Eating anywhere in Japan is a treat. Eating in an Izakaya is the best treat, in my opinion. Izakaya are sometimes compared to pubs in the West, but I think of them more as bars with amazing snacks. Similar to tapas bars. They are casual, fun and often rowdy. Izakaya translates to stay and drink. Iru- stay and sakaya- sake shop. I am always happy to oblige this polite request. They serve sake, shochu, draft beer, whiskey and various highballs. The snacks are provided to ensure you do not become too drunk. However, the snacks are often the star of the show.
Izakaya are easy to recognise in Japan, as they display a red paper lantern out the front. Sometimes people refer to izakaya as akachōchin, which means red lantern. The lantern will generally say izakaya in kanji 居酒屋. The first kanji is stay, the centre kanji means alcohol or sake and the final kanji means shop. It can be intimidating to enter an izakaya, but overcome your fear. It is so worth it. The food will be amazing and many of the things on the menu will be the food you are accustomed to seeing in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan.
Some izakaya have tables and chairs, others have platforms with tatami where you slip your shoes off and slide onto cushions on the floor. In this case there is usually a footwell under the table for your legs. Some izakaya have bar seating. The menu is usually written on paper or wood and hung vertically, although many will now have an English printed menu or a menu with pictures. I highly recommend using Google translate if the menu is in Japanese. It is not always accurate, but you can generally get the idea. Or, just point to the pictures if you find that easier and indicate with your fingers how many serves you would like.
It is customary to order drinks first. Most people then order a few items at a time over the course of the evening. This style of eating is very much a grazing affair. Each time you order a dish another piece of paper will be placed in a receptacle, designed for this purpose, on your table and the bill will be calculated at the end. Dishes are designed to be shared. At almost all izakaya and many other types of restaurants in Japan you will be given a hot or cold towel to begin. The temperature is dependent on the season. You will then find a basket or lacquered box on the table with cutlery, chopsticks and napkins in it. There may also be a button to press when you are ready to order.
Some izakaya offer 飲み放題 nomi hōdai which is a timed all you can drink. Alternatively, 食べ放題 tabe hōdai, all you can eat. This is an experience we are yet to enjoy. Super Sake Boy and I often travel with kids. Our next trip sans offspring will definitely include an izakaya all you can eat and drink experience. I am unsure how much self-discipline I will be able to corral in such a situation, but I am very happy to experiment.
Some of my favourite izakaya foods are…the ubiquitous and almost obligatory edamame. Salted soybeans in the pod. Delicious! Yakitori and kushiyaki, different meats and vegetables on skewers. My favourite are shishito peppers, stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. They are spicy, crispy, gooey and amazing. I also really love tsukune; these are chicken meatballs on skewers dipped in tare (sauce) and grilled on the hibachi (charcoal grill). Agedashi tofu; fried tofu in dashi stock with bonito flakes. Yakisoba; fried soba noodles with cabbage, pork, bean sprouts, sauce and beni shoga (pickled ginger). Karaage chicken, which is lightly dusted, thrice fried chicken pieces, often served with yuzu mayonnaise and shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven spice). A variety of sushi and sashimi is usually available, also. Izakaya often serve gomae, which could be a number of different vegetables, maybe spinach or broccoli, in a creamy sesame dressing. Other salads are also available. My other favourite izakaya food is Japanese potato salad. It is cooked until it is soft and is roughly mashed, but not lumpy, mixed with Kewpie mayo, egg, spring onion and sometimes mentaiko (pollack roe). It is rich and decadent and very complimentary with a variety of yakitori enjoyed with a boisterous, umami laden junmai sake.
I have not included yokocho, alleyway or laneway izakaya, here. I will write a separate blog about them, as they are too wonderful to be able to squeeze in with other styles of izakaya.
To read about two of the best izakaya I have found in Tokyo, for Meguro click here, and for Shimokitazawa click here. For a more general idea, in Ueno click here. My very favourite izakaya in Japan is in Fushimi in Kyoto. You can read about one of my experiences there here.