Izakayas: History, Dining Style, Menu Items & More
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An izakaya is a Japanese drinking establishment. It’s a lot like a tavern or pub, but it’s more than that. It’s a place to unwind, socialize, and enjoy good food and drinks with friends and colleagues.
Let’s look at what makes an izakaya so special.
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Understanding Izakaya: A Guide to Japanese Drinking and Dining Culture
An izakaya is a type of informal Japanese bar that serves alcoholic beverages and food. It’s often compared to a Spanish tapas bar or an American saloon, but with its own unique features and rules. The atmosphere is unpretentious and mainly focused on sharing food and drinks with friends and colleagues.
The Ubiquitous Izakaya: Where to Find Them
Izakayas are a massive part of Japanese drinking and dining culture, and they can be found all over the country. They’re especially popular in urban areas and near train stations, where people often stop for a drink or a bite to eat before heading home.
What to Expect When You Walk In
When you enter an izakaya, you’ll usually be asked to remove your shoes and store them in a cubby near the entrance. Electronic menus are becoming more common, but some places still use literal Japanese characters. Don’t let that dissuade you, as the atmosphere and alcohol are soon making up for any language barriers.
Seating and Ordering
Most izakayas have low tables and cushions on the floor, but some also have chairs or bar seating. You’ll be asked to pick a table and sit down, and then you can start perusing the menu. Some places offer an all-you-can-eat or all-you-can-drink option, called “tabehōdai” and “nomihōdai,” respectively.
Hours and Rules
Izakayas tend to start serving in the early evening and close late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. There are some rules to keep in mind, such as not pouring your own drink and not leaving chopsticks sticking upright in your food.
The Opportunity for Interaction
One of the unique features of an izakaya is the opportunity for interaction with other diners. It’s common to strike up a conversation with the people sitting next to you, especially if you’re attending with a large group. The constant stream of food and drinks tends to make for a lively and convivial atmosphere.
The word “izakaya” is a compound consisting of “i” (to stay) and “sakaya” (sake shop), indicating that izakayas originated as shops that allowed people to settle in and grab a drink. Traditionally, these shops were identified by the red paper lanterns called “akachōchin” that were hung outside their premises.
The History of Izakayas in Japan
The concept of izakayas can be traced back to the Edo period, when liquor stores were allowed to sell alcohol to people who wanted to drink on the premises. These stores gradually added stools and private rooms where people could sit and drink, and eventually evolved into the izakayas we know today.
The Significance of Sake in Izakayas
Sake is a traditional Japanese rice wine that has been brewed for centuries. It is often served in izakayas, and is considered an important part of Japanese culture. In fact, the Kojiki, a collection of early Japanese myths dating back to the 8th century, contains a story about a king named Ashihara no Nakatsukuni who got drunk on sake and murdered his brother.
The Role of Government in Izakayas
In Japan, there is a fee and tax jurisdiction office called “Miki Shoku” that is responsible for collecting taxes from izakayas and other liquor-serving establishments. This office has been around since the early 1900s, and is still in operation today.
The Popularity of Izakayas in Modern Times
Izakayas have become increasingly popular in recent years, both in Japan and abroad. They have even appeared in Japanese films such as “Taisei Nihon Eiga” and “Onihei Hankachō”. In December 2019, the Japanese daily paper “Kokumin Shimbun” published a special edition featuring a photo of Gregory Lane, a hitomi (color) commentator who is known for his love of izakayas.
The History of Izakaya
Izakaya gradually evolved from simple taverns that sold liquor and snacks to more sophisticated establishments that served a wider range of food and drink. Historian Penelope Francks points out that in the late 19th century, izakaya began to appear along main roads as an indicator of the growing popularity of consumer goods.
The Introduction of Foreign Influences
As Japan became more open to foreign influences, izakaya menus started to expand to include foreign dishes. The introduction of foreign ingredients and cooking techniques has led to a fusion of Japanese and Western cuisine. Many izakaya now have an open kitchen where customers can sit at the counter and watch the chefs prepare their food. This closeness between the customer and the chef is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.
