutdown, that situation is getting worse. Matsumoto Kazuto, who runs a small chain of three stores in the city of Hamamatsu, told FNN that he's moved to catering and delivery in an attempt to soften the blow. But he's already seen revenue at stores drop by between 80 and 90%. Matsumoto says if the closure goes on for half of the year, it'll likely push his business to the brink.

緊急事態宣言・拡大 居酒屋3店を臨時休業も「先が見えない」 浜松市

浜松市中区の居酒屋「幸」。 オーナーの松本さんは市内で居酒屋を4店舗を経営していますが、この店を含め3店舗をすでに臨時休業にしています。 美酒佳肴幸・松本和人代表「やっぱり厳しいです。売上は8割減ないし9割減の店もあります」 店では売り上げの補てんにと、3月中旬から弁当やケータリングのテイクアウトを開始。 …

(JP) Link: Emergency Declaration Expansion: “I Can't See a Future” – Three Izakaya Temporarily Shuttered – Hamamatsu

Do You Want Wi-Fi With Your Karaage Chicken?

Like Matsumoto, other izakaya are looking at clever ways they can shift their businesses and offset their losses. Some are looking to cash in on a growing worldwide trend: The Virtual Happy Hour (オンライン飲み会; online nomikai). The tradition is already trending in countries that have been on lockdown longer than Japan.

Most Virtual Happy Hours are privately organized. A group of friends use popular software that supports video conferencing – such as Zoom, Houseparty, Google Hangouts, or Discord – and hang out while everyone knocks a few back in isolation. In Japan, one company, Takunomi (short for jitaku [house] and nomu [drink]) is even sponsoring a video conferencing site that lets users choose various hanami (cherry blossom viewing) backgrounds using photos taken from all over Japan.

A Takunomi chat room.

Some izakaya in Japan are seizing on this trend – and even helping some customers get online. In Niigata Prefecture, Manabe Hiromitsu, who runs a number of izakaya as a franchisee, has implemented such a strategy for his Miraizaka izakaya in the city of Joetsu (上越). Manabe is offering access to the store's high-speed wi-fi service provider from their homes to facilitate virtual nomikais. (Many wi-fi services in Japan have password-protected endpoints that are available throughout a city. I'm assuming this means the store is basically sharing its access codes with customers.) His store is still offering around half of its usual menu items and encouraging customers to purchase as takeout. The tax for takeout is lower than food eaten in a restaurant under Japan's new consumption tax scheme. That means customers can get the food they usually eat from Miraizaka – only cheaper.

Virtual Shamisen

Not to be outdone, Kobayashi Hatsue has taken her oden specialty shop, Rizu, in Nakano one step further. Kobayashi, who's known for singing karaoke and playing the shamisen while serving customers oden (food boiled in a dashi-flavored broth), looked for an innovative way to support her small, 12-person shop during the COVID-19 crisis. She settled on opening an online nomikai using the service PassMarket. Customers buy tickets to join “Rizu-Mama” online, where Kobayashi plays shamisen and encourages attendees to sing along.

東中野の居酒屋「リズ」が端唄三味線オンラインバー チケット購入者の顔見ながら(みんなの経済新聞ネットワーク) – Yahoo!ニュース

中野氷川神社近くの「おでん居酒屋リズ」(中野区東中野1、TEL 03-3361-6990)のリズママこと小林初枝さんが4月15日、有料オンライン店舗「端唄三味線バー リズ」を開店した。(中野経済新聞) 【写真】(関連フォト)「おでん居酒屋リズ」外観 …

(JP) Link: Online Bar with Traditional Shamisen Love Songs; Performed While Paying Customers Watch

Kobayashi told a reporter that she's been thinking about a service such as this for a while. “The impetus was COVID-19, to be sure, but I think nightlife businesses [mizushoubai] have to change the way we've done things….I couldn't meet that many customers before COVID-19, but online, I can meet people who I haven't seen in a long time. It's exciting.”

I'm sure other enterprising izakaya owners will find clever ways to utilize online technologies to at least soften the damage wrought by the COVID-19 virus. Personally, as a huge fan of Japan's nightlife and of izakaya in particular, I worry about what the industry will look like when the dust finally settles.

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Some Japanese Izakaya Go Virtual During COVID-19

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