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Izakaya (居酒屋) are casual drinking establishments, similar to tapas bars, where customers order a variety of small dishes of food that can be shared at the table. They are one of the most common restaurant types in Japan and a popular spot for friends or coworkers to meet up for a drinking party or to wind down after work. Also a great dining choice for tourists, izakaya are easily found around train stations and entertainment districts, and range from tiny single-counter joints to multi-story chain restaurants.

The menu at an izakaya is made up of a wide variety of Japanese and sometimes international dishes. Common menu items include sashimi, yakitori, grilled meat and seafood, salads, pickles, fried foods, regional delicacies, hot pot dishes, rice and noodle dishes. Primarily drinking places, izakaya also offer a wide range of domestic and sometimes imported alcoholic beverages, including beer, sake and shochu. Most menu items cost a few hundred yen each, and a typical meal will cost between 2000 and 5000 yen per person. Some places also offer all-you-can-drink plans, which typically start around 2000 yen for a set time of 90-120 minutes.

Pickled cucumbers, edamame and grilled fish
Menu at a chain izakaya

Many modern izakaya, especially chain restaurants, offer menus that are accompanied by large, colorful pictures and are easy to understand for non-Japanese speakers. English menus are occasionally available, particularly in districts frequented by foreign tourists. More traditional izakaya, however, often have only Japanese menus without pictures which can make a visit rather challenging for those without Japanese skills.

Izakaya tend to be lively with chatter and may not be suitable for a quiet, romantic dinner. Seating is commonly provided at Western-style tables, a counter, low tables on tatami or a combination of the aforementioned. Some izakaya also have semi-private compartments or private rooms. Smoking is usually allowed, and non-smoking sections are often not available. Some izakaya enforce a time limit for how long customers can stay when it gets crowded over the weekends, which is typically two hours.

Private booths inside an izakaya

Where to find izakaya

Izakaya can be found in large numbers all across Japan, such as around major train stations, entertainment districts, shopping areas and restaurant floors of department stores. Many izakaya are only open in the evenings. Some popular izakaya districts include:

Shinjuku

Kabukicho may be notorious in the Shinjuku area because of its red light establishments, but many restaurants and izakaya can also be found there. It is best to stick to large, well known chain izakaya to avoid stepping into the wrong type of establishments. Avoid touts.

Yurakucho

A lively restaurant district can be found nestled beneath the train tracks around Yurakucho Station in an area nicknamed "Yurakucho Gado Shita" (lit. below the guardrail). Izakaya, yakitori restaurants and casual international pubs can be found there. Diners can enjoy their meals surrounded by the chatter of other customers mixed in with the sound of trains passing overhead.

Asakusa

West of the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is a 70-80 meter long street lined with izakaya that exude a nostalgic charm. Nicknamed "Hoppy Street" after a popular alcoholic drink sold in the area, the restaurants that line the road specialize in beef tendon stew and other sharable dishes that go well with drinks.

Umeda

There are many restaurants and izakaya in Umeda, especially around the newly developed dining areas north of JR Osaka Station and the older southern side of Kitashinchi.

Namba

One of Osaka's most popular tourist destinations, Namba offers lots of shopping and entertainment and is also known as a dining destination with many izakaya, especially around the colorful Dotonbori area.

Susukino

Susukino is the largest entertainment district north of Tokyo. Visitors can choose from a plethora of izakaya, ramen-ya and other restaurants to satisfy their hunger.

How to enjoy an izakaya

The process varies somewhat between individual establishments; however, below are some common aspects of dining at an izakaya that visitors are likely to encounter:

Shoe lockers

At some izakaya, diners are required to remove their shoes at the entrance or near their table. If there are shoe lockers by the entrance, remove your shoes and place them into your locker of choice. Do not forget to take the wooden "key" with you to your seat. When shoes are removed near your table, they are usually placed under a ledge near your seats or in a shoe cabinet nearby.

Being Seated

Once seated, the staff will provide oshibori (moist refreshment towels) and serve a small appetizer known as otoshi, which is typically provided in lieu of a seating charge and costs a few hundred yen per person. The staff may then proceed to ask if you are ready to order. Many diners start by ordering a round of beer (or non-alcoholic drinks for non-drinkers) before ordering food.

Call button

Some izakaya have a call button on the table to get the staff's attention to place an order. However, more traditional izakaya do not have these buttons.

Ordering

There is no need to order everything at one go, and it is customary to place multiple orders as the evening proceeds. Food is usually served as it is prepared, and some dishes may arrive faster than others. There is no rule to follow when it comes to ordering food, but many diners traditionally conclude the meal with a rice or noodle dish.

Toilets

Toilets in the izakaya are usually labeled keshoshitsu (化粧室), tearai (手洗い) or toire (トイレ). A pair of toilet slippers is often found for use inside the washroom. These toilet slippers should not be removed from the washroom, a common faux pas.

Paying

Izakaya often leave a running tab of the bill or some sort of token at the table. When ready to leave, take the token or the bill and go to the cash register near the exit to pay. At smaller or more traditional izakaya the tab might be kept with the staff, and they will tally your bill when you are ready to pay.
Page last updated: December 14, 2014