The Dining Style at an Izakaya
Dining at an izakaya is an experience that is unlike any other. It is a casual and informal affair where drinking and eating go hand in hand. The atmosphere is similar to a bar, with patrons facing the counter or sitting on low chairs and mats. The number of customers allowed in the area depends on the size of the izakaya.
Local Custom of Otōshi and Tsukidashi
When you enter an izakaya, you may be charged an entry fee called otōshi, which is a small dish brought to the table before ordering. Tsukidashi is a small dish that is given to customers alongside their first drink. It is a local custom that is displayed in a picture or handwritten menu.
Shared Plates and Set Prices
Unlike formal restaurants in Western countries, at an izakaya, the dishes are meant to be shared among groups. The menu offers a wide variety of dishes, from slow-cooked stews to quickly prepared snacks like hiyayakko and edamame. The dishes are served progressively, with robust flavors like yakitori finishing the meal. Noodle dishes are also available to fill up any remaining space.
Izakayas often offer set prices for a course or session, which includes a number of dishes and drinks. There may be a time limit for the session, but it is not meant to be an intimidating experience.
Removing Shoes and Floor Seating
Some izakayas require patrons to remove their shoes before entering the dining area. The floor seating is a traditional Japanese custom that adds to the true flavor and spirit of the visit.
Chain Izakayas and Quality Loss
Chain izakayas like Watami have become popular in recent years, but some argue that the quality of the food and portions have suffered as a result. It is important to be aware of the smaller handwritten menus and speak up if you need help making a decision.
Following Tradition and Saying Onegai
To fully enjoy the izakaya experience, it is important to follow tradition and respect the local customs. Saying onegai (please) when ordering and thanking the staff at the end of the meal is a sign of respect.
Typical Menu Items at an Izakaya
When it comes to food at an izakaya, the menu tends to be simple yet broad. You can expect a variety of dishes that are perfect for sharing with friends over drinks. Some of the most common menu items include:
- Yakitori: Grilled chicken skewers that come in various flavors and cuts.
- Karaage: Bite-sized pieces of fried chicken that are crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.
- Pickled Foods: Vegetables that have been pickled in vinegar or salt, such as cucumbers, daikon, and ginger.
- French Fry-like Dishes: Usually labeled as “potato” on the menu, these dishes are similar to French fries but may come with different seasonings or dipping sauces.
- Western-Inspired Foods: Some izakayas may offer Western-inspired dishes like pizza, pasta, or hamburgers.
The food at an izakaya is meant to be enjoyed with drinks, so it’s common to see certain pairings on the menu. Some popular combinations include:
- Beer and Yakitori: The salty and savory flavors of yakitori go perfectly with a cold beer.
- Sake and Sashimi: Sashimi is raw fish that is sliced thinly and served with soy sauce and wasabi. It pairs well with sake, a Japanese rice wine.
- Shochu and Karaage: Shochu is a Japanese distilled spirit that is often served with karaage, as the crispy texture of the chicken complements the smoothness of the shochu.
The Faux Toilets
One unique aspect of some izakayas is the faux toilets, or keshoshitsu. These are small rooms that are labeled as “toilets” but are actually private dining areas. They are often removed from the main dining area and can be reserved for groups. When you enter the keshoshitsu, you’ll be asked to remove your shoes and wear slippers. There may be a sink for hand washing, but there is no actual toilet. It’s a fun and quirky way to enjoy a more private dining experience with friends.
Types of Izakaya
Traditional izakayas are the most common type of izakaya in Japan. They are usually labeled as “izakaya” and are known for their casual and informal atmosphere. Here are some things to know about traditional izakayas:
- They serve alcoholic drinks and casual Japanese food.
- They are often compared to Spanish tapas bars or American saloons.
- Seating is usually at a counter or low table with cushions on the floor.
- Customers are charged a seating fee and can order small plates to pair with their drinks.
- Restrooms are labeled as “keshoshitsu” or “tearai” and are often separate from the main dining area.
- Hanging lanterns and paper signs are displayed at the entrance instead of a door or curtain.
- The menu is often displayed on a faux paper scroll.
