Japanese Izakaya: Fun, food & libations
Look down the main alleyways of most major Japanese towns and you will probably find one or two small shops with red lanterns, or “akachochin,” at their entrances. The scene is likely to be accompanied by the aroma of skewered “yakitori” chicken over hot coals and the sounds of merrymaking.
These are Japan’s ubiquitous “izakaya” pubs where people relax and enjoy a local taste of good times with good food and drink.
Izakaya, literally means “stay-in” (i) (liquor shop” (sakaya); these are much-loved local establishments for casual drinking and dining. Since the prices are usually more reasonable than those at restaurants and fancy bars, they are favorite places to grab a couple of drinks after work or have a casual party.
It is said that izakaya were started in the Edo Period (1603-1867) when sake was sold at large in individual servings. People would drink in front of the liquor shops, so eventually the shops began to serve simple foods to go with it. As matter of fact, you can still find some liquor shops that have places to sit and drink with simple finger food today.
Today, there are more than 80,000 izakaya throughout Japan, according to Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation data. There are various types.
Some izakaya have traditional private rooms with tatami mats, where you need to take off your shoes. These places are often used for big groups such as company parties.
Chain iazakayas such as Shirakiya, Warawara and Uotami are popular with all groups, young and old, alike because they are very affordable, easy to find and have a large capacity.
Traditional-style izakaya, which are called akachochin for their red lanterns, are favorites among older patrons, but they are my personal favorite, too. Akachochin izakaya are usually smaller establishments that may play folk music such as “enka” inside. These shops tend to draw regulars from the surrounding neighborhood. What I love the most about akachochin is listening to the local patrons talk.
In Okinawa, there are also “minyo izakaya,” which feature stage performances such as “eisa” and “shishi-mai (lion) dances as well as traditional “shimauta” (island songs). Some of these establishments are old Okinawan homes that have been renovated and the servers wear traditional Ryukyu attire.
There are also Western-style izakaya, which are more stylish and modernized to draw in couples and the younger generation. Standing-bar izakaya, or ‘tachinomi,’ are also popular because their prices are even more reasonable.
In fact, there are so many types of izakaya that you can’t always be sure whether to call some establishments izakayas. For example, some people call a Spanish tapas bar an izakaya, while others call it a dining bar.
“There is no regulation in Japan that defines an izakaya because there is so much diversity in what we call izakaya today,” said Sachiko Sakurai, secretary general of Japan Izakaya Association. “But basically, we consider an izakaya to be a place you can enjoy both eating and drinking. I think that in many foreign countries, people go to restaurant to eat and they go to bar to drink. But izakaya are places where you can satisfy both desires at once. Also, it is a place for communication. It’s a place you can eat, drink and talk.”
Although the legal drinking age in Japan is 20, patrons of any age can eat in at most izakayas but they must be of age to drink alcohol. Parties with members under the age of 18, must leave by 10 p.m., according the Japanese law. So, it is no problem if you want to have a family dinner at most izakaya. There are, however, some where patrons must be 20 or older to enter.
“People in Okinawa actually prefer to go to an izakaya with their families more than people in (mainland) Japan; so they use izakayas as more restaurants,” said Katsumi Nakayama, owner of Mekara Uroko izakaya in Chatan, Okinawa.
Weather up north or down south, however, izakaya culture abounds. And there’s no better place to get a taste of local culture than your local izakaya.
“When you are in izakaya, you will often see people having fun and mingling with strangers,” said Sakurai. “It is hard to see something like that in Japan. You don’t see that on the train or any other public place. But I think when people are in an izakaya, they tend to communicate more and everyone makes friends more easily. Izakaya are a very important part of Japanese culture.”
When you are drinking with Japanese friends or in any Japanese party. When they make a toast, they may say “Kanpai,” or cheers. According to Japanese custom, you are not supposed to take a sip or bit until everyone is served and the first kanpai is performed.
After the first kanpai, it’s customary poor a drink for others in your group. So, if you see someone’s glass is empty, try to refill it for them. If someone wants to refill your glass, you are supposed to make a sip and put the grass down for the refill. This is a popular practice at company parties. But if you are drinking with friends casually, it’s not a must-do thing.
Japan's Izakaya jargon
Toriaezu Nama: For now, draft beer. When you go to an izakaya, everyone tells the server “Toriaezu nama,” even before taking a look at the menu. Basically, you’re saying that you need a beer right now before you think about ordering food.
Okawari onegaishimasu: One more, please!
Toire wa doko desuka: Where is the bathroom?
Okanjyo onegaishimasu: Check please
Yopparai: Drunk people
Onaka ippai desu: I am full
Mata kimasu: I will come back
Yokocho: Alleyway off the main street. This includes a bunch of the small izakaya that are found on these narrow streets.
