Dynamics of Japanese hookah culture and market. Interview with GaBa

Not long ago I faced with some wonderful thing – a google based map of all hookah related locations in Japan:

I’ve been so impressed about it: cant imagine how someone collected so big amount of data into the one place. And Im happy to say, that I’ve got in contact with the creator of this map. Let me introduce you GaBa:

Hello GaBa! Ive been really impressed with your hookah map of Japan. Can you please tell a story about yourself? You dont work in the hookah industry? Are you a hookah lover? Why have you decided to make a hookah map?

I am not currently working in the hookah industry. I used to write articles about cooking and anime/manga on web media. I have a completely different job now.

I have been smoking hookah for 18 years. I was interested in smoking culture, so I collected all kinds of cigarettes and smoked them (cigarette,cigar,pipe tobacco,hand-rolled cigarettes,japanese smoke pipe,Snuff). Hookah in particular was a subject that no one had researched, so it was fun and suited my lifestyle.

The reason why I made Hookah Map is because I want many people to meet Hookah. When I started smoking Hookah, only Middle Eastern and Indian restaurants served Hookah in Japan. The number of shops is small, there is only one in each city.sometimes not at all. It wasn’t a specialty store, and now that I think about it, it may not have been delicious, but I was very impressed.


From 2005 to 2010, specialty stores called “ShishaCafe” were born in the three major cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka, and spread in some subculture areas. At that time, I was living in Gifu, a rural area in the middle of Japan.It was a bit of a trip to a Hookah shop in the city. I will check the information before I go out, but where should I go? Where is the hotel? transfer? to confirm I just started using the My Maps feature of Google Maps, which started service in 2007.

Initially, it was used only for personal notes. After that, my trusted Hookah friends sent me information about various places, and I started adding them. I made a lot of mistakes in looking for a Hookah shop, going to the site, and smoking. I am still updating the map so that other Hookah friends will not experience failure as much as possible.

Do you still smoke hookah now?

It is still being smoked today.I used to buy and smoke many flavors, but now I buy a few of my favorites New items, etc. are smoked in the store. I used to smoke more than one cigarette a day, but since I got sick, I smoke every few days. On my days off, I go to a Hookah shop.

If you are an experienced cigar smoker, I’m interested to ask you: have you ever tried cigar leaf based hookah tobacco?

I’ve never smoked hookah tobacco, which is announced as being based on cigar leaf. However, I have smoked something called cigar flavor. It was imported from the Middle East around 2010, but there was no brand name, just an illustration of a cigar and a note that it was a hookah tobacco. The actual smoke was light in flavor. There are a few shopkeepers who reproduce the cigar flavor in their mixes, but they do exist. Their mixes are really more like cigars.

Can you please watch a part of our International youtube show “Mix and Story 2022”. What do you think about the video presentation from our participant from Japan (Baan Shisha Lounge)?

We believe that Baan Shisha is at the forefront of the shisha industry, which is still in its infancy in Japan. In Japan, we believe that we are good at mix a product whose flavor changes step by step as it is smoked. In Japan, where the seasons change dramatically, we offer shisha that is appropriate for each season, and we hope that international visitors will visit us many times

If you smoke hookah every day, can I ask what is your favorite hookah tobacco brand and which flavors are your favorite?

My favorite is handmade made by me.

In terms of manufacturer’s products, it is Khalil Maamoon. It’s a bit special, but Hekkpipe are essential for travel! My favorite of the flavors is PureTabaco FML GREEN.

And then there is TokyoShisa WINTER ROSE!  like this flavor because it is similar to the famous Japanese drink! 

Another one is JSE Pomegranate. The first flavor I smoked was pomegranate and JSE is very similar to it. 

  JSE is an original brand for the Japanese market, manufactured by the Japanese manufacturer Sadachi, who commissioned AL WAHA to manufacture it.Sadachi says, “We had a hard time making several prototypes to make it to the Japanese taste. In Japan, tobacco production is strictly regulated by law, and only JT is allowed to manufacture cigarettes in Japan. The sale of cigarettes is also permitted by the government.

  What do you think about the idea of a hookah lounge map, which was created in Russia? It’s our project: http://where2smoke.net/ . Each hookah lounge have a personal page with information about: which hookah models they have and which tobacco brands do they have in the menu. You can search for particular tobacco brand, and website will show you a lounges which have in the menu

Unfortunately, we believe that only a few people in Japan today choose stores by looking at hookah models and tobacco brands. The staff is also in flux, and the tobacco brands and hookah models they handle may change. We believe that even if you are dealing with a specific brand, it can often change in a matter of months. In addition, the price of smoking shisha is also revised every year because the cigarette tax in Japan is rising every year. The idea is interesting but seems to be difficult to update.