Chain izakayas are a popular type of izakaya in Japan. They are often found in nightlife districts and are loved by locals and tourists alike. Here are some things to know about chain izakayas:
- They are part of a larger chaindining company and have a standardized menu and atmosphere.
- They are often given a nickname by locals, such as “Akachochin” in Nagoya.
- They may have a modern or nostalgic atmosphere, depending on the chain.
- They may display hanging decorations or signs to attract customers.
- They may offer all-you-can-drink or all-you-can-eat deals.
- They may have separate areas for standing and sitting customers, known as “tachinomiya” and “kakuuchi,” respectively.
Sanctuary izakayas are a newer type of izakaya that have become popular in recent years. They are known for their focus on social distancing and creating a safe space for customers. Here are some things to know about sanctuary izakayas:
- They may have a separate room or area for each group of customers.
- They may have a limit on the number of customers allowed at one time.
- They may have a smart customer system that allows customers to order and pay without contact.
- They may have rules and tips displayed to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.
- They may offer unique drinks or dishes to attract customers.
- They may use techniques such as air purifiers or UV lights to reduce the risk of pollution or infection.
One thing that sets izakayas apart from other dining establishments is the seating charge, also known as otōshi. This is a small appetizer or snack that is served to diners as soon as they sit down. The otōshi is typically provided in lieu of a cover charge, which is common in Western-style restaurants.
- Otōshi is a traditional service that has been around for centuries and is still practiced in many izakayas today.
- The otōshi is typically provided to diners as a refreshment and to serve as an appetizer to start the meal.
- The cost of the otōshi varies depending on the izakaya and the region of Japan. In some places, it may be included in the price of the meal, while in others, it may be a separate fee.
- Some izakayas may have a mandatory otōshidai, which is a set fee for a certain number of otōshi.
- It is important to note that the otōshi is not a misnomer for a cover charge or a tipping fee. It is a traditional part of the izakaya culture and is not meant to be a way to calculate the cost of the meal.
Understanding Sekiryō and Other Seating Charges
In addition to the otōshi, some izakayas may have other seating charges, such as sekiryō. This is a fee that is added to the bill to cover the cost of cleaning and construction of the izakaya.
- The sekiryō fee is typically divided equally among all members of the party.
- The cost of the sekiryō fee varies depending on the izakaya and the region of Japan.
- Some izakayas may also have a table charge or a fee for using a certain type of seating, such as the カウンター (counter) or テーブル席 (table seats).
- It is important to ask about any additional seating charges before trying out an izakaya to avoid any surprises on the bill.
Recommendations for Vegetarians and Those with Dietary Restrictions
Izakayas are known for their wide variety of foods, including meat and fish dishes. However, there are also options available for vegetarians and those with dietary restrictions.
- Many izakayas offer vegetable dishes, such as tempura or grilled vegetables.
- Some izakayas may have a separate menu for vegetarians or those with dietary restrictions.
- It is always a good idea to ask the server for recommendations or to check the guestbook or blog for stories and recommendations from other diners.
- During holiday or special times, some izakayas may offer regional foods that are suitable for vegetarians or those with dietary restrictions.
Exploring Nomihōdai (All You Can Drink) at Izakayas
Nomihōdai is the Japanese term for “all you can drink.” It is a popular option at izakayas, where customers can pay a set price for a limited time and enjoy unlimited drinks.
How Much Does Nomihōdai Cost?
The price of nomihōdai varies depending on the izakaya and the location. In Tokyo, for example, nomihōdai can range from 1,500 yen to 3,000 yen for a two-hour limit. Some izakayas may also offer a cheaper option for non-alcoholic drinks.
What Drinks are Included in Nomihōdai?
The drinks included in nomihōdai also vary depending on the izakaya. Some may offer only beer and basic cocktails, while others may include sake, shochu, and wine. Soft drinks and non-alcoholic options are usually available as well.
Is Nomihōdai Worth It?
Nomihōdai can be a great option for those who plan to drink a lot and want to save money. However, it’s important to pace yourself and not overdo it. Some izakayas may also have a “last order” time, so it’s best to plan accordingly.