Warikan: Split the bill equally
Betsu betsu: Separate the bill
What's on the menu?
Anyone new to Japan’s local “izakaya” pub scene may find that many of these establishments – especially the more traditional – may be a little more challenging to navigate than a restaurant or simple bar. But don’t let that stop you, says Sachiko Sakurai, secretary general of Japan Izakaya Association.
“It may be hard for foreigners to come into an izakaya for the first time because servers may not speak English and they usually don’t have English menus,” he says. “But it’s worth trying. (Most servers) are willing to help you even though they don’t understand English.”
Here’re a few things to look out for.
In most izakaya, a small dish called “otoushi” will be served even before you order anything. These customary small appetizers come whether you like it or not, and are included in the cover charge added to your bill (usually 200 to 300 yen per person). Some people judge the character and taste of the izakaya’s food from the contents of the otoshi. So don’t hesitate to give this snacks a try.
One of the biggest difference between izakaya and restaurant is that the portion of food is very small. These small dishes are called “tsumami” which are prized locally as something to go with the drinks. Tsumami can vary between from the seasons and places.
“The good thing about izakayas is that you can try many different foods in one table because each portion is small,” said Sakurai. “So, you can order yakitori, sashimi, sushi and many other dishes without getting full too fast. It is something like dish department store. I think that for foreigners especially it is a great way to try variety of Japanese foods.”
There are so many dishes to choose from the menu in izakaya from Western food to Japanese food, and from pancakes to cow’s tongue. Some of the popular dishes among locals in Okinawa are “gurukun no karaage” (fried banana fish), “jimami tofu” (peanut tofu), “goya champuru” (bitter melon stir fry), “umi-budo (seagrapes)” and “rafute” (pork belly stewed in soy sauce and brown sugar).
In Okinawa, the most popular beer is Orion Beer, the only locally made draft beer. Another Okinawan favorite is “awamori,” nicked named “shimazake,” or island sake, by locals. Awamori is distilled exclusively in Okinawa from long grain Indica (Thai) rice and Okinawan black “koji” yeast.
“Sour,” sometimes called “chuhai,” is also a popular izakaya drink in Okinawa. This is a cocktail containing shochu, soda and fruit juice. Some popular sour flavors include lemon, grapefruit and oolong tea. In some places, if you order a grapefruit sour, they will bring you a half cut grape fruit and squeezer to squeeze the juice to pour into your shochu drink.
High Ball is also a popular drink in recent trend, which is a mixed drink of whisky and soda. A jog of draft beer usually costs from 400-600 yen ($4-6). But if you find izkaya which has happy hour or any discount campaign, you will be able to get cheaper price. Also, some izakaya have an all you can drink system for certain period of time.
There are also variety non-alcohol beers that major beer companies produce such as Kirin and Asahi. The non-alcohol beers are popular with people who need to drive.
If you find your favorite Izakaya, some izakaya have “bottle keep service” which the place hold your unfinished bottle of awamori or shochu until next time you come back. And it usually becomes cheaper than ordering a glass each.
“So don’t hesitate to try it,” Sakurai says. “I hope you will find your own favorite izakaya.”
Popular izakaya dishes
Deep fried Gurukun
Gurukun is Okinawa’s Prefectural fish. It is loved by locals and the best way to cook is deep fry. It is a white fish with plain and light taste. Let’s eat it from the head because it is usually deep fried enough to eat bones.
This tofu is made by peanut, which has sticker texture than normal tofu. It is reasonable and delicious. Today, it is popularly known as healthy food and loved by young female.
Very rich flavored Shimmered Pork Belly or “Buta no kakuni”, which is simmered into fish broth with soy sauce and sake or awamori for couple hours. Rafute is popular in not only locals but also many American according to Katsumi Nakayama, owner of izakaya Mekara Uroko. It is so soft that it melt in the mouth. If you like meat, you must try it. It is simmered into fish broth with soy sauce and sake or awamori for couple hours.
Nice and spicy Chinese Onion made in Okinawa. It is pickled in salt and served with sliced bonito or “katsuobushi”, which goes very well with beer and awamori. Chinese Onion is also used in stir fry and tempura.
It is local specialty seaweeds, which is sometimes referred as green caviar. The unique seaweed looks like a mini green grapes. When you eat it, it pops in your mouth with the flavor of the ocean. Since it has high minerals but low in calories, it has been called the “longevity seaweeds”. Popular way to enjoy umi budo is to put in soy sauce or vinegar-based dressing.
Okinawan love Chanpuru dishes. Chanpuru means mixed up in Okinawan dialect. There are variety of chanpuru you can find in izakaya such as go-ya (bitter gourd) chanpuru, somen (thin noodle) chanpuru and fu (gluten) chanpuru.