Having a drink after work is a universal pleasure. Somewhere to retreat to after a long week or punishing day. Britain and Ireland have their pubs, Germany has the beer hall, the USA has the bar, from South Africa’s Shebeens to the Cantinas of Latin America and Spain. All have their quirks, but each is focused on one goal: serving alcohol to the tired, weary and thirsty.
Japan has its version of the familiar watering hole, the izakaya. Much like the pubs and bars they are related to, izakaya are public houses where people go to consume alcohol, with an almost equal emphasis placed upon snacking and eating food alongside drinking. Decor can range from the traditional feeling of wood and cloth to ultra-modern glass and steel.
Visitors usually sit on benches, closer together than in a pub or bar or on the floor in more traditional izakaya. Some are run by large chains, with multiple outlets across Japan, while others are fully independent, with only a small staff. People will usually have a few local izakaya that they regularly visit to meet up with friends, and the overall fun and relaxed feel is very similar to a pub or a bar. The goal is to make you feel at home.
A Brief History of Izakaya
Izakayas trace their roots in Japan back to the 8th century, but during the Edo period (1603 and 1867), they took on their most recognizable form. Liquor shops noticed customers standing outside the shop and drinking, so sake barrels were rolled out as make-shift seats. Eventually, small portions of salty snacks known as “肴 (sakana)” began to be provided, and the basis for the izakaya as we know it was born.
With the industrialization and opening up of Japan, the izakaya morphed into their modernized look, offering a bevy of drink and food choices. Most of the rest of the world became acquainted with the izakaya when American politician Robert Francis Kennedy visited one in 1962 during a conference in Tokyo, sparking much interest. These days many established izakaya even feature foreign-language menus and touch-screen ordering, allowing everyone visiting Japan to easily experience the fun.
Izakaya Food And Drink
So what exactly would you expect to be served at an izakaya?
Beer is often the drink of choice – with beer in Japan tracing its roots back to Dutch traders who first introduced it in the 17th Century. Japanese beer (usually Asahi or Kirin) in an izakaya is served in a chilled glass to ensure that every sip (or gulp) is refreshing and delicious. Not forgetting the izakaya’s roots, sake is almost always available, allowing for something a bit more sophisticated to sip. The craft beer revolution can also be felt in many izakaya, with influence from the coasts of America bringing in more pungent, flavourful beer to contrast with the familiar mass-market options. Foreign grape-based wines are relatively common, and many establishments also serve cocktails.
But debatably, the izakaya’s main charm isn’t even the alcohol (which is nice) but the food food food. While some countries separate eating and drinking establishments, the two are almost always entwined together in Japan. You’ll order your drinks and your food together. It could be a few nibbles, a snack, or even a full-blown multi-course meal. The best comparison might be tapas. Food is usually served on small-ish plates with a clear focus on variety and pleasure: Fried chicken, skewers of every kind of meat and veg, tofu, gyoza, grilled fish, pork belly, or something truly indulgent like deep-fried chicken skin.
Of course, an article on izakaya would only be complete with a nod to edamame, the ubiquitous salted bean snack you’ll find in almost every izakaya in the country.
Izakaya will specialize in the type of cuisine they sell, so you can find a place that focuses on fried chicken or one that exclusively serves seafood. Some places excel in European or other foreign foods. Food is (generally) on the cheap side, with the expectation that you order at your leisure. A plate here, a few plates there, a drink, another drink, another plate, this isn’t a place to rush or be clock-watching.
Types of Izakaya in Japan
Izakaya can vary in terms of business type. There are major chains like the cheap and accessible Kin no Kura, Torikizoku (focusing on yakitori, which is grilled chicken on skewers), and the slightly more upmarket Shirokiya. You can find these chains almost everywhere in Japan, offering something comforting and familiar. But arguably, the real charm of the izakaya is the independent establishment. It’s important to remember that izakaya can be pretty much any size. Large chain restaurants often seat several dozen people and can host large parties, while there are solo entrepreneurs that set up their own izakaya.
It’s not uncommon then to find little “hole in the wall” type establishments with room for only a handful of people. These are known as “akachōchin,” meaning (“red lantern”), after the traditional lanterns you’ll often find outside. You’ll have to search around for these and probably have to deploy your Japanese language skills to order. Still, they offer a more rustic and arguably authentic experience than corporate giants. These independent izakaya can also be unique, sometimes with the owner’s personal interests informing the décor and vibe. Alongside the traditional mellow look, you might find places that focus on anything from classic rock to Americana, old-school anime, 80s pop, and beyond. With independent izakaya, the imagination seems to be the limit.
Ultimately what makes the izakaya so great is its combination of the familiar and the new. You can go anywhere in Japan, sit down, and enjoy a homely glass of Asahi and some snacks, but the people and surroundings will change every time. The izakaya has a clear and universal purpose: a place to relax, hang out, meet friends and unwind, but it’s the unique twists it offers that make a drink at the izakaya truly unforgettable.