A quintessential Japanese experience, a night spent in a Tokyo izakaya is an insight into the rowdier side of a composed culture, with cold beer and good food thrown in.

japanese izakaya
Photo by iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Izakaya are difficult to define if you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing a night (or early morning) in one. Part bar, part restaurant and part something undefinable—they are often smoky, almost always noisy and definitely best when busy. Offering all the must-try Japanese drinks like nihonshu and umeshu as well as draft beer and highballs, you can find your favorites while you choose a few small plates to go with them. An establishment’s specialty can vary—it could be a mix of skewers, some fresh sashimi or traditional tofu dishes, along with some deliciously salty fries of course.

Pro tip: Take part in a Shinjuku bar-hopping evening for a fun introduction to the world of izakaya.

Izakaya are, essentially, a crowd-pleaser. If you have a group itching for drinks but needing something to soak them up with, then this is the evening option for you. Which to choose, though? Izakaya in Tokyo tend to fall into three categories: the cheap and cheerful chains, the independents, and the themed restaurants. All have their perks, depending on your needs, your Japanese level and the kind of evening you’re looking for. For more on the unique rules of izakaya, from seating charges to nomihodai (all you can drink), read up here to get yourself acquainted, and then read on to plan your adventure.

Pro tip: New to Japan? Allow a local guide to show you the ropes on a bar-hopping tour through Shinjuku’s izakaya.

Where to find a good izakaya in Tokyo?

tokyo izakaya
Photo by Bjorn

If you’re not sure where to start, stick to the areas around train stations. Here you’ll usually find drinking alleys (known as yokocho), izakaya and more. Some popular spots in Tokyo include Meguro, beneath the train tracks in Yurakucho, Udagawacho in Shibuya and any busy drinking strips you can spot with bright neon lights or more traditional lanterns.

For chains it often helps to look up—they usually occupy multiple floors above street level, while independent ones take up a single floor, often on ground level (all the better for footfall). There will often be staff in the street calling out about deals and offering menus. Those vary in quality—theory has it that reputation alone should fill a restaurant, but who can blame them for trying?

Chains: Cheap, cheerful and great for groups

Best for cheap drinks, English menus and groups, these chains are great for an easy evening.

Shibuya Teppen
Photo by Chris Kirkland

Torikizoku | 鳥貴族 | Yakitori nights

A bright yellow sign you’ll soon be spotting all over Tokyo, this chain specializes in yakitori (meat skewers) and has a ¥298 set price for everything on the menu. Don’t worry—you get a few sticks for that price, and who can go wrong with a three-coin highball? There’s a combined all-you-can-eat and and all-you-can-drink option for groups, costing ¥2,980 per person, but reservations are required and a charge occurs for cancellations.

Locations: Shibuya (x4), Shinjuku (x4), Roppongi, Azabujuban, Meguro, Ikebukuro, Sugamo, Komagome, Nippori, Uguisudani, Suidobashi, Edogawabashi, Kayabacho and more.

Uoshin | 魚真 | A mini-chain focused on fish

You may well has spotted a busy lantern-festooned izakaya near Nogizaka Station, and while it has the look of an independent spot, there are actually a fair few Uoshin around Tokyo. Specializing in the freshest of fish, you can choose from sashimi, grilled delicacies and carefully chosen crab. This place feels a little more refined than Torikizoku et al, and is a nice compromise between random shop on the street and mega-chain.

Locations: Shimokitazawa, Kichijoji, Shibuya, Nogizaka, Shinjuku, Yotsuya, Ginza and Kyodo

Kin no Kura Jr | 金の蔵 | Fried food galore

Home of deep-fried foods, Kin no Kura has a limited ¥260 menu and a reputation for a good night out. There’s a mix of Japanese dishes and plenty of Western options too, plus fresh dishes like sushi and salad if you’re not all about the fried chicken. A 2.5-hour banquet course costs ¥2,980 with a few upgraded versions available too.

Locations: Shinjuku (x11), Ikebukuro (x5), Shibuya (x6), Akihabara (x4), Yurakucho, Nippori, Takadanobaba, Meguro, Shin-Okubo, Ueno, Oimachi, Kinshicho, Ochanomizu, Yokahama and more.

