Izakaya are Japanese pubs. They vary greatly in style, price, menu and atmosphere. Approximately 1 out of every 5 restaurants in Japan can be considered an izakaya.
People don’t commonly have house parties, dinner parties or backyard barbeques in Japan. Coworkers, friends and social clubs use izakaya as a venue for get-togethers. Izakaya are also popular spots for a date.
A wide range of special occasions are celebrated at izakaya from birthdays to retirement parties.
Izakaya menus vary greatly and often include original items. Izakaya food can be generally classified as drinking food — popular foods for a social or party situation.
Common izakaya foods include: Edamame (boiled young soybeans), Sushi, Sashimi, Yakitori, Karaage (Japanese fried chicken), Deep fried dishes (e.g. Tako Karaage ~ deep fried octopus), Tofu dishes (e.g. Agedashi Tofu ~ deep fried tofu in broth), Western style junk food (e.g. pizza, french fries) and Japanese fish dishes (e.g. grilled squid).
There are hundreds of common izakaya foods. The focus is on salty, oily foods that can be shared with a group of people. Starches such as rice and noodles are often missing from izakaya menus. These are not considered drinking foods because popular izakaya beverages (such as beer and sake) are already high in carbohydrates.
When rice or noodles are consumed they are customarily ordered at the end of the night — to make sure no one goes home hungry.
As with other restaurants in Japan, Izakaya sometimes have a button at the table that can be used to summon staff. Otherwise, customers can shout “sumimasen”.
As with western pubs, izakaya often have bars or tables where you sit alongside other customers.
Izakaya can be very small (with just a few seats) or massive multi-floor restaurants. Large izakaya are social places for groups of friends. It’s common to visit small izakaya and standing izakaya (tachinomiya) alone or with a few friends.
Many excellent izakaya have outdoor seating on the street. Others (tachinomiya) are standing room only — customers purchase drinks and snacks and essentially stand on the street. It often seems as if the less facilities a restaurant has the more popular it becomes.
Music and Entertainment
Some izakaya go to great lengths to pull in customers. Themed interiors, costumed staff and performances may be used to pull in customers. For example, several ninja themed izakaya in Tokyo feature ninja performances.
Izakaya don’t usually play popular music or have music performances (as western pubs do). Background music (when there is any) is usually traditional Japanese music. The focus of most evenings at izakaya is lively conversation (although parties can also be rowdy).
Visiting a Izakaya
Visiting an izakaya is a recommended Japan experience. The main challenge you’ll face at izakaya is ordering. Some izakaya have English menus, others don’t. Many traditional izakaya don’t have a menu at all. Or rather, the menu is posted on the wall (in Japanese) with paper strips. When the restaurant runs out of an item the corresponding paper strip is pulled from the wall.
The language barrier is present at any restaurant in Japan. It shouldn’t hold you back. Worst case — you’ll just order randomly.