Discover Deep Japan

The History and Culture of Izakaya in Japan

Photo by kaori kubota on Unsplash

Previously on DISCOVER DEEP JAPAN’s JAPAN LIFESTYLE GUIDE, we talked about all sorts of neat bars that exist around Japan (LINK), as well as touched on Japan’s most historically and culturally significant drinking establishment: Izakaya. However, since there is so much more to tell, here is everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about Japan’s original pubs.

 What is an izakaya?

The first bars in Japan were born out of places where sake was sold. Since there was no way to effectively bottle sake at the time, customers instead brought their own stone jars, filled them up, and took them home to imbibe. By the time of the Edo period in the 17th century, these establishments-now known as izakaya- became places where you could stay and drink, eat, and socialize with other patrons.

In the time since, izakaya have changed a great deal while also remaining very much the same. That same red lantern outside the shopfront denotes “Izakaya,” as it has done for centuries. Though many restaurants in Japan have gone the non-smoking route, this is not true of most izakaya: They have remained a reliable place to get a nice, reasonably priced drink along with some good yakitori, hot pot dishes, and more.

Some izakaya have decided to stand out from the pack by becoming decidedly more modern. For example, some have updated their menus to be vegetarian friendly with veggie gratin, curry and pasta dishes. Other izakaya have gone the more family-friendly route, and ditched smoking altogether. Some even include rooms for mothers to nurse infants in privacy. Whether you decide on a more modern izakaya with western-style seating or an old school watering hole with tatami, you are surely in for a great experience!

 Izakaya Culture: Making new friends at your local izakaya

This part isn’t a how-to so much as a recommendation: do try to socialize with other patrons while you’re drinking at your izakaya of choice! I find it odd, but some people do seem to have a severe aversion to going out to eat and drink by themselves. Add to this that people in Tokyo have something of a reputation for being cold and aloof, and it can be hard to make friends here whether you are fluent in Japanese or not. However, I’ve also had much more memorable chats with complete strangers at old-fashioned-looking izakaya than any trendy bar in Ginza or Shinjuku. A big part of the charm of izakaya is meeting new people; otherwise you might as well go to a restaurant and sit alone in a little booth, or simply drink at home.

As an aside, for those looking to up their Japanese in order to better socialize with new pals, excel at their workplace, or for any other reason, click HERE (LINK) to learn how using a Japanese dictionary can help!

 Starting out

So, when should you make your first trip to an izakaya? Compared to many Japanese cafes or sit-down restaurants, which have strict hours, izakaya tend to run rather late. This is because they cater both to the foodies looking for some unpretentious grub as well as those looking to party.

When you first enter an izakaya, you may be asked to take a seat by the bar if alone or with one other person. When arriving as part of a large group it is typical to get a private room or a long table all to yourself. When you are seated at your izakaya of choice, you will be given the ever-present oshibori, a wet towel that you can use to clean your hands before eating. You will also get a small plate with some small appetizer, known as otoushi. As many izakaya have cover charges, otoushi is a way to get a little more bang for your buck. Please note that in most establishments you will always receive otoushi with your drink order, though I’ve heard of izakaya that have begun to ask foreign customers if they actually want otoushi or not.

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How to order at an izakaya

Typically, the actual ordering begins with drinks. Unless you are at an izakaya specifically known for their selection of micro-brews, you will usually see the typical selection of commercial quality Japanese beer. For best cost performance, order a “nama,” which is a tall glass of whatever they have on tap. Just about every izakaya will have plenty of liquor, especially whisky, sake, and a selection of cocktails. However, unlike in antiquity, few izakaya make their own sake these days.

In the West, the maxim goes “liquor before beer, in the clear,” but in Japan it’s the opposite, so generally a round of beer is ordered first. Some izakaya have happy hours known as “nomihodai” on certain days and certain times. If you would prefer to drink one thing all night, it may be more cost effective to buy an entire bottle as opposed to paying by the glass. The most important thing to remember about ordering as part of a group is that it is usually frowned upon to split a tab, especially if you join a group midway into the night.

 Izakaya cuisine at a glance

Next, onto the food! At an izakaya, you can expect no-frills Japanese comfort food. Typical items include yakitori- Japanese chicken grilled on skewers, or whole fish, but more western items like pizza and french fries are increasingly common these days. Food is generally serves tapas-style, so it is expected that you will order for a whole table and not just yourself. In the event that you do go to an izakaya alone, it is important to check the menu carefully as certain items are portioned for an entire group and not one person! As opposed to the reputation of precooked and reheated bar food in other countries, some izakaya are well known for their food- perhaps even more than their drinks!

A few more pointers for a great night out

Not all bars and izakaya allow smoking indoors. If you need a place where you can smoke, ask! Another good indication is if you see ashtrays on tables, obviously. In case your izakaya has tatami seating, do remember to take off your shoes! In Japan, the drinking age is 20, and drunk driving laws are strictly enforced. However, you may not need a designated driver if there is a daiko service nearby which will take both you and your car home for a reasonable fee. It is common for people to go to multiple izakaya ala a western pub crawl, and there are even Japanese-style izakaya sprouting up in other countries, like the United States and the U.K. Do tell your friends abroad about the differences between them!


Helpful Links

Dirty Japanese is an amusing and quick read for those who want to brush up on their casual Japanese. Good for slang and other bar-speak.



Here is a free app to help make getting a taxi easier. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/japantaxi/id481647073

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