One constant in the drinking culture of Japan is the izakaya. Izakaya are the Japanese version of the “English Pub.” Serving drinks and food, many izakaya trade on a homy, nostalgic atmosphere with dim lighting, lots of wood and plenty of ice cold beer. Every community has plenty of choices ranging from the tiny hole in the wall places to huge multistory chains clustered around the train stations.
In a lot of ways I prefer izakaya to a more American style drinking establishment. Unlike the prototypical American sports bar, izakaya rarely have TVs plastering the walls. Most seating is in semi-private booths, so while they are not the best place to meet new people they are great for reinforcing relationships with established players in your life. The lack of distraction from televisions and other patrons focuses everything into the group of friends you are spending time with that day. Being easily distracted, I really like the more intimate focus. I am spending time with my friends, and want my energy to be focused on them rather than the ten televisions broadcasting the exact same basketball game. Izakya also make good spots to host a larger gathering. Many of them have party rooms that can hold ten to twenty people along with a set of course menus that makes setting up the party a snap. Sometimes you can also find a nomihodai all you can drink special, either for a table or for a larger group. Though if you do want to do a course menu or all you can drink option, remember that everybody in the group has to agree to it. There is rarely an option to opt out.
The cuisine is one of the best parts of the izakaya experience. While globally pub grub is rarely very healthy, drinking food in Japan is actually pretty diverse and some of it is even good for you. Though of course some of it will make your heart seize up from the grease, as it should be. Much of the menu is made to be shared, there are very few entrees for one person. Everything feeds into the communal setting. Things often start out with staples like fried chicken, edamame (salted boiled soybeans) and gyoza dumplings. Many izakaya offer the grilled chicken skewers called yakitori, with breast meat, grilled skin, cartilage, meatballs or other chicken bits all covered in salt or sauce and ready to go. Not all skewers are chicken, one of my personal favorite izakaya foods is cheese wrapped in bacon and grilled. Drinking food doesn’t get better than cheese and bacon on a stick. There is also kushikatsu which is a wide variety of foods skewered on sticks, battered, and fried. Cheese, garlic cloves, lotus root slices, mini tomatoes, onions bacon and more are all improved by breading and frying.
There is often a bit of an international flair to the menu as well. Korean foods like chijimi (a savory pancake with pork or seafood in it) and kimchee are often seen at izakaya, along with the omnipresent Italian import pizza. Many places serve sushi and sashimi as well as some pretty extravagant salads. There really is something for everyone, which also helps to reinforce the communal gathering-space feel. While most major chains will have everything I have mentioned and more listed on the menu, there are plenty of places that specialize as well. Yakitori, kushikatsu, and seafood are very popular themes that even national chains have been built around.
One thing to be careful of in izakaya and just generally when eating and drinking in Japan is “free” food. If everybody in the party receives a small plate of food that nobody ordered it usually means that the establishment has a cover charge and this is a gift to make up for that. Typically this charge is under 500 yen ($5) so it is rarely backbreaking, but it can still add a bit of a surprise to the final bill, especially for larger parties.
Sure you can go to a drinking establishment for the food, but the drinks are just as important. As is often the case here in Japan, there is rarely much diversity in the beer menu. The choice is almost always simply “nama beer” aka draft beer. Most izakaya make a deal with a single distributor which means that every drink on the menu will be a product of a single conglomerate. You will be drinking Suntory beer, Suntory spirits, and Suntory softdrinks. While there may not be any choice, at least all the major players deliver a palatable if basic lager served up quick and cold. Luckily there are more drinks on the menu than just beer. Sake is always available, and some places have a long list of regional nihonshu. (If only the beer menu followed suit!) Mixed drinks of many shapes and sizes are also available. One popular option is the chu-hi, a shochu highball made with soda water, shochu, and fruit juice. Shochu is an east Asian spirit often distilled from sweet potatoes that is quite popular in Japan and Korea. It can be served straight, on the rocks, or diluted with warm or cold water depending on the season.
I have found izakaya to be a great place to relax and socialize with your friends. Plentiful plates of food and lots of icy mugs of beer make for a fantastic spot to decompress after work. The quality of even the big chains can be quite high, which is really nice. I do hope that change is coming and the average beer menu diversifies, but until then I will continue to crunch on tasty pan fried gyoza and toss back frosty mugs of Kirin lager.
What is your favorite izakaya food? Would you go to this sort of bar more often if you could drink craft beer there? Let me know in the comments!