What can you tell about the progress of the hookah industry in Japan? How was it in 2005, in 2016, and now in 2023?


Some people in the subculture community and some backpackers smoked it. There are only about 10 hookah specialty stores in Japan, and the rest can be smoked as a bonus in foreign restaurants. Most people did not even know it existed, and if they did, they were prejudiced against it as underground and dangerous. Also, at that time, laws were passed to control cigarettes in Japan, and smokers were losing their places to smoke. In recent years, Japan has had many small rooms or areas called smoking areas, but many smoking areas were abolished by law.


With the spread of SNS (Social Network Services), awareness grew, and hookah specialty stores began to appear in major cities in Japan. In addition, the number of individuals who purchased and smoked cigarettes was increasing, and information was being exchanged over the Internet. Still, there were a few people who smoked hookah, and even if they recognized it, they were misinformed or prejudiced. It was a time when the number of individual smokers increased with the advent of HMS (Heat Management System: Kaloud Lotus, Turkish Bowl Lid and Provost Apple on TOP are often seen in Japan.), and more and more people were making handmade goods. In addition, laws regulating cigarettes have become stricter and taxes have risen even higher. In particular, when the Tokyo Olympics were decided upon, a law was enacted that, in principle, prohibited smoking in lodging facilities and stores offering food and beverages. 

Accommodations and restaurants where smoking is currently allowed operate under many restrictions.


Hookah shops took a hit in COVID‑19, but conversely, more and more business owners opened hookah shops to replace restaurants that had closed. This has led to a rapid increase in the number of hookah shops, but the quality of hookah shops in Japan is mixed, and the difference in quality has become stark. Hookah awareness has increased, but many are in their 20s, and the situation is being used as a new night spot! Many young people do not smoke cigarettes but do smoke Hookah. For this reason, many non-nicotine flavors are also used. Nowadays, there are more Hookah smokers and a few have been featured in the TV media and information magazines. To our delight, young people are now organizing competitions for their skills and events where Hookah shops can get together.

Do you know any local hookah or tobacco hookah manufacturers from Japan?

Hookah in Japan is included in cigarettes and can only be produced by JT (Japan Tobacco company), so there are no companies that produce shisha flavors using tobacco leaves. The only companies that can do that are either importing or outsourcing their manufacturing overseas. There are several companies, large and small, that sell hookah, but selling cigarettes requires a license from the Japanese government. For this reason, some companies sell only hookah models and goods.  Although there are many individuals who produce hookah models, it is unlikely that anyone in Japan is producing hookah models as a business in Japan. Instead, shisha items such as tophagar and mouthpieces are present.Below are some shisha goods that I would like to highlight:

EGG SHISHS SAKAZUKI(tophagar) Japanese traditional pottery MINOYAKI

Tokyo shisha SHIGARAKI-VACA-bowl(tophagar) Japanese traditional pottery SHIGARAKI

MAZE Glass Mouthpieces (MAZE is advised and produced by me.)

TEA SHISHA (Non-nicotine flavored with Japanese tea leaves. However, clearing Japanese law is a problem)

All of these are people I know and can contact.

“young people are now organizing competitions for their skills”? since we have been doing hookah competitions for the last 11 years, its really interesting for me to look into it. Don’t you have any pictures of video or info where I can find it?

SMOKING DOWN 2023/01/26Tokyo

SHISHA-1 GP 2023/03/25Tokyo

In Japan, events where you can try out and smoke a dozen or so shisha tend to be more welcome than shisha showdowns! However, we believe that shisha showdowns will increase in the future.

You mentioned later that only JT can produce any tobacco related products in Japan. So do I correctly understand that JSE – is a non-tobacco product for hookah smoking?

JSE is a tobacco product made by AL WAHA. It was Sadachi that had it made. And Sadachi is the exclusive importer. Only JT can manufacture them in Japan. This is because JT started out as a state-owned monopoly company. For this reason, most Japanese tobacco companies sell cigarettes manufactured by JT or imported from overseas. However, it is permitted for a Japanese company to outsource the manufacture of cigarettes to an overseas cigarette manufacturing company at an overseas factory, and to import and sell them exclusively as products of the overseas company. Although it is a legal loophole, long-established Japanese pipe companies also sell KISERU tobacco in this way. In addition, in order to sell imported cigarettes from abroad in Japan, they must be registered with the government and are subject to high taxes.

  Do you know the Uptail Shisha store? They’ve been our very first contestant of Hookah Battle in 2017 on the HEW expo Las-Vegas USA Cup:  

I know. I have purchased from them several times when I was a beginner. Uptail is a long-established Japanese-owned shisha specialty store. I have no direct acquaintance with Uptail.

