Sometimes you just can’t decide: Should I drink or should I eat? In Japan, the answer is the Izakaya.
So what's up with Japanese izakaya?
Often said to be one of the unique aspects of Japanese culture, at an izakaya you can enjoy both dining and drinking at the same restaurant. In most countries these activities would be separated, but not in an izakaya.
“居酒屋風情”by Richard, enjoy my life! at https://flic.kr/p/gYy8Zm
Izakaya are frequented both by groups of businessman out after work as well as groups of boisterous college students. Recently, it hasn’t been unusual to see families bringing children sometimes. Even non-drinkers seem to enjoy the tasty bar snacks on offer.
Though accessible for everyone, izakaya are primarily alcohol-serving establishments and as such tend to offer the popular types including beer, wine, whiskey, Japanese sake, and shochu (a Japanese liquor similar to vodka).
International visitors may be surprised to see just how many izakaya line the streets in popular areas. Step inside and take a peek! You will be greeted with the pleasant sight of revelers enjoying delicious food and even more delicious drinks.
Izakaya come in many forms
What we know today as izakaya were supposedly introduced around the Edo period. They feature in period drama scenes where characters are dining, and in stories within the traditional performance art of rakugo (comical storytelling). The major difference to today's incarnations is that Edo era izakaya only served washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine). The alcohol was Japanese sake and the snacks were baked seaweed or itawasa (fish paste served with soy sauce and wasabi in the style of sashimi). Changes came with the Meiji era, as people started to consume western alcohol and meats were available to more of the population (until that time, only the wealthy could really eat meats other than chicken).
As a result, restaurants offering yakitori, oden (a mixture of ingredients such as egg and potato in a soy-flavored seasoning), and a variety of other creative cuisines began to emerge. This culture continued to expand across subsequent eras, and Japan's izakaya became greatly diversified.
Styles include traditional Japanese (often with a red lantern hanging outside), seafood (offering fresh fish as their main draw), creative cooking, Korean, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and many other styles, the full number of which even Japanese may not be aware of!
“居酒屋”by Coal Miki at https://flic.kr/p/4tVfPk
As such, it may be worth deciding exactly what you want to eat and drink before heading out. Selecting the style first means less time deliberating and more time drinking!
How to order at an izakaya
The first thing that tends to surprise international visitors is that a complimentary hand towel (normally) comes as standard. Though commonplace in Japan, it is the kind of service you don't often see abroad. But remember, even with such service, there is no need to tip your waiter!
Finally, let's look at the way we normally order at an izakaya.
For drinks, it is so common for diners to enjoy at least one round of beer for starters that there is even an expression “toriaezu biru” (I’ll have beer for now).
Of course, feel free to start with wine or whiskey too - the choice is yours! The next order tends to be some light snacks, like edamame or salad, which can be munched on gradually while sipping your beer and contemplating the main order.
For those eager to tuck into some serious food from the get go, feel free to skip this step!
For Japanese diners, a trip to an izakaya normally involves the standard menu of edamame, yakitori, karaage (fried chicken), sashimi and fried fish. Tell the waiter “for starters, beer and edamame!” and other diners will be surprised how familiar you already are with izakaya culture.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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