Izakaya alley

Izakaya Culture of Japan

Your trip to Japan would simply be incomplete without an izakaya experience. An izakaya is a type of casual Japanese bar that serves alcoholic beverages and snacks. It’s a go-to place for after-work drinking. It can be likened to a Spanish tapas bar, Irish pub, or an American tavern.

The word izakaya came into the English language in 1987 with “I” (to stay), and “sakaya” (sake shop), indication that the word izakaya originated from sake shops that permitted customers to sit on their premises to drink. Izakaya are also referred to as akachōchin or red lantern as red paper lanterns are traditionally found hanging in front of the shops.

Izakaya red lanterns.

Before the Meiji period which extended from October 23, 1868 to July 30, 1912, Japanese drank alcohol in sake shops while standing. Some stores began using sake barrels as stools and later on, started selling snacks.  Thus, began the popularity of izakaya, especially in Tokyo (then called Edo) and along the main routes as the demand for sake as a consumer goods grew by the latter part of the 18th century.

An izakaya though compared to a bar where social get-togethers are common, a typical izakaya shop offers very little opportunity for customers to interact. There are some shops that can host a large group of friends or colleagues but the shops are rarely a dating spot. Drinking is a big part with the usual beer, sake, and cocktails as the happy-hour favorites. Some places even offer decent wines and of course Japanese whiskey. and the dishes that are typically served generally go with alcohol such as simple edamame, yakitori, chicken karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken), sushi, grilled fish, French fries, etc. though the menu can be so diverse at times you can get whatever you fancy.

Izakaya food

Izakaya food.

A traditional izakaya has a “table charge”, otōshidai (お通し代) or sekiryō (席料) per person. This includes a small dish often meat or fish. Some places that have a line waiting may  impose a 2-hour limit. If you’re looking to down quite a few drinks, look for nomihōdai (飲放題), simply meaning “all you can drink”. But don’t take the words literally because you wouldn’t want to be dragged back home. There usually is a time limit (2 hours), for drink all you can offers. If you want food to go with the “all you can drink”, there’s tabehōdai (食べ放題), “all you can eat”. Always remember to check the restrictions on the menu for the choices in food and drinks that come with the tabehōdai items.

An izakaya setting can be lively and fun. It’s a great way to get to know the Japanese culture and mingle with the locals when visiting Japan. Kanpai!