What is Izakaya?
Like the Britons go to the pub and the Americans go to the bar, the Japanese have a place to go for a drink. That's Izakaya. Izakaya is definitely the most common and top place for the Japanese to drink.
What does 'Izakaya' mean? 居酒屋 (izakaya) has three components. 居(i) means to stay and 酒(zaka) means sake then finally 屋(ya) stands for a shop. Literally, Sake Shop to Stay! Sounds brilliant, right?
Izakaya often has a red lantern decoration outside. Remember this. In Japan, this is the sign where you get drunk.
You can find Izakaya everywhere in Japan. Even in a small town, the chances are that you can easily find some of them.
If you travel to Japan and think you would like to have a drink one or two at a special place which is very Japanese, Izakaya is the best place to go without any doubt.
More and more foreign tourists visit Izakaya recently. Having said that, this place is a super-local place to go and not an easy place to enter for most of the tourists, especially if you don't speak the Japanese language.
For example, this is how Izakaya looks like. Small entrance, dark inside. Are you brave enough to go inside?
We're fully aware of that and still want you to experience this amazing Japanese culture. After you read this blog, you know what to do and what to order when you go to Izakaya. No more awkward moment! So, don't be shy and let's go to Izakaya and say 'Kanpai' (Cheers in Japanese).
Where to Sit is the problem?
Now you're brave enough to enter Izakaya. Congratulations! The first thing you encounter is a staff who ask you where to sit down?
Normally, it's very rare to be asked where to sit down in a restaurant or cafe in Japan (they take you to a seat). So, you have to tell the staff if you have a preference.
Basically, Izakaya has 3 types of seats and they're different. So, it really matters where to sit down in there. You can choose from a table seat, counter seat and zashiki seat (or individual room)
1. Table seat
Basically, it's a normal table seat in a normal restaurant. A table with 4 chairs is normal. If you prefer a standard one, choose this one.
2. Counter seat
A good thing about this seat is you can see what they cook in front of you. It's fun to watch and you can order easily and quickly over the counter. A downside is not so much space. Your shoulder almost touches someone next to you. If you don't like that, avoid this seat.
3. Zashiki seat
It's a floor with Japanese tatami mattress. If it's completely flat, it's difficult to sit down for hours. (I'm Japanese, but it still my legs hurt!). Ideally, the one with a hole space for legs is much better (called hori-gotatsu in Japanese)
Stretch your legs under the table like this one below.
Individual room zashiki is even better. You have privacy and cosy atmosphere with your buddies at the same time. Not easy to call a staff? No worries, many Izakaya restaurants have a button like below on the table. You only have to press it and the staff will come shortly.
I didn't order this? Otoshi is served for everyone seated
As you probably know, there's no tipping culture in Japan. If you try to pay, they will not 100% receive it. So, never give tips to anyone in Japan unless you want to cause trouble for the staff. If you leave some changes on the table, the staff will think you forgot to take it!
In some luxury places, they charge a service fee instead of a tip. But, Izakaya is never categorised as such and they normally don't charge a service fee (and they will never take tips as well).
What you see is what you pay in Japan. It's good, huh?
Instead, Izakaya has a strange rule called 'Otoshi' (お通し). That is supposed to substitute for a service fee. So, what is Otoshi?
A small dish (sometimes a snack) is served immediately after you're seated. Otoshi is actually always a controversial issue among Japanese people as it is served without ordering it. As mentioned earlier, no tipping culture in Japan, so some people think it's unfair to charge this as they don't want anything like a service fee for Izakaya.
Otoshi is normally like this.
Others accept Otoshi as a different form of service fee. There's still a gap between people who agree and disagree with it. A big gap can never be filled...
One thing I'm quite sure is that just accept it as a tip to the staff if you want to look smart. Well, it just costs about 300 yen (2.5 pounds / 3 dollars) anyway.
And here's a good reason to enjoy Otoshi. You never know what's served. Otoshi changes randomly (daily). So, you might find your favourite dish you never thought you wanted to order before. Try to think positively like that way. Then, you can enjoy this culture comfortably.
Staff is coming. Nervous moment?
You came to Izakaya and now you sit down tightly and ready to drink now. Yes, never forget you're supposed to be here to have a drink! You feel like something special in Japan, right?
How about these Japanese drinks?
1. Sour (サワー)
One of the most popular drinks at Izakaya is sour. Sparkling water mixed with Shochu spirit is called as sour. Normally, flavoured (fruits are common) sparkling water is used. For example, Lemon sour (most popular), Grape sour, Lime sour etc. It contains low alcohol (about 4 -6 %), so many people prefer to start with this drink.
Calpico Sour (below) is also a standard menu at Izakaya
2. High Ball
Recently, there's a drink all Japanese love to drink. This is the one. The booming of High Ball started a few years ago and it's getting more and more popular. It's sparkling soda water mixed with whiskey and it's a whiskey-base cocktail. But, this drink is not in the category of cocktail on the menu. High Ball itself is a category (yes, such popular drink). You can enjoy many kinds of it (basically, mixed with different whiskeys or mixed with other fruits juice).
It's the most trendy drink in Izakaya. You should definitely try it.
3. Cassis-base Cocktail
When you see the Izakaya menu, you'll be surprised by the number of fruit-based cocktails. Surely, they're so popular among those who don't like beer and such. The most popular kind of cocktail is cassis cocktail. It's simply a French cassis liquor mixed with a variety of fruit juice such as grape, orange.
If you would like to try something special, how about cassis oolong-tea? (Cassis liquor Chinese Oolong tea).
4. Ume-shu (Plum Wine)
Japanese people love plum and plum wine is one of the most common drinks at izakaya. You can enjoy it in many different ways. Rock (on the ice), Mizuwari (mixed with water), Soda-wari (mixed with soda water), or Hot as well (this is extremely nice in winter)/ Please try this sweet & rich flavoured plum drink in your favourite way!
Thanks for reading!
For what to eat at Izakaya, please read this blog post.
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