English words can be heard amid the general hubbub in Japanese at the counter as a small group of overseas tourists mingle with locals over drinks and food at a homey bar in a big-city neighborhood.

The group of travelers is on a "snack" tour in which they bar hop through an area of Tokyo with an English-speaking guide -- just one activity that has sprung up to cater to the influx of tourists looking to sample the country's burgeoning after-dark economy.

Snacks are small establishments often run by women, known as "mama-san," that serve alcohol and bar food. Karaoke performances very often are also on the menu.

Members of a "snack" tour listen to their guide at a bar in Tokyo's Ningyocho district on Oct. 28, 2023. (Kyodo)

"Irasshaimase! (Welcome!)" The woman who runs the bar in Ningyocho, a relatively quiet residential area away from the bustle of popular tourist spots, enthusiastically greeted her customers before serving them a few starters and sushi rice with toppings.

This snack's mama-san cannot speak English, so the "Snack Yokocho" tour guide stepped in to interpret for her. Yokocho is the Japanese word for a small alley usually filled with small drinking establishments.

Despite the language barrier, Dan Ridley, who joined from Australia while on his second visit to Japan, enjoyed every bit of his evening. Ridley was not too shy to take the karaoke microphone to serenade his drinking companions.

"It's a good way to really delve more into the culture beyond the touristy things that people usually come to Japan to do," said Ridley, who surprised those around him when he sang along to an old Japanese tune that has been popularized online.

Ridley said he decided to sign up for the tour after learning about it on social media.

The English-language tours began in December last year and are currently conducted two to three times a week in Tokyo. The Shimbashi business district is the most popular destination due to its liveliness, especially on weeknights when the area's suited workers let off steam, and abundance of neon signs, according to Mayuko Igarashi, CEO and representative director of Online Snack Yokocho Bunka Co., the tour operator.

Shimbashi is one of many areas in Japan where there is a cluster of yokocho, with the bars and restaurants having sprung up after World War II. Overseas tourists are often drawn to the din and debauchery of the area.

Takahiro Saito, executive director of the Japan Nighttime Economy Association, is focused on making the most out of the economic potential of the industry.

"Overseas tourists tend to crave a local authentic experience when they're in Japan," including those that have yet to be publicized in guidebooks, he said.

The tourism ministry defines nighttime economy as business that takes place between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. and believes the period can be utilized to further boost the economy by promoting activities ranging from drinking in bars to projection mapping on landmarks.

The idea for snack-hopping tours initially sprouted from online events in 2020, when Igarashi was approached by snack owners struggling to survive the restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Some mamas sent me an SOS, asking whether there was anything they could do" as the eateries were forced to temporarily close, said Igarashi. "They were afraid that they would be forgotten if they couldn't interact with their regulars," she added.

Igarashi, who calls herself a "snack maniac" due to her over 650 visits to such establishments, set up a website for the tour and noticed soon after that it was gaining massive online traction from abroad.

While snacks traditionally cater to locals, their prevalence in popular anime and video games seems to have generated wider curiosity, she said.

A tour guide typically escorts three to four people, taking them to two different snacks in one evening and quizzing the group on Japanese language and snack culture. Food, drinks and the entrance fee are included in the 15,000 yen ($100) ticket.

People on a "snack" tour sing karaoke at a bar in Tokyo's Ningyocho district on Oct. 28, 2023. (Kyodo)

She plans to expand the tours next year to Osaka and Kyushu as word spreads overseas.

But Igarashi admits to some challenges such as a reluctance from many snack owners to welcome tourists, mostly due to their own lack of English ability.

Japan has also struggled to shrug off negative perceptions of nightlife, with attitudes only shifting in recent years, as Japan revised a 1948 law governing nightclubs, sex parlors and other establishments that affect public morals to ease restrictions on entertainment past midnight, Saito said.

Prior to 2016, some establishments displayed a "No Dancing" sign -- as dancing past midnight was technically prohibited under the law -- but the revision made it legal.

Since the amendment, nighttime economy-related businesses have boomed, Saito said.

While Japan does not have official data regarding the after-dark economy, figures released for Britain and major cities such as New York prove that it generates a lot of economic activity.

According to the Local Government Association in Britain, the nighttime economy is estimated to produce about 60 billion pounds ($76 billion) every year, while the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment said in 2019 that nightlife in New York had generated $35.1 billion in annual economic output.

People on a night factory cruise snap photos as the vessel passes plants in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Dec. 1, 2023. (Kyodo)

Among other activities trying to cater to the recent influx of overseas tourists to Japan is a night cruise that takes in a number of factories that dot the shores of Yokohama Port near Tokyo.

"By focusing on the factories in the area, those aboard are able to also gain a greater understanding of the people who work there and support the local community," said Yuha Inoue from Keihin Ferry Boat Co.

The 90-minute cruise carries around 50 people on Fridays and weekends to see illuminated plants and famous landmarks, with a narration giving histories and backstories of the sights, including a historical red lighthouse built during the Meiji era (1868-1912) and Eneos Holdings Inc.'s Kawasaki refinery.

The cruise, which costs at least 4,400 yen for adults, allows passengers to feel the heat emanating off of multiple refineries, which operate round-the-clock, and view other factories up close from a vantage point that can only be accessed from the water.

While the cruise has become popular among Japanese over the past few years, it has struggled to attract overseas tourists, who often skip Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture for Tokyo, less than an hour away by train.

But the port city, which played an important role in Japan's modernization, abounds with its own array of niche and local culture, she said.

From the snack bar tour and night cruises to having drinks at a yokocho, Japan has a wide range of nighttime entertainment options, with Saito saying it offers ample cultural, social and economic benefits.

The after-dark economy "can also play a role in creating connections between people and heighten a sense of community," as it enables people to "find common ground with others and be free," he said.

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