Izakaya Culture in Japan
Photo by Japanexperterna

Japan’s dining options range from convenient and cheap vending machines to elegant and very expensive kaiseki banquets, with everything in between. But another kind of relatively inexpensive, not to mention tasty way to satisfy your hunger and thirst is becoming popular all over the world.

Izakaya is the Japanese equivalent of the international gastropub, a place to eat and drink in a setting that is high quality but informal and friendly.

History of the Izakaya

Izakaya first began to be popular during the rapid modernization of the Meiji Restoration, but it gained contemporary popularity a hundred years later, during Japan’s go-go years of the 1980s. Today’s izakaya offer a slow-paced, eat-and-drink-as-you-go style, with drinks and dishes being ordered and appearing at the table in a relaxed, informal style (as contrast, say, with kaiseki’s highly-orchestrated pace). International analogs are Spanish tapas, Turkish meze, or perhaps even Chinese dim sum.

Photo by Kurt

Although some izakaya are nomi-hōdai (“all you can drink”) and tabe-hōdai (“all you can eat”) styles, most izakaya allow drinkers – and in this format, drinking is the main point – to order as they go along, with the drinks and eats being totaled up at the end of the evening.

How Izakayas Work

Most evenings start with a beer (biiru), even if drinkers intend to move on to sake or cocktails. After all, beer is a universal language, and the Japanese speak it with enthusiasm. Izakaya are generally after-work or even happy hour-type affairs, so drinking remains the focus. Along with beer, sake is a mainstay, but shochu drinks and other cocktails are also popular. Wine is less common, and you may find that your favorite red doesn’t really go with a lot of Japanese food. But if you’re a wine drinker, most izakaya will be able to produce a decent bottle or two. Whisky is also popular, especially Japanese whiskeys, which are blended to work particularly well with Japanese food.

The food at izakaya can be standard items such as edamame (boiled soy beans), tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and tofu in various forms, but things can get much more interesting as the evening wears on, with gyoza (dumplins), karaage (fried chicken, octopus or vegetable bites), sashimi slices, and kushiyaki or yakitori (various meats grilled on skewers) making frequent appearances. Many diners will finish with a hearty rice or noodle dish.

Photo by Nobuhiro Nikushi

As with many forms of bar food, most often plates are shared among the group, rather than enjoyed separately. But however you eat it, most of this bar food is likely to be of the consistently high-quality that most Japanese establishments maintain. This being Japan, the variations on these basics can be overwhelming, and the menus can be intimidatingly extensive. But chosen wisely, no more than two or three dishes at a time, and washed down with the beverage(s) of choice, izakaya snacks can add up to a balanced, healthy and filling meal.

(Note: Although izakaya usually do have sushi, this is not their speciality, and if you have any sense of sushi quality, you may find it to be less-than-ideal. Better to stick with sushi bars for this internationally-popular treat.)

Izakaya began as small, informal affairs, with seating on tatami mats, at low tables, similar to the local pub, and traditionally marked with red paper lanterns hanging outside. But today large, well-lit chains such as Tsubohachi, Watami, Shoya and many others have sprung up to serve the large and often rambunctious post-work gatherings that izakaya have come to be. Seating at tables has become much more common.

izakaya hagi
Photo by Kok Chih & Sarah Gan

Whatever the style of the place, some diners like to izakaya crawl, grabbing a drink (or two) and a bite (or two) at the first stop, then moving on to a second, to repeat the process. If you have a short time in Japan, it’s a great way to experience different places, but be warned: a lot of izakaya to fill up after work, which can mean a wait for a table at the next establishment. Better perhaps to linger in one place, enjoying the slow pace of the traditional izakaya – this, after all, is the whole point to this delightful dining tradition. Sit down, have a beer, order a snack, and chat. Then order a sake, and something more substantial. And then yet another drink, and another; after all, izakayas are one of the relatively few places in Japan where one is encouraged to get a little (or a lot) loose. In any case, what’s your hurry? You’re in an izakaya, there’s no need to go anywhere else!

By David Watts Barton