Izakaya are one of Japan’s quintessential experiences. If it’s your first trip to Japan or you’ve been here for a lifetime, it’s hard not to enjoy a beer and yarn with friends over some heavily salted fried food at this Japanese institution.
Top tip: Here’s a list of some of our favorite izakaya in Tokyo.
What is an izakaya?
Most guides and dictionaries translate izakaya as “pub” or “tavern”, but it doesn’t really fit neatly into either of these definitions. The literal meaning from the characters “居酒屋” is “stay saké shop”, meaning a place where you can stay and drink as opposed to a booze shop where you take it home. Izakaya are different from bars in that diners are always seated (usually at a table or on tatami) and there is less opportunity for interaction with other customers. While drinking is a big part of it, there’s also a constant stream of (shared) dishes. It’s hard to classify the food other than “generally goes well with alcohol”. In fact the menu can be so diverse that it can be a chance to try some dishes you haven’t tried before.
Izakaya are also typically attended by large groups of friends or colleagues and are not really a spot to go an an intimate date. And although there are no rules against it, going to an izakaya by yourself is not really done!
Typical izakaya drinks and dishes
With a few exceptions, izakaya are not the place to be a wine connoisseur or a craft beer snob. The drink menu typically consists of Japanese pilsner-style draft beers (almost always one of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo or Suntory), various “sours” (for example lemon mixed with shōchū and soda water), chūhai, an extensive menu of cold and warm saké (more correctly known as nihonshu in Japanese), and shōchū. Since shōchū is a spirit, it will be served with still water or soda water and ice. If you’re not interested in alcohol, most izakaya have a range of cold alcohol-free drinks available—typically oolong tea, green tea, zero-alcohol beer, and soft drinks, but not coffee. For more on drinks, skip to the drinks and etiquette section.
Typical izakaya dishes include:
- Edamame – salted beans eaten as a snack with beer
- Karaage – Japanese-style fried chicken
- Kushiyaki – chicken (yakitori), meat, fish, vegetables roasted on a skewer
- Grilled fish
- Ebi-mayo – fried shrimp with mayo
- Agemono – deep-fried squid, fish, prawns
- Makizushi – roll sushi
- Nabe – Japanese hotpot
- Pizza and french fries
Rather than tipping or paying a traditional service fee, at an izakaya you pay otōshidai (お通し代) or sekiryō (席料), which is often translated as “table charge”. This is a misnomer since you’re not paying for the table, you’re paying for the seat. The charge is per person and includes a small dish of food called otōshi. The upside to this mandatory charge is trying whatever otōshi comes your way—it can be likened to a lottery where you might get some of the tastiest nibbles you’ve ever tried, while other times it’s a bit disappointing. Either way, the fun is in the surprise, and it’s definitely part of the whole izakaya experience. (A note for vegetarians though is that the dish often has meat or fish in it.)
This fee varies from place to place, so if you’re worried about it, ask before you enter. To find out, you should ask “Otōshidai arimasuka?” (Is there a seating charge?), then “Ikura desuka?” to find out how much.
The 2-hour time limit
If you’re at an izakaya with empty seats and no one waiting at the door, you can eat and drink all night if you want. However, if there are peeps waiting to get in, the izakaya may impose a 2-hour limit from when you arrive. When the 2 hours is up, they may ask you to leave so that new customers can take your table.
Pro tip: Join a Shinjuku bar-hopping tour for a fun introduction to the world of izakaya.
Izakaya drinks and etiquette
The typical izakaya drink is cold draft beer served in a jockey (glass tankard). While they may also have a dark beer or a local souvenir beer available, this is not the place to be a beer nerd, so don’t go confusing the staff by asking for an IPA. The beer selection is probably limited to Asahi Super Dry, Kirin Ichiban, Sapporo Black Label, or Suntory Premium Malts.