Recommended Izakayas for Nomihōdai
- Ochanomizu Ikkenmesakaba in Ochanomizu
- Okachimachi Torikizoku in Okachimachi
- Suisuisuisui in Shinjuku
- Oyado in Shibuya
These izakayas are highly recommended for their nomihōdai options and overall atmosphere. They offer a wide variety of drinks and are known for their affordable prices.
Other Tips for Enjoying Nomihōdai at Izakayas
- Scope out the menu and decide on your drinks beforehand
- Pace yourself and don’t drink too much too quickly
- Take advantage of the time limit and try different drinks
- Consider sharing the nomihōdai option with friends to save money
- Always drink responsibly and know your limits
Overall, nomihōdai can be a fun and cost-effective way to enjoy drinks at izakayas. Just be sure to drink responsibly and have a good time!
Tabehōdai (All You Can Eat) at Izakayas
- Orders are usually restricted to a specific time frame, typically 90 minutes to 2 hours.
- The price for Tabehōdai is cheaper than ordering individual items.
- Some items may be excluded from the Tabehōdai menu, although the selection varies by izakaya.
- Some izakayas offer tiered pricing for Tabehōdai, allowing customers to add extra items or access more specialized menus for an additional cost.
- Waiters may ask if you want to order more food, or you can simply request more plates as needed.
- Some izakayas have hanging plates or cards that customers can flip over to indicate they want more food.
- Appetizers and small plates are usually the first courses to come out, with larger dishes following later.
- Some izakayas automatically bring out certain dishes, while others allow customers to choose what they want.
- The selection of dishes can vary widely, with some izakayas featuring seafood like oysters and crab in the winter, while others offer a more general range of items.
- Depending on the specific izakaya, there may be exclusive items available only for Tabehōdai customers.
- Some izakayas operate on a time limit, so it’s important to make sure you have enough time to enjoy your meal.
- Some izakayas may have a seating charge in addition to the Tabehōdai price.
Where can you find Tabehōdai at Izakayas?
- Major izakaya chains like Gurunabi and Kinkura offer Tabehōdai options.
- Many smaller, local izakayas also offer Tabehōdai, so it’s worth checking out websites like Retty, Hananomai, and Hotpepper to find options in your area.
- Some izakayas specialize in certain types of food, like skewered meats or salt and sweet dishes.
- Torikizoku is a popular izakaya chain that mainly serves chicken dishes and rice, making it a great option for groups who want to focus on drinking.
- In some cases, there may be a line or a couple of hours’ waiting time to get into a popular izakaya, so it’s a good idea to check the place out earlier or be prepared to wait a little.
- Make sure to check the specific izakaya’s rules and restrictions for Tabehōdai before ordering.
Paying the Bill
In an izakaya, paying the bill is a significant part of the dining experience. It is customary to divide the total cost equally among all the people who shared the meal, regardless of what each person ordered. This tradition is called “warikan” in Japanese. However, some izakayas may calculate the cost based on what each person drank or ate.
The Otoshi System
When you sit down at an izakaya, you may be served a small appetizer called “otoshi” automatically. This is a kind of cover charge that appears on the bill later. The otoshi is usually free or costs a small amount, and it is a way for the establishment to make some extra money.
Locating the Bill
When you are ready to pay, you can simply ask the waiter for the bill by saying “onegai shimasu.” In some izakayas, the bill may be clipped to the table or found in a slot holder on the wall. In others, the waiter may bring the bill to your table.
In Japan, it is customary to pay with cash, and tipping is not expected. If you want to leave a little extra, you can say “okaikei” to the waiter, which means “keep the change.” Some izakayas may accept credit cards, but smaller places may not.
Proceeding with Payment
Once you have the bill, you can proceed to the register located near the entrance to pay. If you want to pay exact change, say “chotto machi kudasai” to the staff, meaning “please wait a moment.” After paying, you can say “arigato gozaimashita” to thank the staff.
So there you have it – everything you need to know about izakayas. They’re a great place to unwind, have some drinks, and enjoy some delicious Japanese food with friends.
You can’t go wrong with an izakaya, especially if you’re looking for a place to have fun and relax. So don’t be shy, and go on in!
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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.