The popular Japanese style bar, izakaya, has seen numerous iterations across the globe. Many people have found the eastern version of a pub to be very appealing as a unique substitute to the usual after-work bars. An izakaya is basically a very informal restaurant and bars where the working man goes to drink along with his buddies. This form of gastropub can be likened to Irish pubs or tapas bars. The worldwide popularity of this type of establishment is also evident in the fact that the word izakaya was accepted into the English language in the year 1987. The word izakaya originates from two Japanese words. I, which roughly translates to stay, and sakaya, which is the term for a sake shop, combine to form a word that indicates a place where customers may stay and drink sake. Izakaya literally means red lantern in English.
The History of the Japanese Izakaya
According to historians, the growth of izakaya in Japan is congruent to the growth of the now famous Japanese alcoholic beverage, sake. In the 1960s, the late American President, President Robert F. Kennedy met with Japanese labor heads in an izakaya in Tokyo. This did not only catapulted this specific izakaya in Tokyo but Japanese izakayas in general. In earlier days, prior to the Meiji era, the Japanese people would drink sake while standing in a bar like shops in Japan. Then drinking sake would later on evolved. Bar stools were added, thus the Japanese would now chat and drink sake while sitting down, then refreshments were added in the drinking routine. This is what izakaya is now. A place to sit back, relax, have a drink (or two), with good friends.
So what exactly is an izakaya? Have you ever been in pubs in London? Well izakayas are like pubs but not quite. There are several variations between an izakaya and a pub.
Unlike pubs where you have your usual tables and chairs to lounge at, izakaya offers you a full Japanese drinking ambiance. There are traditional Japanese style izakayas where customers can lounge in tatami mats but there are also western style izakayas where you can have your classic tables and chairs similar to a pub. But like the olden times, there are still izakaya restaurants in Japan that require you to stand while you drink your sake away. These are known as tachi-nomi styled izakayas.
As a customer enters an izakaya, he or she gets a wet towel, also known as an oshibori, for cleaning the hands. What’s great about Japanese is that they are very much into details. Thus, the temperature of the oshibori varies depending on the season! They serve it cold during summer and warm during winter. How amazing is that? The customer is then given an appetizer to chew on while choosing which food to order but it's cost around 300yen with no choise.
Menus in izakayas are easy to find. It is either written on walls by the main bar or it might be right on your table or it can be both. Some izakayas also offer menus with photos. Just like other restaurants, the tab is added up at the end of the night once you’ve finished devouring all the food and drinks you can have. Foods and drinks in izakayas are typically shared with friends within a table.
Most of the izakayas in Japan offer to eat all you can and drink all you can packages also known as nomi-hodai and tabe-hodai in the Japanese language. But unlike in American restaurants’ eat all you can and drink all you can offer, Japanese izakayas have an allotted set time. For example, for 2000 yen, you can eat as much food and drink as you like for limited hours.
Some tourists traveling get scared to try izakayas because there are a lot of food and drinks to choose from and some izakaya restaurants do not offer menus in English. Izakayas follow a process in ordering typical of the Japanese people. Thus, food in izakayas come in courses. Appetizers go first before the mains. In Japanese Izakayas, there is first the hiyayakko or edamame, then on with yakitori or kara-age, after more filling rice or noodle dish (this serves as the mains), and finally you can end your meal with a dessert and more drinks.
As time flew by, izakayas had taken on different forms. The most common type of izakaya would be the akachochin, which means red lantern. It is named that way due to the distinctive red paper lanterns that are traditionally hung outside most izakaya. This term is also used as a way to describe an izakaya that is not part of a chain. Of course, there are cosplay themed izakayas in Japan. Cosplay izakayas in Japan became bid in the year 2000s. The staff wears costume depending on the theme and there are even programs in some izakayas. Popular cosplay izakayas are maid themed izakayas. Some izakaya specializes in serving oden. These establishments are called oden-ya and are often in the form of street stalls. Oden-ya is most popular during the winter. Robotayaki is a type of izakaya which focuses on the grilling of food. The customers are seated around an open hearth where a diverse array of meat and vegetables may be chosen to be grilled. Here guests are presented with everything from fish, chicken, and beef to mushrooms, asparagus, pork. The guests then just point to what they want and it will be grilled for them.
Common Menu Items at a Japanese Izakaya
Izakaya started as a simple place where Japanese men can go out and have a sake or beer after a long day at work. Customers even had to stand in first versions of Izakaya. Now, you won’t only find men in izakayas. Career women, students, and even tourists flock izakayas in Japan. Japanese izakayas have really come a long way from their tachi-nomi only style back in the early days. In addition, sake and beer are not the only drinks you can get in izakayas. Wine, personally curated cocktails, and champagnes are offered in izakayas as well. Extensive selection of food is also made available. Japanese cuisines and food from other parts of the world can be found in izakayas. Food can range from traditional Japanese sushi to something Western like croquettes.