  I have a feeling that you know a lot about the JT company. Long time ago JTI bought the oldest hookah tobacco brand in the world 

(which has been manufactured in Egypt since 1913). Many hookah lovers of different countries discussed it in 2013/2014. What do you think about it?  

JT acquired Nakhla on November 16, 2012. Currently, JT is struggling to sell cigarettes in Japan and has acquired many overseas tobacco companies in search of overseas sales channels, which is the third largest in size and more than half of our sales are overseas. Therefore, the acquisition of Nakhla was also a stepping stone to Egypt, where there were no sales channels. The acquisition of Nakhla was also an attempt to secure a sales channel for paper cigarettes, while keeping the water tobacco business intact. In addition to Egypt, JT has acquired tobacco companies in the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Sudan, Belgium, Iran, Brazil, Dominica, Ethiopia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. Friends familiar with Japanese tobacco companies rumored.

One of the reasons for the acquisition is said to be the acquisition of expertise in the manufacture of waterpipe tobacco, but it is not clear to what extent JT Corp. will research hookah tobacco. Due to tobacco regulations in Japan, paper cigarettes are selling less and less every year, and JT is making efforts to sell electronic cigarettes (vaporizers) that are low-smelling and low-smoking. JT is also keeping a close eye on the growing vapor cigarette industry in Japan, but does not believe it is worth the risk to manufacture and sell them.

I share that opinion.

There is a reason why JT Corp. has not ignored the expansion of shisha tobacco. Tobacco sales in Japan require a national license and approval, and each local JT company is responsible for reviewing the licenses. There are clear standards and many items must be cleared, but it seems that JT has the knowledge to smoothly approve HookahLounge and Hookah shops. Approval took quite a long time not so long ago, but I believe it is much faster these days. JT also brings samples and pamphlets of their products to Hookah Lounges. Too bad customers can’t always try those samples because many stores in Japan don’t allow non-shisha cigarettes to be smoked.

What if I will offer to become a Jury member in some of our events? But you will need to travel to some hookah expo in some country (Russia, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Czech Republic)

I would like to try it, but my problem is that I am not good at communicating in English and I don’t have the funds because I buy too many different hookah. If I have the chance, I would like to go abroad for the expo.

What do you think about the future of Japan’s hookah market? Can you give any forecast?

Hookah in Japan today is just one of the many newest forms of entertainment. Many young people do not have a proper understanding of how hookah works, and only about 30% of all people who own and smoke hookah do so privately. People who are concerned about nicotine and tar because they are cigarettes smoke non-nicotine flavored or electronic hookah. 

Hookah is also known to domestic regulatory and anti-smoking groups, and they are beginning to take their point of view here as well. In Japan, regulatory laws have been enacted at an alarming rate in recent years without sufficient research into the industry and market, causing the industry to atrophy. 

In Japan, laws have been enacted in the name of health, and it is possible that the industry will completely collapse.In fact, in Tokyo, smoking is no longer allowed in restaurants and some restaurants have eliminated hookah from their menus. 

However, the government wants to secure tobacco taxes, so regulations will proceed more slowly than in other industries. Not many people feel as threatened as I do, many fluid customers and managers won’t care. They will just look for their next preference. Still, there are certainly people like me who love hookah. They will be more Deeply developing their hookah skills and expanding their knowledge. 

Also, a group may be formed to share their opinions on legislation. Personally, I am convinced that MIX, hookah itself, and hookah goods will be created to integrate traditional Japanese culture into hookah.

I have made an agreement with Eda from Uptail Shisha Store, that I will send them some gifts for you and they will resend it to you.

It’s gonna be a gift box from Darkside, where you will find TOP 3 of my favorite flavors from this brand.

and since you are fan of cigars, Im have asked our friends from WTO to provide me a gift for you.

WTO – hookah tobacco made from pure cigar leaves (as I know it’s the most expensive hookah tobacco in the world)

Thank you for this really interesting interview. I hope that one day I will come back to you with some proposal regarding our service of Where2smoke.net in Japan, and I hope that we can find a solution how to manage your travel to become a Judge of some Hookah Battle contest.

Note for our community members: please go to the Hookah Battle profile of GaBa and put some “+” in his reputation. I think we should nominate GaBa in our Hookah Names project to get some award for the contribution into the development of hookah industry.

#Al Waha
#Apple On Top
#EGG Shisha
#Hookah Battle
#Japan Tobacco
#Khalil Maamoon
#Smoking Down
#TEA shisha


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