If you’re feeling a bit daring, most izakaya have a decent range of nihonshu (sake) and shōchū—a distilled spirit made from sweet potato, rice, barley, soba wheat, or brown sugar. The kanji characters and the writing style of sake and shochu menus are notoriously difficult to read, so you’ll need to have a master’s degree in Japanese language or the reading skills of a Japanese 6th grader to read the menu. If you’re not familiar with the options, ask the waiter for advice—waiters at izakaya are often quite knowledgeable about the different sake and shochu options on their menu. Typically the waiter will ask if you prefer your drinks to be amakuchi (sweet) or karakuchi (dry) before giving you a recommendation.
If the izakaya doesn’t have draft beer, or even sometimes when they do, you will see 600 ml (about 20 fluid ounces) bottles on the table. It’s considered good manners to pour someone else’s drink, and usually the more junior members of the party will attentively fill the glasses of their superiors.
If you don’t drink alcohol or you’re not down for getting plastered, there is always a selection of non-alcoholic drinks. If you don’t want to be left out, oolong tea is a good choice as it’s a similar color to beer. Often, the izakaya will serve it in a beer tankard so you can clink glasses with your fellow diners. Just make sure no one accidentally tops up your glass of tea with some beer!
Lastly, don’t start drinking until everyone in your party has their drinks. It’s considered quite rude to start drinking when one or more people are left out.
Nomihōdai (all you can drink)
飲放題 (nomihōdai) were amongst the first kanji characters I learned to read after my arrival in Japan. It simply means “all you can drink”. It’s rarely means all you can drink until you can’t drink anymore though; there’s usually a time limit (typically 1 hour, 90 minutes or 2 hours) and the menu from which you can order is restricted. Although it can seem like a great deal, you may have to forego eating and talking to drink at a rapid enough speed to get your money’s worth. Service also seems to magically slow down when you take the nomihōdai option. The best way around this is to order your next drinks well before you’ve finished your current round.
Tabehōdai (all you can eat)
In case you haven’t worked it out yet, the hōdai part basically means “free for all”, so tabehōdai (食べ放題) means “all you can eat”. Before you imagine devouring a small mountain of succulent sashimi on a pittance, you should take note of the restrictions. As with the drinks, your orders will be restricted to the cheaper items on the menu. If you order anything outside the tabehōdai items, it will add extra to your bill.
Not to be confused with tabehōdai, the course is a set menu for a fixed price. Courses often go together with nomihōdai. When making a large booking at an izakaya, they may require that you order nomihōdai and/or a course (this comes in around the 4,000 yen mark at an average izakaya). However, if you just roll up without a booking, you can often avoid the compulsory course.
Don’t like cigarette smoke? You probably won’t like an izakaya then. Non-smoking izakaya exist, but I’ve only read about them. You’re also out of luck if you want to sit in the non-smoking section. Your best bet is to look for somewhere that is well ventilated. If it’s a slightly classy izakaya, they may have private rooms. These rooms are known as koshitsu. To be seated in a private room, ask “Koshitsu arimasuka?” (Are there any private rooms?) Private rooms are also a good option if you’re concerned about reducing your risk of contracting COVID-19.
Sights and sounds
People in Japan are renowned for their reserve. When you step into an izakaya though, things tend to liven up quite a bit. Boisterous greetings, singing, dancing, hearty chattering and the like make for a let-loose atmosphere. Have a look at the video below to see just how birthdays are dealt with (this is Teppen Onna Dojo in Shibuya). For example, even if you don’t know the person, your participation in a birthday celebration is expected!
Paying the bill
When you’re ready to leave, you can ask for the bill by saying “Okaikei onegai shimasu” (お会計お願いします). When you get the bill, follow the Japanese tradition and divide it equally by as many people as are present. You could just calculate the cost of what you drank and consumed, but if you do that, you’ll never make friends in Japan. Just pay your share!
This article was first published on October 2, 2015. It was last updated on September 2, 2021.