A Guide to the Best Izakaya in Tokyo, Japan
Most Izazkayas in Tokyo start their operating hours in the late afternoon, right before the end of a regular work day. This allows the men and women of the Japanese workforce to pass by these izakaya for a few drinks. These people go here to unwind before having to head back home and end the day. With the number of izakaya found in Tokyo, a visitor might have a hard time choosing which one to go to. For those who are unsure of their izakaya choice, the following may be used as a guide for deciding.
1. Kishidayaya in Tsukishima
This famous izakaya started after the second World War. Much like most izakaya shops, Kishidaya started as a humble liquor shop. It then started serving its drinkings to the customers and the rest is history. Kishidaya is managed by an all female staff. The owner of this izakaya is a friendly old lady who is also in charge of bringing in the guests and supervising the workflow of the kitchen. This friendly old lady will address guests with the sweetest of smiles while bringing them to their seats. The layout of the izakaya is in the shape of a letter U and is capable of seating 15 guests. The menu here is standard in both price and alcohol served. What makes this izakaya special is their gyu-nikomi or beef tendon stew. It is definitely one of the best in the whole city. Kishidaya is located in Tsukishima of the Chuo-ku district of Tokyo.
2. Kotaro in Shibuya
Kotaro has been on the radar of most izakaya goers for a while now. In fact, its popularity is evident by the fact that reservations here are really hard to get. Getting a reservation here might take one at least a month in waiting. If it wasn’t for the difficulty in getting a seat, this place would be perfect. From the liquor to the food, Kotaro has been getting great reviews. The selection of Japanese sake is superb, with specially curated bottles. The food menu is more western. Kotaro’s menu includes items such as potato salad with smoked egg to gratin with scallops and crabs. It is recommended to try and place a reservation for past midnight as this place is open till 2 in the morning. It is located in Shibuya and can be accessed by an 8-minute walk from the station.
Best Izakaya Chains in Japan
1. Watami (和民)
The izakaya’s name was curated from the name of the founder, Watanabe Miki. Watami izakaya is undoubtedly the largest izakaya chain in Japan! There is a Watami in almost every corner of Japan that the izakaya chain had no choice but to branch out to neighboring Asian countries such as The Republic of China, Hong Kong, Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia.
Unlike the hustle and bustle of most izakaya restaurants, Watami is known to be a quieter and more sophisticated option for those who would like to opt for a more harmonious place to drink.
2.. Tsubohachi (つぼ八)
Like Watami, Tsubohachi is also a big chain of izakaya that can be found overseas in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. In Japan, Tsubohachi is present in 30 prefectures. However, unlike the peaceful Watami izakaya, Tsubohachi is your typical very lively, very loud, and very spacious izakaya.
Tsubohachi is a combination of two Japanese words, tsubo and hachi. Tsubo in Japan is a measurement of floor area like square meters, square miles, hectares, etc. One tsubo is equal to two classic tatami mats or 3.3 square meters. Hachi, on the other hand, is the number 8 in Japan. Thus, Tsubohachi means 8 square meters, which is the floor area that the izakaya occupied from its first ever restaurant built.
3.. Torikizoku (鳥貴族)
If you are looking for a cheaper izakaya then Torikizoku is the place to be. Everything in Torikizoku’s menu is priced at only 280 yen. There is no catch. Everything is really just for 280 yen including the drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) Torikizoku can be found in Kanto, Chubu, and Kansai.
Torikizoku literally means chicken aristocracy in English and this place won’t let you down because it serves very good grilled chicken sticks in only 280 yen!
Since this place is the real deal, people would line up just to get into a Torikizoku branch. So if you really want to go to this very affordable izakaya, you have to be prepared to line up or go upon opening.
4. Kin-no-Kura Jr. (金の蔵Jr.)
Kin-no-Kura Jr. is a very popular izakaya chain in Japan. Kin-no-Kura Jr. have several branches.Spread out in leading tourist spots in Japan. This chain does not only have branches in Tokyo but also in Hokkaido, Chubu, and Kansai. This popular izakaya chain does not only offer the wide range of Japanese food selection but also other cuisines such as Korean, Italian, and American. You can start enjoying this izakaya restaurant for as low as 270 yen! Just make sure to get the items that are included in the 270 yen per package since not everything in the menu are part of it. The other are priced separately and kind of pricier but still worth it.
Izakaya is tightly linked to the image of Japanese culture, more specifically their culture of drinking. The most simple way to describe them would be Japanese pubs, but with their focus not solely being on the liquor, calling it a pub does not do it justice. Izakayas provide customers with a full experience from the drinks to the food. It is also a great place to unwind as people are generally rowdy and lively but not to the point of causing a ruckus. Here phones are not minded as people are too busy having fun and enjoying the night. It is always recommended to visit a real izakaya when one has the chance to.