TOKYO -- Corporate Japan is infamous for late-night benders in which supervisors ply their subordinates with drink after drink until it is time to catch the last train home. But these days more restaurants are offering options for workers who want to get home at a reasonable hour.
All-you-can-drink menus usually run for a fixed period of two hours, but courses as short as 30 minutes are increasingly popular. These drinking sessions cater to people who want to spend less, but they are also a hit with those who prefer shorter after-work drinking parties.
In an office building in Tokyo's Hamamatsucho district, businesspeople in dark suits pour into a restaurant on the ground floor when the clock hits 5 p.m. After paying upfront, they pour themselves a beer and take a drink. They are not at a pub, but rather Marugameseimen, an udon noodle chain.
"The price is low, so I can come here to drink on the cheap," said Shinji Ezaki, 40. The restaurant offers a 30-minute all-you-can-drink course from 5 p.m. that costs 1,000-1,300 yen ($9.25-$12). The 1,000 yen menu includes bottomless drinks, udon or a chicken and egg dish, and two additional items, such as tempura.
Draft beer, highballs, spirits mixed with lemon-flavored soda, and shochu, a distilled liquor, are all available. Customers can drink freely for 30 minutes, then take their time with the last glass.
Marugameseimen has in recent years opened new shops in office buildings in city centers. But "compared with the afternoon, they inevitably pull in fewer customers at night," said Seiji Tanaka, an official in charge of urban area marketing at the company.
To attract more nighttime customers, the company started offering the 30-minute drinking sessions at relatively large urban outlets in June 2016. These stores average 100 to 150 customers at night, but some have seen about 100 more come in after they introduced the courses.
Ezaki visits the restaurant about once a week and has six to seven drinks each time. "It's getting hotter now, so I may come more often," he said.
In cost-conscious Japan, a growing number of drinkers want to get drunk more cheaply. That trend is also pushing up demand for canned drinks with high alcohol content.
Another factor behind the shift to shorter drinking courses is young workers shunning late-night get-togethers with the boss. After a long day at the office, many are reluctant to spend additional hours talking shop over drinks.
That has not stopped Ezaki, who often comes to the restaurant with his subordinate, Suzuka Iwakiri, 20. "If it's only 30 minutes, it's easy for me to invite my juniors," Ezaki said.
"Since I can drink in a short time and then go home, I'm honestly happy to go if I'm invited," said Iwakiri.
With more women joining the workforce, some pubs are focusing on daytime parties, while some fast food restaurants, like Marugameseimen and beef bowl chains, are trying to meet demand for brief drinking courses.