Is it a bar? Is it a restaurant? No! It’s an izakaya! When you’re hungry after work and looking for a variety of delicious foods and drinks in a more informal setting, this is the place to be. No matter where you are in Japan, from the countryside to the big city, you’ll find a Japanese bar, or izakaya (maybe even a whole street of them).
Some izakaya are chains, some locally owned, and others might boast a unique theme element, but they are all an experience in Japan that can’t be missed. So pull up a chair, or sit down on the tatami, or even just sit down on a beer crate and find out all about izakaya in Japan.
What is an izakaya?
When walking into an izakaya you will be greeted with a very hearty, “Irasshaimase!” or “Yokoso!” which essentially mean, “Welcome!”. Don’t make the mistake of shouting it back though (unless you want quizzical looks from the staff). While an izakaya may seem like a typical bar from the outside, it’s really a place to socialize and enjoy dishes made to go well with alcohol. It’s where you’ll find office workers, university students, and groups of friends looking to wash down the day with a few drinks and a good chat.
Izakaya as we know them today started popping up in the Edo era. People would often drink in front of liquor stores, sitting on the old sake barrels. The word izakaya pretty much means “stay at the liquor store” if you break it down by character. Eventually, shops began selling snacks to go along with the sake and people continued frequenting these places to socialize and unwind after work (not much different from today). While many izakaya today have sit-down options, there are a few tachi-nomi (drinking while standing) places as well.
Many izakaya offer nomihoudai and tebehoudai options which mean “all you can drink” and “all you can eat”. The catch is that there is usually a time limit of a couple hours. These options are worth it if you plan on drinking or eating a lot. Here's a list for all-you-can-drink izakaya in Tokyo for all your nomihoudai needs!
Don't miss visiting the best izakaya in Japan! Join a bar hopping tour in Japan to eat and drink like a local.
9 Popular Izakaya Food
While izakaya are great places to drink the izakaya style food is what really makes them special. These foods are usually salty and pair well with alcohol like beer and nihonshu (sake). So, what is izakaya food? Here are a few popular and personal favorites I’d recommend.
- Yaki sakana
- Japanese Sake
- Shochu and Highball
Edamame are a great starter food at Japanese izakaya and the saltiness pairs really well with beer. Just be sure to pop the bean out and avoid eating the shell!
Tsukemono or pickles are another great starter or even something to order mid-meal as the flavor cuts into the oiliness of other foods. They are refreshing and pair well with any drink.
Karaage is usually associated with fried chicken, but there are other varieties as well and all of them are delicious. Some personal favorites are fried squid or octopus, and nankotsu which is fried cartilage. This goes best with a beer.
Nothing beats a crunchy, yet juicy gyoza after a long day. Gyoza are dumplings made with a thin dough filled with vegetables and meat and can be served steamed, fried, or slightly crispy. These pair well with any drink and tend to get eaten quickly so you’ll probably want to put in two orders!
Tempura are lightly battered, deep-fried vegetables, fish, or meat. Favorites include shrimp and seasonal vegetables. These lightly crunchy treats pair best with beer or sake.
Yakitori are grilled chicken skewers featuring bite-sized versions of every part from thigh to heart and even the skin. Many places also offer grilled vegetable skewers. Nothing beats a cold beer and a few yakitori after a long day!
If you want something a little lighter and refreshing, sashimi or raw slices of fish are a popular choice. Usually served as an assortment of seasonal fish or the typical salmon and tuna, this dish goes best with sake.
8 Yaki sakana
Yaki sakana, or grilled fish, is a great choice especially if you enjoy sake as the two pair really well together. Sometimes an izakaya will use whatever fish is in season, but mackerel and salmon are also quite common. Just be careful of bones!
While tamagoyaki might just look like a rolled egg, it is so much more than that. The egg is falvored by dashi (a soup stock made from fish or seaweed) and served in bite-sized pieces with grated daikon on the side. It’s comforting and filling, but not too heavy on your stomach.
3 Popular Izakaya Drinks
Izakaya drinks are usually nothing too fancy, but they are refreshing, typically cheap, and again, go great with food. Here are some of the more common ones you will find.
10 Japanese Beer
Nothing beats sitting down after a hard day of work and ordering a delicious Japanese beer at the start of your meal. Typically the beer is served nama (on draft) and cold, sometimes even in frosted glasses. Izakaya also serve beer in bottles, sometimes larger ones accompanied by a glass or multiple glasses if sharing.
You likely won’t find craft beer at an izakaya unless they specialize in that sort of thing. Beer pairs well with most foods served at izakaya, but I personally find it goes best with fried food and yakitori.
11 Japanese Sake
Another common drink you will find at izakaya is Japanese sake or nihonshu. Sake can be served cold or warm and there are many varieties offered from cheap to special seasonal ones. You can order by the glass or have it served decanter style to share or enjoy by yourself. Japanese sake pairs really well with fish and grilled foods.
Bonus: Sip on some sweet umeshu, too!
12 Sours and Highballs
While a typical menu item, sours can be quite interesting. These have an alcohol base (shochu is most common) combined with some kind of fruit juice or flavoring which is then diluted with soda water.
Amongst the typical fruit flavors you may see something like an umeboshi (pickled plum) sour or even a wasabi sour (I personally wouldn’t recommend this, but if you’re feeling adventurous, give it a try!). These drinks can be really fun and pair well with everything.
Highballs are similar, since they are also a two-ingredient cocktail, but highballs generally use whiskey as the alcohol base.
Try all of these drinks and more on a Tokyo Bars and Mixology with Whisky, Sake, and Food Pairings tour!
Why are izakaya so popular?
No one can deny the popularity of Japanese izakaya. They are more than just restaurants or bars, they are places for people to gather with friends and coworkers and let off steam after a tough day without breaking the bank. The food and drinks are comforting and simple, and the atmosphere is fun. Besides, they are everywhere and have enough variety that anyone can find something to enjoy.
Where can you find izakaya?
All over Japan! You'd be hard-pressed not to run into an izakaya in almost every area, big or small. However, in some rural areas, they are harder to come by.
In Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Ueno are all areas known for their izakaya nightlife. Other places in Tokyo have streets that are lovingly referred to as yokocho, dingy yet charming narrow drinking alleys packed with izakaya, which you can read more about on our list of the 10 best yokocho in Tokyo.
Shinjuku in particular is famous for its Omoide Yokocho and Golden Gai streets. Drink with the locals on both of these iconic streets on this Shinjuku Food Tour!
In Kyoto, the riverside area of Pontocho is a great place to enjoy izakaya, while Osaka is known for its izakaya food in areas like Shinsekai and Dotonbori. You can read more about this area in our Dotonbori guide, or explore it on a Backstreets of Osaka Food Tour at Night!
From the Edo period to now izakaya have become a staple of life in Japan. It’s where you go after work, to catch up with friends, and socialize with good food and drinks. If you ever get the chance, don’t hesitate to try one out and experience a hearty “Irasshaimasu!” for yourself!