Pubs and bars can be found anywhere in the world, but nothing quite compares to the Japanese izakaya.
Izakayas are often described as “Japanese bars”, but there is much more to them than just that. They are very traditional places that differ greatly from what many foreigners associate with a pub. To make your next trip to Japan a little bit easier we want to give you a quick insight into Japanese izakaya culture and what you can expect when going out for a quick drink in the land of the rising sun.
As you might have already guessed, izakayas go way back in the history of Japan. The first establishments started at some point during the Edo Period (1603-1867) and quickly became local hotspots.
Traditionally, izakayas were places for men to meet, have a couple of drinks and snacks and enjoy each other’s company. Food and drinks were cheap and thus going to an izakaya quickly became a routine and a way for people to interact and discuss current topics.
Not much has changed since the early days of Japanese izakayas. They are as popular as ever and can be found at almost any corner in Japan. The drinks and meals are still reasonably cheap and today more than ever, izakayas are a great way to meet new people or relax with your closest friends. You can recognize an izakaya by its typical red lanterns hanging at the front of the building and welcoming you with its soft shine.
Izakayas are friendly places. There is a lot more interaction between customers and staff than at any other Japanese establishment and you should be aware of that.
When ordering, it is not uncommon to ask your waiter for advice. You might ask for a personal recommendation, what kind of fish is the freshest and what meals are most popular right now. While more popular izakayas might have an English menu, you should not expect to find one at smaller establishments. In fact, some local shops still choose to write the menu for the day by hand – a challenge for foreigners who cannot read Japanese kanji. There’s no need to be shy and ask for help though since most people are more than happy to help you out.
Izakaya food is unique in the sense that you can find the same set of meals no matter where you go. This includes meat dishes like yakiniku (grilled beef), yakitori (grilled chicken) or karaage (fried chicken) as well as fresh sashimi. Very popular side dishes include tsukemono (pickled vegetables of all kinds), edamame, salads or vegetables prepared with sesame dressing.
Once you order your first drink you will usually be handed an otoshi, a small appetizer that is either on the house or comes included in the final bill. When going to an izakaya do not expect to order one big dish solely for yourself. Izakayas are social places and it is habit to order numerous smaller dishes that everyone can share.
While most izakayas have a similar menu, there are always small variations depending on the bar. Some izakayas might even have special meals that are unique to them. Plus, Japanese cuisine pays close attention to the seasons; that means that there are certain meals you can only get during a certain time of the year. So it is definitely worth a try to check out new izakayas at different times during the year.
If you want to become friends with someone, bring them to an izakaya.
It is true that many Japanese people like to keep their distance and hide their real emotions in order to not cause any troubles for others. This can make building friendships or talking about personal issues pretty difficult. But don’t be afraid, because there is a way to get people to open up to you. After a couple of drinks and delicious meals at an izakaya even your most stoic coworker will start cracking jokes.
You might think it’s the alcohol causing this change of character, but it is actually an aspect of Japanese culture. Izakayas are one of the few places where it is acceptable to talk about your emotions, share personal stories and really get to know one another without having to worry about being polite or respecting each other’s privacy. And as the night continues chances are high that your conversation is picked up by the neighboring table and you get to chat and laugh with some new friends.
Anyone who has stayed in Japan long enough will agree that izakayas are simply great places. Especially in a country where long working hours and busy lifestyles are the norm, it is great to have a place that is designed to make you feel at home. As a foreigner, the Japanese menus and unknown dishes might be intimidating at first, but those that dare to go inside will experience a part of Japanese culture you cannot find anywhere else.
Have you ever been to a Japanese izakaya and if so, what was your experience? Leave your comments down below.