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A Simple Guide to the Izakaya

The izakaya is an undeniable staple of Japanese social life, so what is it and what do you actually do? Here are some helpful tips.

By 5 min read

Once you start working and building a social life in Japan, the izakaya quickly becomes your second home. From easy-to-grab meals to drinking sessions with co-workers or catch-ups with friends — it’s a social staple.

There are some points to keep in mind, however, if you’re new to this Japanese equivalent of a public house. We’ve broken down the basics for you in this primer on izakaya culture.

Food

Izakaya fare is not the Michelin-starred cuisine the country is famous for — it’s basically bar food after all — but it’s easy to order, easy to share and very affordable. The dishes on offer are a great way to experience the joys of simple, everyday Japanese cuisine.

Variety is one major strong point for the menu. Many izakaya take the jack-of-all-trades approach, so don’t be surprised if you see sashimi or natto listed above Margherita pizza.

Try something new, you don’t really have much to lose. As a guide, the best go-to staple menu items include karaage (fried chicken), takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and hiyayakko (chilled tofu with toppings).

Drinks

In general, the izakaya typically runs on beer. Spend even the shortest amount of time in Japan and you’ll quickly realize the country is one of the biggest lovers of the suds in the world.

If beer isn’t to your taste, don’t worry, drinking at an izakaya will give you plenty of opportunities to experience new booze options, and it’s a great insight into the country’s drinking culture. If there’s one drink that approaches beer’s position atop the booze hierarchy, it’s whisky. Japan produces some of the best whisky in the world and the most common way to drink the cheaper stuff is in a whisky highball (whisky, ice and soda).  

If you have a sweet tooth, you could try umeshu (plum wine), or shochu (Japanese distilled spirit made from barley, brown sugar, potato, rice or wheat). Shochu is like a weaker vodka, though it’s a little stronger than nihonshu (sake). Common shochu mixers are lemon sours or tea-based drinks like oolong-hai, an unsweetened shochu iced tea.

Pricing

The beauty of the izakaya is that the amount you spend on a night out is totally up to you. The benefits of izakaya-style small dishes mean that if you need to micromanage your financial situation, you can mix and match for your budget.

Unlike other dining situations where individual meals are a fixed price, many places have menu items ranging from as little as ¥100 up to around ¥700. Of course, you can find more expensive items (and izakaya) depending on where you are and what you desire.

For drinks, the cheapest option is usually nama (draft) beer, which can generally cost anywhere between ¥120 and ¥400. Many places offer nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) options and some also do tabehodai (all-you-can-eat) along with this — you pay one fixed price and can eat or drink to your heart’s content for a limited time (usually 90 minutes to two hours. All you-can-eat-and-drink promotions are definite possibilities for getting your money’s worth, just make sure to calculate the amount you’ll actually eat and the speed at which you’ll eat and drink to maximize the value.

Rules and etiquette

Many places have a with a table charge for each person that costs a few hundred yen and will be added to your bill. This usually includes a small appetizer called otooshi. What that dish actually contains is totally up to the chef, so what you get can be a gamble. You can always ask if they have an alternative (if you’re vegetarian, say, and they serve you pieces of chicken).

Often at the end of the night bill splitting can be a little confusing, and given the communality of the dinner virtually impossible to divide. That’s where warikan comes in. Warikan is the agreement to divide the entire bill equally between all your fellow guests. It’s a common practice in Japan, so be prepared in order to avoid awkward money debates at the end of the evening.

Foreigner friendly chains

Given that izakaya will probably become a regular activity, it’s great to explore new places to avoid that Groundhog Day feeling. However if you’ve just arrived in Japan, it’s nice to go somewhere comfortable with an English-friendly menu or an iPad with pictures.

Here are some of the more famous chains around Japan:

  • Kin-no-Kura
    In all the major tourist destinations around the country, this chain is a safe bet. The ordering system is usually via iPad and it features a mix of Japanese and Western-style food.
  • Torikizoku
    With a menu that leans heavily on chicken dishes, it’s probably not great for vegetarian friends, unless they’re happy with edmame and beer. That said, it’s a great way to experience Japan’s love of poultry and you can get an all-you-can-eat deal for under ¥3,000.  
  • Watami
    Built on the concept of a “family izakaya,” this is a popular chain with locals and visitors alike due to its no-fuss consistency. Dotted around the country, you’re never more than a Google search away from an outlet.

Simple izakaya Japanese

The izakaya can be a great place to test run some of your Japanese 101 — especially after you’ve had that third confidence boosting beer. Here’s what you should know:

  • Biru onegaishimasu
    Means simply, “Beer please.” If beer isn’t your thing, just switch the biru with the drink of your choice. For example, “lemon sour” or “highball onegaishimasu” will get you just as hydrated.
  • Okaikei onegaishimasu
    Okaikei means “bill” and “onegaishimasu” is please. Whip this out at the end of the night and the weary wait staff will happily serve you the bill for the damage you’ve caused.
  • Betsu-betsu
    Means “to split.” This is important to remember at the end of the night when trying not to get stung by paying for someone else’s overindulgence.
  • Toire wa doko desu-ka
    Simply means, “Where are the toilets?” The necessity of this probably needs no explanation.

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