Izakaya are common throughout Japan, ranging from single-proprietor operations to chain restaurants. Their ultimate purpose is to provide people with a place to unwind with colleagues or friends.
The concept of an izakaya is more akin to a tapas bar than a regular Western style bar, where patrons can pick from beer, whiskey, sake, and a variety of other food, spirits, and soft drinks.
At the same time, there is typically a lot of chatter in izakaya. For that reason, they may not be the best option for a romantic dinner.
When you're on your way from sightseeing or shopping, consider stopping at an izakaya to relax and meet some local people.
What is an Izakaya?
A literal translation of "居酒屋" is "stay saké shop", a place where people can relax and drink.
Different from bars, diners in izakaya are always seated at tables and not designed for generally mixing with other customers.
Depending on where you go, you might find counter seating, Western-style tables, low Japanese style tables on tatami mats, semi-private compartments, or for an extra fee, the option of a private room.
Some izakayas enforce a two-hour stay limit for customers when they get crowded on weekends. Be sure to ask when you enter the establishment.
Top Three Izakaya Alleys in Tokyo
1. Omoide Yokocho (思い出横丁)
Omoide Yokocho is a narrow alley near Shinjuku Station West Exit with over 50 small restaurants and izakaya. The majority of izakaya have only a kitchen counter with five to ten seats. As a result of the red lanterns and the smoky street, this location has become one of Tokyo's most popular tourist attractions.
2. Ameya Yokocho (アメヤ横丁)
Known as Ameyoko, is an open-air market near Ueno station. Along the long market street, there are many izakayas with outdoor tables and chairs where people drink during the day.
3. Hoppy Dori (ホッピー通り)
Hoppy Dori is located off the main street of Sensoji temple in Asakusa, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Tokyo. It is a great spot where you can grab a drink and a snack during the day.
The street is named after the famous alcoholic beverage “Hoppy” which is served often in this area.
When you step into an izakaya, a chorus of friendly staff will greet you with the phrase, "Irasshaimase!".
Let the staff know how many people will be in your group by holding up that amount of fingers. Unless they explicitly gesture for you to sit wherever you like, wait until they guide you to a table.
Some izakaya require customers to remove their shoes at the entrance or near their tables. Just follow the directions of staff.
Once you’re seated, use the free wet hand towels called "oshibori" to clean your hands. These are often on the table or handed to customers by staff.
Before you even place your order, some izakaya will give you a small appetizer called "otoshi." This dish is included in the cover charge. (Please note that not all izakaya offer otoshi.)
How to Order
Izakaya menus may include illustrations or photographs, whereas others only have text. English menus are also available at many izakaya these days. Ask for help if you need it.
Izakaya menus include a wide selection of Japanese and sometimes international dishes. Frequently they include sushi, yakitori, salads, pickles, fried food, hot pot dishes, rice, pizza, and noodles.
A variety of imported alcoholic beverages, such as German beer, Scotch, and Bourbon whiskey are also available in many places.
The Bill: What To Expect at the End of the Night
Typical meals cost between ￥2000 and ￥5000 JPY ($13-33 USD) per person, depending on how much you eat or drink. Most small-dish individual menu items cost a few hundred yen each.
You can also choose an all-you-can-drink or all-you-can-eat plans, usually for a set time of 90-120 minutes and a set amount. This is explained further below.
Rather than tipping or paying a traditional service fee, at an izakaya, you pay the cover charge which is called otoshi fee (お通し代) or sekiryo (席料).
How to Place Your Order
It is common for chain izakayas to have touch panels for ordering food and drinks. Where these are available, they often have multiple language options for customers to choose from.
In some establishments, there is a call button or bell on the table to get the staff's attention to take your order.
More traditional izakayas and counter tables, however, don't have either of these options. Customers must raise their hands or call the staff by saying "sumimasen".
Order a Little at a Time
Ordering a few dishes at a time is common, and many people place multiple orders as the evening progresses. In general, food is served as it is prepared, and some dishes will arrive much faster than others.
In an izakaya, food is meant to be shared. Each guest will receive a “torizara” ー a small plate to pick up your portion of the dish that's being served ー when the food to be shared is delivered to the table.
Izakaya On a Budget
If you're worried about calculating costs as you go, the "all you can drink" (or eat) options might be helpful.
These are set-price offerings to eat or drink as much as you like within a set time period (typically 1 hour, 90 minutes, or 2 hours). What are they?
This simply means “all-you-can-drink”. Frequently available for around ￥2,000 JPY, there’s usually a time limit, and the menu options available to you are sometimes limited.
A main advantage of nomihodai is that you can order drinks for a fixed price without keeping count of who ordered what. This makes splitting the bill with friends quite easy.
As you might have already guessed, tabehodai is the Japanese term for ”all-you-can-eat”. This can be a nice option for hungry customers who want to enjoy a wide variety of dishes within the set period of time for a predetermined price.
Note, however, that the price for tabehodai refers to the food-side of your evening, and drinks are usually billed separately.
There are some places that offer tabenomihodai, which is a combination of tabehodai and nomihodai. The price generally reflects the expectation that you are a big drinker and eater.
For that reason, caution is advised. Although the "all you can" options might seem like a great deal, you may have to forgo talking to eat and drink fast enough to get your money’s worth.
What do experienced izakaya customers say? If you really want to challenge yourself, you can improve the outcome of the all-you-can-eat/drink options by ordering your next round before you've finished the current one.
Good news if you don't like cigarette smoke.
Izakaya used to allow customers to smoke at their seats. However, the law has changed and since about 2020 smoking has not been allowed in the general seating areas. On the other hand, many izakaya have introduced special smoking rooms to accommodate the demand for smoking areas.
There are some izakaya that are registered as 喫煙目的施設 (Smoking designated restaurants). These establishments fall within a special exemption of the no-smoking law, so check for a sign at the door or ask the staff before they guide you to your table.
Paying the Bill
Izakayas commonly keep a running tab of your orders with a paper copy or a numbered token left on the table.
If you're not sure, you can ask for the bill by saying “Okaikei onegai shimasu” when you are ready to pay.
When you're ready to leave, take your token or bill to the cash register near the exit and pay.
Accepted Payment Methods
There is usually a list of accepted payment methods at the entrance or at the cash register, so make sure to check it before entering.
Chain izakayas usually accept almost every payment method available in Japan: credit card, transportation IC card, QR mobile payments, and cash.
Some Useful Expressions to Know
居酒屋 (いざかや | izakaya) Izakaya
飲み放題 (のみほうだい | nomihoudai) All-you-can-drink
食べ放題 (たべほうだい | tabehoudai) All-you-can-eat
すみません (sumimasen) Excuse me
お会計お願いします (おかいけいおねがいします | okaikei onegaisimasu) Check (or bill), please
分煙ですか？ (ぶんえんですか？ | bun-en desuka?) Do you have separate smoking rooms?
英語のメニューありますか？ (えいごのめにゅーありますか？ | eigo no menu arimasuka?) Do you have an English menu?
お手洗いどこですか？ (おてあらいどこですか？ | otearai doko desuka?) Where is the restroom?
喫煙所どこですか？ (きつえんじょどこですか？ | kitsuenjo doko desuka?) Where is the smoking room?
ご馳走様です (ごちそうさまです | gochisousama desu) Thank you for the delicious meal.
喫煙目的施設 (きんえんもくてきてん | kinenmokutekiten) Smoking designated restaurants
Stay tuned for more advice on where to travel and what to do on JAPAN Forward.
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Author: Shaun Fernando