An izakaya is a restaurant providing food that goes well with drinks. They function as a place for casual get-togethers and social interaction. They can cater to smaller-sized parties and are well known for having wide-ranging menus. While nationwide izakaya chains with large restaurants exist, small individually run shops are just as common.
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In the Edo era (17th - 19th centuries), sake was sold by volume. As people drank in front of the liquor shops of the time, the shops began to provide simple items of food to eat, a practice which led to present-day izakaya. While liquor shops selling by volume have almost completely disappeared, some liquor shops still have a place to sit and drink with some simple food (called "kadouchi" or "tachinomi")
Previously the main image of izakaya was as somewhere men drank at after work, but in recent times many establishments have an up-market feel and are frequented more regularly by women.
Types of Izakaya
Generally the term izakaya refers to places selling Japanese food, but there are more western style establishments selling wine or cocktails and non-Japanese cuisine. Increasingly shops try to distinguish themselves by emphasizing their regional character or a particular specialty. Particular efforts are taken to provide a large variety of sake, shochu, wine and other spirits to further establish the izakaya's character. Gourmet Navigator introduces a wide-ranging variety of izakaya, and we hope you find a shop you can enjoy.
Visiting an Izakaya
One of the good things about izakaya is that you can drink and eat at a reasonable price. While prices will of course differ according to the particular shop, at many places 2,000-3,000 yen is sufficient to enjoy yourself.
Izakaya vary greatly in scale, from nationwide chain stores to individually run establishments. Chain stores generally have menus with photos allowing you to order even if you do not know the actual names. Larger shops can cater to group bookings for parties or banquets. Smaller restaurants will usually have handwritten menus without pictures, so you can enjoy talking with the staff to choose your order. They may offer you dishes not on the menu or special types of liquor.
Some izakaya offer teishoku(set meals) instead of liquor and set menus at lunchtime.
Izakaya offer a wide variety of liquor. Some make this very variety their key selling point. You can sample sake, shochu (made from barley, sweet potato or rice) and awamori (Okinawan liquor) made in different localities or by different brewing methods. The shop staff will happily give you advice as you try out the many varieties available.
Non-alcoholic drinks such as soft drinks are also readily available for those who prefer not to drink liquor. Some establishments offer non-alcoholic cocktails.
Beer: Take the chance to try out Japanese beer. Some shops have different sizes of glasses available.
Bottled beer is available at many izakaya.
Sake (Nihonshu): Sake is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice using yeast. Some types have a particularly heavy taste, while others are light and fruity, similar to wine. Sake can be served cooled, warmed or at room temperature according to its type, allowing you to explore the differing taste sensations involved. Heating sake is referred to as "kan."
Shochu, Awamori: These are both distilled alcoholic beverages. Though they can be drunk as they are, many people mix them with ice or water, or even hot water or green tea. Shochu is made from either sweet potato, barley or rice; each type has its own distinct flavor.
Sawa, Chu-hai: Spirits mixed with fruit juice, carbonated water, green tea or other beverages is called "sawa" (from "sour mix") or "chu-hai." Names differ according to the ingredients. Examples are: Grapefruit-sawa, Ryokucha-hai (photo)
Some izakaya specifically offer local cuisines, giving you an opportunity to sample the local specialties of each part of Japan. Some examples of local cuisine served at izakaya are given here.
Nagoya: Major city, located in central Japan. Sweet and sour chicken wings are a local specialty. Battered, skewered and fried pork covered with a sweet miso sauce (miso kushi katsu) goes down well with beer.
Kyoto: The most famous sightseeing spot in Japan. Small vegetable dishes that are eaten everyday in Kyoto (obanzai) might be served at izakaya here. Enjoy the famous local tofu either cold, with garnishes, or as warm and filing boiled tofu with sauce.
Fukuoka: The main city of the island of Kyushu to the southwest of Japan. Chinese chives, cabbage and other ingredients are mixed with offal to make offal hot pot (motsu nabe), which goes well with liquor. Shochu, a distilled spirit originating from Kyushu, is a popular local drink.
Okinawa: An island to the very south of Japan. Stewed pork chunks called "rafuti" and stir-fried tofu and vegetables called "chanpuru" both go well with liquor. Awamori, a distilled spirit, is unique to Okinawa.
When you sit down at an izakaya in Japan, you may be given some small dishes before you order anything. Called "otoshi" or "tsuki-dashi," these are part of a Japanese custom to supply small appetizers before customers order; in no way are you being forced to order these. These are part of the cover charge which is added to your bill at the end of the meal. You can also judge the character and atmosphere of the restaurant's food from the contents of the otoshi. We hope you enjoy this Japanese custom as you wait for your order to arrive.
Zensai (Appetizers) / Salads
Hiyayakko: Cold tofu eaten with garnishes and soy sauce.
Edamame: Parboiled green soybeans sprinkled with salt. Remove the beans from their shells to eat.
Shiokara: A delicacy involving squid offal pickled in salt.
Hiyashi (cold) Tomato
Sashimi (Raw Fish)
Moriawase (set order): Several types of sashimi will be served on a single plate
Basashi (horse sashimi)
Yakitori: Chicken meat cut into bite-sized chunks, skewered and roasted is a staple item of izakaya. They can be eaten on the wooden skewers or by taking the meat off the skewers first. For more information look at the Yakitori page.
Tsukune: Minced chicken meatballs roasted on a skewer.
Diced steak: Bite-sized easy-to-eat steak.
Hokkeyaki: A species of mackerel dried and cooked.
Komochi Shashamo: Small dried capelin with roe cooked and eaten.
Jaga Butter: Potato cooked or steamed in foil with plenty of butter.
Sausage moriawase (set order)
Stews / Steamed Dishes
Buta no Kakuni (stewed pork): Pork basted with a sweet soy sauce and stewed until soft, eaten with mustard.
Niku Jaga (meat and potato): Meat, potato, and onions stewed in a sweet soy sauce. A common household dish in Japan.
Asari no Sakamushi: Short-neck clams steamed with sake; goes well with liquor.
Tori no Karaage: Spiced and fried chicken.
Agedashi-dofu: Tofu fried in a light batter and served with a thick sauce.
Noodles / Rice Dishes
Sauce Yakisoba: Meat, vegetables and other ingredients stir-fried with noodles and flavored with a worcester sauce.
Onigiri (rice ball): Rice formed into a ball or triangular shape around various ingredients (salmon, pickled plums, cod roe, seaweed) and wrapped in dried seaweed.
Ochazuke: Green tea poured over rice with various other ingredients (salmon, pickled plums, cod roe, seaweed). Popularly eaten after drinking liquor.
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