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Back alleys hold a certain allure for many a curious traveller, with the possibility of encountering the unexpected and venturing into the unknown. Japan has an abundance of narrow side streets and alleys, and if you wander down some of these you will almost certainly stumble upon some of the eternally popular izakaya pubs.

Izakaya are a bit like the Japanese version of a traditional Irish tavern, a lively place for casual drinking, dining and merrymaking. You’ll probably be able to track one down by the tell-tale red lanterns hanging outside, coupled with the smell of grilled chicken and a lot of raucous chitter chatter. The concept all began when alcohol shops started selling snacks to the customers seated around the entrance, and from there it has blossomed into a full on national institution.

Nowadays the food is just as much part of the pleasure as the alcohol, and most Izakaya serve a wide variety of Japanese gourmet treats, meaning they are definitely more of a sit down affair than their Western counterparts. There are numerous different options and deals, meaning the whole experience can be a bit bewildering at first, so here are the basics to get you started.

Table charges

In most izakaya you’re charged otōshidai, which is basically a set ‘seating charge’ instead of needing to leave a tip. This is a mandatory charge paid by each person at the table, which also includes a free plate of some tasty morsel from the kitchen. This can be a bit hit or miss, but usually ends up as an interesting surprise and you might get to try something you’ve never had before. You will also be given an oshibori, or wet towel, to clean your hands and cool down your face.

What to drink

The basis of most izakaya drinking involves cold draft beer, and lots of it! The selection of other beverages will vary from place to place but will probably involve a wide array of sake and shochu, plus usually some stronger spirits like whisky. If you’ve had too much beer but still want something cold and refreshing try a ‘Chuhai‘ or ‘sour’, which is made up of shochu, soda and some acidic fruit juice like grapefruit or lemon.

What to eat

One look at an average izakaya menu and you will understand why they are one of the best places to sample a whole host of traditional Japanese dishes, but without breaking the bank. The dishes are usually quite small, but everyone orders a lot and most of it gets shared between the table. Perhaps it was the Japanese who really invented tapas after all! The menu might include sashimi, yakitori (grilled meat on sticks), tamagoyaki (cubes of omelette), gyoza, okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes), salads, fried meat, fish or tofu, hot pot dishes, edamame, rice, noodles and probably pizza too.

Japan drinking culture

Flickr: dvalinlegris

All you can eat and drink?

Nomihōdai roughly translates as ‘all you can drink’, and is offered as a package in many izakaya. However, this doesn’t really mean all the beer you can possibly manage, all night long, until you can’t sit upright anymore, as it usually limits you to 1-2 hours. To be able to get your money’s worth you need to set a fast pace, without much talking and ordering the next round of drinks before the first are half finished. The same goes for ‘hōdai‘ which means ‘free for all’ and is referring to food. It seems like a great deal but menu items are restricted and expect to wait a while for your order.

Ordering

The magic word here is ‘sumimasen‘ which means ‘excuse me’. You will probably hear it being hollered across the room as soon as you set foot inside, and you would be wise to learn it too. Some of the larger izakaya even have buzzers on the table to alert staff, but it’s much more fulfilling to have to learn to get their attention yourself. Most places have pictorial menus too, which makes ordering slightly less daunting. Plus one of the most important words of all is easy to remember – ‘biiru’ means ‘beer’, so its easy to order more of those, even after ten too many.