Home > Focus on Japan 2008 > The Izakaya Experience

The Izakaya Experience

June 3rd, 2008

If you’ve never been to Japan, then you probably have not even heard if the izakaya, a Japanese establishment that a great number of people here will frequent, at some time or another. It’s virtually part of the culture; at some point or another, your group will want to eat out, and the izakaya will be a natural choice.

Izakaya (居酒屋, three characters which literally mean stay-liquor-shop) is loosely translated as a “pub,” but is a bit more than that. You don’t just drop by for a pint. It’s kind of a cross between a pub and a full-blown restaurant, being neither of them, nor exactly a cross between the two.

Izakaya-03An izakaya is a place where workers go after the daily grind has ended to socialize. It serves food, but in a communal fashion–small dishes are brought in for everyone to grab from. But drinking is the prevalent activity; this is a place to drink a lot of beer or sours, a category of Japanese spirits doused with fruit syrup to make the alcohol go down more easily. It’s a place where you relax and get down with friends and coworkers, loosening the normal inhibitions, allowing you to talk more openly. Not that most westerners have a problem with this, but it helps a good deal with Japanese sometimes. But mostly it’s a place to go eat and drink after work.

Have you guessed yet that I have been to an izakaya tonight and don’t have much else to talk about?

Nevertheless, these establishments are a solid part of Japanese culture that merit being discussed. Much more than the bar around the corner or the pub down the street, more than a tapas establishment, this is a place almost everybody goes to once in a while–it’s almost a prerequisite to continued residence in Japan.

Some izakaya are ripoffs–they string you out on dishes, taking their time to deliver each course, counting on you to buy more and more of their over-priced drinks while waiting for more food to come–this in the case where you pay for each round of drinks separately, in which case they want to maximize on the drinking while skimping on the food.

But a good izakaya will have a nomi-houdai (all-you-can-drink) course with a solid menu of foods delivered tasty and on time; that was the place we all went to tonight after work. We have visitors from home campus in Wisconsin and wanted to show them a good time. Additionally, we had that rare occasion of fourteen souls and not one dedicated smoker–and the izakaya we chose had a private room for us. In an izakaya, that’s a blessing–one of the worst things about such establishments is the lack of non-smoking areas, so you wind up coming home with clothes and hair smelling like an ashtray.Izakaya-02

But tonight, we fared pretty well. We went to a joint that Sachi and I had visited a few times in Ikebukuro. When we went, we were taken aback at the prompt service; not enjoying an all-you-can-drink package, we expected the usual stringing-out of food dishes, and so ordered everything at once–and then it all arrived at once. Problem there. The next time, we ordered–using the handy wi-fi tablet menus–what we wanted and when we wanted it, and the food came fast, and well-prepared. A good place. I recommended it for our school dinner, and we were not disappointed. We got the ¥3000 ($29) per person set, which entitled us to two and a half hours of non-stop drinks, along with seven courses of pretty good food in sufficient quantity to satisfy everyone. A good deal.

In case you’re wondering, the place is Niju-maru, literally “two concentric circles,” which is their logo. Odd meaning for the name, but very good food and service.

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  1. Alex Kane
    June 4th, 2008 at 00:07 | #1

    I love izakaya. I know a few in Ikebukuro but I don’t think I’ve ever been to this one. On my first date with my wife we went to Kamadoka on meiji-douri across and a couple blocks from the karaoke place, south of the station. One thing that’s interesting about some of the big izakaya places is that they’re often on the upper floors of a building, and you take an elevator that opens up in to the restaurant. This is really common in Japan but you don’t see it in America much.

  2. June 4th, 2008 at 21:35 | #2

    As an Irish, German, Norwegian American, i find it fun to drink my colleagues under the table:) what kind of beer did u drink? my fav macro is kirin lager for regular and suntory premium malts for nice macro. :)

  3. Alex Kane
    June 4th, 2008 at 23:52 | #3

    I was visiting a friend in Hokkaido and made a trip to the Kirin factory/museum/beer hall. It was delicious! Best Kirin nama I’ve ever had :)

  4. Luis
    June 5th, 2008 at 09:37 | #4

    It was Suntory Malts, but I had to check the photos to find out. Tell the truth, I can’t taste any difference between them. All Japanese beers taste the same to me: they’re all good.

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