At the end of a long day at work there’s nothing like a cold beer to help you unwind and relax. Japan offers many venues to quench your thirst but if you’re looking for a more traditional setting then the izakaya (居酒屋 – Japanese bar) is the place to go. They’re a great place to enjoy cheap bar food, drinks and the company of friends.
Photo by JanneM
The word izakaya can be broken down into i (居 – to be/stay) and sakaya (酒屋 – alcohol store), so it’s easy to see that an izakaya is a place where you’re meant to hang around awhile and drink. Izakaya have been around since the Edo period, giving them a very distinct Japanese flavor that sets them apart from your typical Western bar.
When you first walk into an izakaya you’ll probably notice it looks similar to a restaurant. Most izakaya either have the traditional Japanese low tables where you sit on the floor, Western style tables, or a combination of both. A majority of izakaya even give you the option of choosing a private room for your group. There is no entrance fee although you are typically charged a table fee for a snack and oshibori (おしぼり – wet towel) they provide you.
The drink menus can vary between izakaya but most have your typical Japanese beers, sake, highballs and the more common cocktails. There is also usually a fairly wide selection of food items. The more common ones are edamame (枝豆 – green soybeans) and yakitori (焼き鳥 – skewered chicken) although a lot of izakaya add their own original items to stand out.
Photo by localjapantimes
One very common way of enjoying izakaya is to pay for what are called nomihoudai (飲み放題 – all you can drink) specials. For a set fee of usually around 1,500 to 2,500 yen per person you can enjoy unlimited drinks for a set period of time. It usually lasts two hours although I have heard of places where you can pay 500 yen for a half hour. Some places limit you to only have two drinks at a time but you can easily order in bulk. Another way they try and limit your consumption is to put up ikkinomi kinshi (一気飲み禁止 – chugging prohibited) signs. There is also a limited drink menu specifically for nomihoudai that isn’t as extensive as the usual drink menu. Also, last orders are about a half an hour before your time is up.
Typically the nomihoudai specials start in the evening, although a group of friends and myself showed up a half hour before the special started and they decided to give us that half hour for free, so you may want to try your luck and show up a little before the nomihoudai starts. So what do you do when time runs out? If it’s still early in the night a lot of people do the Japanese equivalent of bar hopping and move on to the next izakaya down the road and order another round of nomihoudai. Some people simply go home and sleep off the night’s adventures. Whatever you decide to do, visiting an izakaya with a good group of friends is an experience you shouldn’t miss in Japan.