Isomaru Suisan | 磯丸水産 | A seafood selection

Easy to spot with their brightly painted buildings (both inside and out), there’s no doubt Isomaru Suisan is all about the seafood. Each table comes with its own grill and you can cook your own fish as you please, making for more of a hands-on dinner. The offerings and prices vary depending on what’s available during the season, but you can get small boxes of shellfish starting from ¥399, sashimi selections from ¥699 and impressive platters from ¥1,599—complete with information about all the fishermen involved in catching your dinner!

Locations: Shinjuku (x8) Takadanobaba (x2), Ikebukuro (x5), Otsuka, Karasuma, Shibuya (x4), Roppongi, Ebisu, Sangenjaya, Jiyugaoka, Gotanda, Shimbashi, Nigyocho and more.

The independents: Family run and local filled

tokyo izakaya
Photo by iStock.com/aluxum

If you’re looking for a more one-off experience, there are countless independent izakaya to choose from. Just be aware you’ll require Japanese for ordering, but picture menus can get you half-way there. Since we can only highlight a few, we suggest you head out to Yurakucho, Ameya-Yokocho, or Ebisu Yokocho to find some one-off drinking dens.

Andy’s Shin Hinomoto | 新日の基 | A night under the train tracks

Having taken over the popular izakaya of his in-laws, owner Andy, along with his wife, has continued the high quality and great atmosphere and added his own touches too. Welcoming foreigners alongside their regulars, the couple have course menus starting from ¥4,500 and individual dishes including fresh sashimi, grilled oysters, tempura and even live squid if you’re feeling adventurous.

Location: Yurakucho

Sasagin | 笹吟 | For an upscale evening

Awarded a Bib Gourmand for its affordable but exceptional quality, Sasagin offers a variety of carefully selected nihonshu. While the sake menus are available in English, the food specials are not, but ask for the hosts for osusume (recommendation) and you’re sure to get something delicious. Located in Yoyogi-Uehara, you’ll escape the crowds of inner-Tokyo for a more sophisticated evening of drinking.

Location: Yoyogi Uehara

Totogen Shinsen | 和食居酒屋 魚魚権 神泉店 | Seafood in Shinsen

A top choice of Tokyo Cheapo CEO Chris Kirkland—cheap spot connoisseur—you can’t go wrong at this fish-based izakaya in Shibuya. Selecting their fish fresh every morning, it’s more of a chilled out izakaya, rather than rowdy, making it a nice place for a relaxed evening. Courses start from ¥3,300 for seven dishes but you can go up to ten and still get change from a ¥5,000 note.

Location: Shibuya

Themed izakaya: A touch of the unusual

Looking for something unusual? How about Kill Bill night or a return to your (or someone else’s) schooldays? Tokyo loves a theme, and soon you will too.

Rokunen Yon-kumi | Back to school

A school-themed izakaya, this is a light and breezy version with plenty of eccentric touches. Along with drinks and the usual izakaya fare (including as-much-as-you-can-grab edamame), you get all-you-can-eat sweets, a school test and a good long walk down memory lane. The yells of “Natsukashii!” from nearby tables is a joy in itself, but play along and you’ll soon be a regular student, whether you’re in the classroom, the science room or home-ec.

Locations: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Osaka, Kyoto

Gonpachi | A night at the movies

Photo by Gregory Lane

Known for that famous Kill Bill scene, Gonpachi is a popular izakaya with surprisingly affordable prices. The Edo-era themed restaurant will take you out of the 21st century and into Japan’s aesthetic heyday, complete with lanterns, street scenes and crowds. Hopefully somewhat less eventful for your visit than the scene that made it famous, you’ll be surprised by the decent drinks prices and average to good food.

Location: Nishi Azabu

The Lock-Up | The stuff of nightmares

Horror-themed izakaya are strangely popular, with this chain being the biggest in Tokyo. With syringe shots, eyeball ice cubes and zombie waitresses who will either serve you drinks or serve you up—what’s not to love? The prices at this izakaya are obviously higher than normal, but you’re paying for the entertainement, and there’s plenty of it. The food is just as creative as the drinks (a little too creative, some might say) and will make you lose your appetite just in time for dinner.

Locations: Shibuya and Shinjuku

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