Tokyo is easily one of the world’s greatest cities when it comes to food. Here, you can feast on just about anything your hungry heart desires—sushi, tempura, sukiyaki and everything in between. Sure, you could splurge at some of the fancier joints listed in generic travel guides, but wouldn’t you rather visit a local izakaya, where authentic Japanese fare at a reasonable price is always on the menu?
Izakaya are Japanese-style pubs, with an emphasis on shareable food, cold drinks and relaxed socializing. They’re local haunts that welcome neighborhood diners night after night. With one around just about every corner, a newbie to Tokyo might get overwhelmed with the sheer number of establishments to choose from. Plus, once you’ve picked a spot and been seated, there’s the next hurdle of choosing from a vast menu of food options. (Note: English menus are a rarity at non-chain izakayas).
MagicalTrip curbs all those anxieties by curating an izakaya bar hop itinerary to help tourists experience—and most importantly enjoy—this very important part of Japanese culture and nightlife.
Tokyo Bar Hopping Food Tour: An introduction to the izakaya dining scene
The izakaya is a Japanese institution and a must-try experience. MagicalTrip has been helping visitors check this off their Japan bucket list since it launched its first tour—Tokyo Bar Hopping Food tour in Shinjuku—in fall 2017. The tour quickly gained popularity, and in just a few short months, MagicalTrip expanded to Osaka and Kyoto as a tour operator.
We asked veteran MagicalTrip guide Shoto (who has guided more than 200 people to izakaya bars), what makes that tour special:
“The Bar Hopping tours focus on letting you enjoy izakaya culture just like a local. So, instead of taking you to places that anyone can easily access, we will take you to specially selected old-fashioned izakaya bars to enjoy delicious local dishes and drinks,” says Shoto.
He also mentions, “One concept of izakaya bars is to serve small dishes that go along with drinks.”—an important tidbit to note as part of the experience is the proper pairing of food and drink. Listed below are some of Shoto’s recommended combinations.
Harajuku, the home of fashion, cuteness, crepes and more crepes, here's a guide to some fun free things to do.
Pairing perfection: Best food and drink combos to try at an izakaya
Japanese dumplings and draft beer
At izakayas, the first drink Japanese people will order (before even looking at the menu) is draft beer. The culture of ordering draft beer “for the time being” (toriaezu in Japanese) to toast with is almost uniquely Japanese. Pair that beer with hot, crispy dumplings dunked in a ginger-infused, soy-based dipping sauce—and you have perfection.
Dumplings are a staple dish on the izakaya menu. During the Tokyo Bar Hopping Food Tour in Shinjuku, enjoy some of the best Japanese dumplings with an icy cold local draft beer.
Sashimi and Japanese sake
Japanese sake and cold sashimi is a match made in heaven—and in any season too. For a hot summer day, try cold sake (reishu). Or for a chilly winter evening, a hot sake (atsukan). Just like with wine, the type of sake you choose will depend on the dish, and in this case, the fish.
There are so many sake options to choose from, each with a distinct flavor profile. Junmai Ginjo sake has a fresh and fruity taste, whereas Honjozo sake has robust and sweet taste. It is key to choose the right type of sake to go with your sashimi—this is where your MagicalTrip tour guide comes in handy!
Meat sushi and lemon sour
Depending on which Bar Hopping Food Tour you join, the type of dishes varies. During the Shibuya Bar Hopping Night Tour, you can enjoy “meat sushi”. A nicely cut slice of Japanese wagyu placed on top of sushi rice, grilled right in front of you. Even people who can’t/won’t eat raw fish can enjoy this one! It’s best to eat this medium rare, paired with a lemon sour. This is one of the most popular drinks made up of lemon, soda and shochu (a Japanese distilled liquor), and is a refreshing companion to the juicy Japanese beef.
Yakitori and Hoppy
Shoto’s final recommendation is a classic combination: yakitori and Hoppy. Yakitori are Japanese-style meat skewers, best enjoyed with some homemade teriyaki sauce and a cold Hoppy. Hoppy is a Japanese drink made of shochu and a “beer-flavored” beverage that has been
guzzled loved ever since the end of World War II. Hoppy is stronger than beer, making it a great match for some hot and flavorful yakitori.
Get inspired by izakaya culture
For a visitor to literally and figuratively get a taste of a place, they must experience the food as the locals do. MagicalTrip’s local guides will steer you from the tourist-trap chain izakayas and introduce you to the long-established izakaya bars beloved by locals.
“Izakayas for Japanese people are a special place to not only enjoy delicious food and drinks, but also to socialize with colleagues and friends. Our food tours are organized in small groups which allow everyone to interact with each other, unlike other large tours. We hope you enjoy the lively, local atmosphere, and communication with our friendly guides, as well as with the locals just like me ;)”
If this got you interested in experiencing izakaya culture firsthand, give MagicalTrip’s Bar Hopping Food Tours a try.
In our pilot episode, we're joined by Alvin Cheung of ABC Coffee, Hapnick, and Tokyo Keyboards