All around the world the different kinds of nightlife are cultures in themselves. A fun way to dive into this part of the culture and getting a real local experience in Japan is going to an izakaya. Izakaya play a very big part in the Japanese (drinking) culture and are popular after-work-drinking places. People around the world often have an image of Japanese people that they are always at work and make long hours. While this is true for some workers, this isn’t always the case. In fact, Japanese people are experts in the entertainment world, with izakaya and karaoke and two big examples. Many (young) Japanese often go and visit an izakaya or other forms of entertainment, also to relieve some pressure from work. In this article we will introduce the izakaya culture and explain how you can also have this local experience.
What is an izakaya
Whether you are new to the Japanese culture, or have some experience, chances are that you have heard of izakaya (居酒屋) before. Izakaya is written using three kanji which are translated as ‘stay’ , ‘sake’, and ‘shop’ and basically an izakaya is a Japanese style bar that serves alcohol and food. They are casual places that many people visit after work with colleagues or friends, for a drink and a snack, like the Spanish tapas bar, or a British pub. The informal nature of the bars facilitate connecting with other guests, it is accepted to start chatting to strangers, through generally the Japanese will stick to themselves.
Izakaya food and drinks
While most restaurants focus on serving one main dish per person, Izakaya serve a wide range of dishes which are often shared within the group. Typical dishes include chicken karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken), yakitori, edamame, grilled fish, french fries, sashimi, sushi, ebi-mayo (fried shrimp with mayo), nabe (Japanese hotpot) and salads.
Izakaya translates as dine-in-sake shop, but serves a wide range of other drinks as well. Typically, domestic and sometimes imported alcoholic beverages, including beer, sake and shochu are being served as well as non-alcoholic drinks of course.
You will pay an otōshidai (お通し代) or sekiryō (席料), which is can be translated as a table charge, though this can be a little confusing. The table charge is charged per person and it includes a small dish of food called otōshi.
Besides the normal service any bar offers as a small after-work drinking place, izakaya are also very popular for their menus: nomihoudai (飲み放題) and tabehoudai (食べ放題). Both of these are sets in which you can order as much drink (nomimono) and food (tabemono) over a fixed period of time (usually two hours).
How to experience an izakaya
The best way to experience an izakaya is of course with a group of Japanese people. This group could be made of anyone: student clubs, sports team, work colleagues, your university class (teacher included), or even a date! Whenever drinking is involved, Japanese people seldom turn to bars and opt for the izakaya instead. In most cases when drinking in Japan, the obvious end is getting drunk, and drinking in large amounts is held in high esteem. The stories about salary man sleeping on the steps of the subway, are true. When visiting the popular drinking areas, you may most certainly see a (or multiple) passed out salaryman on the streets, especially in Friday evenings.
Do’s and don’ts in an izakaya
After sitting down, on the ground or at the table, often a beer – nama-biru – is ordered for everyone on the first round. You always wait until every member has a drink to chant the traditional ‘KANPAI!’ as one. Most drinking games require a self introduction in Japanese before participation. When a senpai (older member of the club) asks something of you, you do as you are told, when he asks you to drink you drink, but sometimes at the end of the night he will pay for you, this was my case. There is a sense that he is making an investment in you, according to the Japanese there is a sense of trust that the kouhai (younger member) will one day remember his senpai. In turn when the younger members get older, they might pay for the newly recruited. The nomikai (drinking party) usually ends with the leader of the group or club saying a few words then the entirety of the group claps hands together saying ‘Yooooo’ signifying the end of the event.
For most foreigners, the izakaya is not an overwhelming cultural experience, more of a different but fun way to drink on a budget. It really is a cheap experience to get completely drink as the price often varies between ¥1,000 and ¥2,500 for two hours of free-flowing drinks. For some people, going to izakaya is used as pregaming for nightclubs. It does make for expensive nights but there are few other ways to get in the mood so fast with the liberty to choose what you drink and how you drink it.
Often when you visit as a group, you will have your own booth but in any case nobody is bothered by your loudness (everyone is there for the same reason). An izakaya can be a great way to meet locals, after a few drinks the language barrier seems to be less of an issue. Remember though, much as karaoke, izakaya is mostly a closed group event, do not expect to meet many people when on a Japanese drinking adventure.