Japanese Izakaya Guide
Japanese izakaya is a sort of hybrid between a bar and a restaurant, where diners enjoy drinks over lively conversation while snacking on small dishes of tasty food.
Izakaya are extremely popular as an after work destination for Japanese office workers, as well as a spot for dates and gatherings with friends. They are also an increasingly popular dining option for foreign travelers in Japan.
Overview of Izakaya
Izakaya are lively eating and drinking establishments, and are a popular place for the typically serious-at-the-office Japanese to unwind after a hard day of work. Compared to a normal restaurant, drinking, rather than eating, tends to be the main activity, with food functioning mainly as snack fare, although diners certainly can and do make a meal out of izakaya food.
Izakaya Food and Drink
Most izakaya have a robust drink menu. Drinks typically served at izakaya include beer (usually Japanese brands like Sapporo, Kirin, and Suntory), sake (nihonshu, or Japanese rice wine), shochu, whiskey, wine and an assortment of cocktails, as well as juice, soft drinks, and tea.
Many izakaya, particularly the larger chains, boast huge menus with a vast assortment of food items, including Japanese favorites like yakitori, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, onigiri, age-dashi tofu, and sashimi, as well as a wide assortment of salads, fried dishes like French fries, onion rings, calamari, and much more.
Types of Izakaya
There are two basic types of izakaya: large chains and small mom-and-pop restaurants. Popular chains include Watami, Tsubohachi, Murasaki, Shirokiya, Shoya, and many more. These izakaya chains frequently cater to large, lively gatherings of co-workers, friends, and classmates, and so are often rather loud and boisterous. It is not at all uncommon to see normally reserved groups of Japanese salarymen get completely out of control at izakaya.
Small, individually owned izakaya are also found all throughout Japan. These mom-and-pop shops tend to be much more intimate, attract more regular clientele, and have significantly smaller food and drink menus.
Where to Experience Izakaya Dining in Japan
In large cities like Tokyo, you never have to venture far to find an izakaya close by. Just find one with a fun-looking atmosphere and come on inside (*hint: look for a lantern like the one at the top of this page; the characters read “izakaya”!)
Izakaya Dining Tips
If you are Japanese challenged, be aware that smaller izakaya often only provide menus in difficult-to-read handwritten Japanese, with no pictures. Most small-izakaya staff typically do not speak English.
Large izakaya chains, on the other hand, usually have colorful, multi-page menus with pictures of every item, making it easy to point and order. As such, a large chain like Watami is a good choice for a first-time izakaya experience, with no loss of quality of experience or taste.
Izakaya food portions are typically small, so groups of diners normally order several dishes to share, and you can always order more.
Many izakaya have tatami floor seating, and may require you to remove your shoes before sitting down at your table.
If you want to experience the true flavor and spirit of after-work dining in Japan, then a visit to a Japanese izakaya is a must for your travel itinerary!