Japan offers an amazing variety of culinary experiences, but there’s nothing like eating and drinking at an izakaya.
Going to an izakaya (a Japanese-style gastropub) is a quintessential, must-do Japanese experience, and one of the best ways to fully immerse yourself in local Japanese culture.
Aside from being the perfect place to sample a delicious (and very eclectic) variety of Japanese foods — from sashimi and fried foods, to tofu and seasonal vegetables — dining and drinking at an izakaya is also a great way to mingle with locals.
And as an increasing number of people around the world discover that Japanese cuisine is much more than just sushi and ramen, izakayas have begun to pop up worldwide, from London and New York, to Sydney, Hong Kong and beyond.
What is an izakaya?
An izakaya is where you go when you feel like eating and drinking among friends or coworkers in a relaxed and cheerful setting.
The word “izakaya” is usually translated into English as some variation of “Japanese-style pub,” “Japanese tavern,” or “Japanese-style gastropub.”
We typically prefer “gastropub,” because going to an izakaya is about both eating and drinking – rather than primarily one or the other. At the best izakayas, whether humble or high-end, the food and drink shine equally.
Most izakaya are casual establishments, filled with the sounds of animated conversation and laughter. On weeknights they’re often full of company workers decompressing among colleagues, and on weekends they can be even more boisterous.
Where to find izakayas
Fortunately, you’ll find izakayas in pretty much every city, town and neighborhood of Japan.
In addition to local neighborhood holes-in-the-wall, many are destinations in and of themselves – for example, the Michelin-starred Yorozuya Okagesan in Tokyo.
Even though English is not always spoken, as long as you are open-minded, patient and polite, you can almost always get your point across (and for more on useful phrases, see our post on Japanese words and phrases for travelers to Japan).
If you’re very concerned about the language barrier, a great “beginner’s” izakaya is the well-known Andy’s Shin Hinomoto. While not exactly a locals-only spot, it is popular with locals (particularly, but not exclusively, expats), and has a wonderfully festive atmosphere. As with other popular places in Tokyo and throughout Japan, reservations are a must.
The food at Japanese izakayas
Every good izakaya has its own unique specialties, but at most izakayas the menus tend to be gloriously eclectic, including a remarkably wide range of foods.
Izakayas typically serve small tapas-like dishes, which is why we often refer to izakaya cuisine as “Japanese tapas.” Below is a tiny sampling of the dishes you might see on an izakaya menu:
- Takoyaki (octopus fritters, aka octopus balls)
- Potato (French) fries with Japanese mayonnaise
- Gyoza (dumplings)
- Karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken)
- Skewered meats and vegetables, including yakitori and kushikatsu
- Noodles (e.g., soba, udon, and sometimes ramen)
- Tsukemono (Japanese pickles)
- Shishamo (grilled smelt, served whole and filled with roe)
- Miso soup
- And much more
Basic izakaya etiquette
Izakayas are usually casual establishments, which means you can typically leave extreme formality at the noren (the curtain at the entrance).
That being said, etiquette is always something to keep in mind while in Japan, so here are some very basic tips to help you impress those around you:
- While definitely not a requirement, it is very common to begin with a nama biiru (draft beer) before you study the menu. To do so simply say to the server, “Toriaezu, biiru” (Beer, for now). A cold, refreshing nama biiru is almost always the perfect way to begin an izakaya outing.
- Wait until your fellow diners have drinks before you begin drinking. One of several common expressions when everyone takes the first sip of the night together is “Kanpai!” (Cheers!). Likewise, before you take your first bite of food say “Itadakimasu” (a polite expression said prior to eating).
- If drinking from bottles (of beer, sake, etc.), it’s considered polite to pour for others when their cups run dry. A not-so-subtle way to get others to fill your cup is to pour for them as a gentle reminder.
- It’s definitely acceptable to drink, but drinking too much is not a good idea. One way to subtly prevent others from filling your cup is to simply keep it filled to the brim.
- If you’re at a traditional izakaya where bathroom slippers are used, remember to leave the bathroom slippers in the bathroom, rather than wearing them back to the table!
Rather than worrying too much about all the etiquette rules, simply remember our golden rule of Japanese etiquette: as long as you act kindly and with respect, you’ll fit right in – even if you do make an etiquette mistake (or two) once in a while.
For more on izakayas, we highly recommend Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook, by Mark Robinson with photographs by Masashi Kuma.
In this lovely collection, Robinson – a longtime Tokyo resident – takes you deep into the world of eight of his favorite Tokyo izakayas (sadly not all are open to this day).
It is a beautiful book, with mouthwatering photographs and wonderful vignettes relating the daily experiences at some of Tokyo’s most intriguing izakaya. Aside from giving you immense insight into Tokyo’s izakaya culture, it makes for an attractive coffee table book, and also has some great recipes. So even if you don’t have a trip to Japan planned, you can try out some of these delicious izakaya recipes in your own kitchen.