Izakaya 居酒屋

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The izakaya is the Japanese answer to the pub and, just like anywhere, there's a bar for all tastes.

Places to suck up to the section manager, to charm the ladies or to rest tired feet after a hard day's sightseeing.

But in all of them, the first thing you'll hear is an enthusiastic "irrashaimase!" (welcome) from the staff, some that you'll see and some you won't. Straight away you'll feel like you're being taken care of but immediately the comparison with the pub falls down. Or rather, it takes a seat.

It's the major difference between East and West. Not the group versus the individual or raw fish versus cooked but between the ethics of sitting or standing when you drink.

Try holding a beer in one hand, a basket of kara-age (fried chicken) in the other and your chopsticks in?! Something clearly doesn't add up. Food is something that your average Japanese will not drink without and crisps and peanuts just won't do.

So the one thing that all izakaya share is a multi-faceted menu. Most main types of Japanese food will be covered.

Expect to find sashimi, tempura and oden, various deep-fried morsels, grilled fish, skewered foods and even pizza. What all selections will have in common is that they will be tidbits to pick at rather than dishes to fill up on.

Dish in Japanese izakaya restaurant.
Dish in Japanese izakaya restaurant.

So the izakaya is most definitely a sit down experience. With food you need tables and if there's no seating space your izakaya is full. Never fear though, you shouldn't be far from the next one.

Look out for the red lanterns they often hang outside though there are plenty of exceptions to the rule.

Typically, an izakaya is a smoky den where a 'salaryman' can loosen both his tie and his tongue while slowly turning into a sponge.


A handful are now showing a feminine side to court Japan's growing number of financially solvent single women. So it's now possible to find izakaya with more of a cosmopolitan feel, though you're still unlikely to find a no-smoking section.

But right back at the beginning of the izakaya story are the family joints where the whole idea came from. Where the son is being groomed to take over and mom and pop welcome you as if you'd been invited to dinner.

With any luck your helplessness with the menu will bring out the mother in the okami-san and she'll look after you from there on in. It's in these places where you'll come away not just well fed and perhaps a little tipsy but with a sense of having experienced a little Japanese hospitality too.

Vegetable dish in Japanese izakaya restaurant.

Izakaya Tips

Once you sit down the fun begins. You'll be served straight away with an oshibori (hot towel) and an appetiser. Trying to guess its identity can be the first game you play.

Whatever it is, the beer you will have ordered by now should wash it down without any difficulty. Ordering food comes next and various strategies are open to the first time visitor.

1. Bring a Japanese person with you, it's the easiest option and highly recommended. They will order you treats that you wouldn't have dreamed of eating yourself and no doubt have a wonderful time testing how far you'll venture into the wilds of Japanese cuisine.
Getting a taste for raw fish is only the beginning of the adventure.

Japanese Cooking.

2. Look around you, what do you see? Lots of people eating and drinking no doubt. What are they eating? Why not ask!
Write this down, it's wonderfully versatile:
"sumimasen, kore / sore wa nan desu ka?"
It means "Excuse me, what's this / that?" and as well as working on passing waitresses, try it on the people next to you. It can be an excellent icebreaker.

3. Ask for a recommendation (the word is o-susume). Given the range of what's on offer, it might be useful to suggest a ballpark area for your host to play in such as sushi, tempura, kushikatsu or oden.

4. Point at the pictures. What could be simpler? Menus with photographs are common in larger izakaya, particularly the chains.

Go to Japan Visitor's restaurant, bar, club, and cafe guide to Japan.

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