Inside a typical izakaya
Inside an izakaya.
A traditional izakaya in Hokkaido
Sashimi at an izakaya
Kampai! Toasting with beer at an izakaya
The aka chochin, a red lantern that hangs outside every izakaya
A variety of dishes on offer at an izakaya
The art of unwinding
An izakaya is a typical Japanese bar-restaurant where people enjoy coming for a drink and a bite to eat. The welcome is warm, and the atmosphere always cheerful. It's where employees meet after a day's work to relieve stress and unwind together.
The history of the izakaya began in the Edo period (1603-1868) when a sake merchant serving a few tasting glasses in a corner of his shop decided to start offering some local specialties to snack on too. Little by little, men got into the habit of spending time in this kind of place after work, having a drink, eating something, and talking with the boss and other patrons. The izakaya soon became a popular place for people to meet up for a chat.
The growing popularity of the izakaya
In the 1970s these places were more reserved for office workers, or salarymen. In the 1980s, izakaya chains developed, the model evolved towards larger rooms for groups, as well as closed spaces for small parties. Extensive menus with dishes began to be offered at low prices, and the interior design of the place became more important.
Today izakaya are popular with everyone, from students to salarymen, men and women, for an after work drink among colleagues or a party with friends until the end of the night.
When the Japanese let goGoing to an izakaya with colleagues after work is a cultural habit in Japan. Here, with the help of a drink or two, people open up and let go, the pressure of work is lifted and the barriers fall. While the Japanese are generally very reserved, in an izakaya the atmosphere is very lively, it's a nomikai (literally a gathering to drink). People chat loudly, laugh, drink, and it's not uncommon to see them leaving red-faced and unsteady. In the early morning, you can often see those who couldn't get home, sleeping on the floor at the entrance of a train station or on the train platform. You'll often find izakaya in major train stations, open from 5pm to 5 in the morning!
A traditional izakaya is a small establishment, open from about 5pm to midnight. You'll easily spot it in the street thanks to its red lantern (aka chochin), a few tables and a long counter. The welcome is always warm. They offer simple home cooking or regional specialties. For example, a fisherman's family could open an izakaya to offer dishes based on fresh local seafood.
The customs of an izakaya
Upon arrival, you are welcomed and, soon seated, the server offering you a hot towel to clean your hands. The menu is already on the table. The Japanese tend to order drinks right away ("Toriaezu biiru" is common: "First of all, I'll have a beer!").
Beers are usually brought with an otoshi (a small dish with an appetizer of edamame or pickled vegetables) to snack on before ordering.
Read also: Japanese Beer
Make a toast with the beers by exclaiming "kampai!" ("cheers!") And order a variety of small dishes that everyone shares, similar to tapas. Start with a few, it's easy to order additional dishes at any time. Often there's a bell on the table that allows you to call a server at any time to place a new order.
At an izakaya, there's always something to drink...
You are always offered draft beer, often with regional sake (or shochu). Costing between 300 and 600 yen per glass, you can choose between beer, sake, shochu, wine, whiskey, a cocktail or a chu-hai, a typical izakaya drink consisting of shochu with a base of syrup or fruit juice and soda. We also recommend the ume sour, a mixture of umeshu and soda water.
... and to eat
There is something for all tastes, with prices ranging between 300 and 800 yen per plate. You'll find all the mainstays of Japanese cuisine. It's great, because you can taste a bit of everything in one place by sharing with your friends. Yakitori, kara-age, assorted sashimi, salads, fries, noodles, rice dishes, and even desserts.
Beware, however - in Japan the drinking age is 20 years old, and there are sometimes age checks to enter an izakaya. Coming with children is usually possible, but if you do, choose a large establishment, arrive when it opens and request a non-smoking booth.
An izakaya has to be experienced while in Japan - go and enjoy the special atmosphere of these Japanese bars.
To discover: Izakaya Gonpachi in Roppongi, Tokyo
Comments Read comments from our travellers
I was in Japan several decades ago on work assignment and was introduced to Izakaya. I have been hooked every since. The atmosphere is joyous, people are nice, food is great and price is the best!