Izakaya - Japan's best way to eat and drink.

One of the best ways of trying Japanese food and drinks while in Japan is to visit an izakaya, the Japanese version of a pub. You can find these establishments all around Japan, even in the smallest cities and towns and many act as a kind of "second home" to the regulars. But don't be intimidated by the sometimes intimate vibe, izakaya is the best place to meet the locals and get a glimpse of everyday life in Tokyo.
A table full of izakaya food for sharing, drinks and menu.
Where to go
There are Izakaya everywhere! Around train stations and behind large shopping streets there are often clusters of small izakaya. You might have heard or read about places like Golden Gai in Shinjuku, Omoide Yokocho (memory lane, or as it is also known: piss alley) also in Shinjuku and Nombei Yokocho (drunkards' alley) in Shibuya. Yokocho means back alley and these small areas are filled with izakaya and bars, often really tiny ones serving between 6 and 30 guests. Although some of these places don't accept tourists, only accepts guests who can speak Japanese or simply just serve their regulars, it is definitely worth a visit if you want a dinner experience that is something out of the ordinary. Be aware that most of the popular and tourist friendly ones, at least in Golden Gai,  will charge you a cover charge.

Apart from these yokocho izakaya, there are small and large ones dotted all around Tokyo. Sometimes the Japanese use the word akachochin (meaning red lantern) instead of izakaya, referring to the red paper lanterns often hanging outside. So if you see a red lantern in front of you, there is a good chance that you are standing outside an izakaya.

Izakaya chains
There are also a bunch of izakaya type chain restaurants, with multiple shop locations often seating a much larger number of guests. These include Kin no Kura (where you make your order on a touch screen with an English option) and Torikizoku (mainly focused on chicken dishes, all for ¥280)
Typical izakaya in Tokyo. Nihonshu (sake) and otoshi (seat fee dish) salad.
Usually there are table seating and seats at the bar in an izakaya. It is also common for izakaya to have tatami mat seating and private rooms which can seat larger groups in a more intimate setting. When you walk in you might be asked if you want to sit at a table or at the counter. Just say "teburu" (meaning table) or "kaunta seki" (meaning counter seat) depending on which you prefer. The staff might also ask how many are in your group, so a simple showing of the corresponding number of fingers is a safe bet.

Oshibori - wet hand towel
Depending on were you go you might get a cotton oshibori (wet towel) in your hands when getting seated at the table, or be referred to the plastic wrapped paper wet towels at the table. These are used before and during your meal, so keep them close by to wipe your hands
Poteto fry (french fries), edamame (soybeans), hiyayakko (chilled tofu) and cucumber pickles.
How to order
There are often a menu on the table, and if you are lucky it might even have pictures! If you are visiting a bigger chain izakaya or an izakaya in a tourist location they might even provide you with an English menu and sometimes a touch screen to make your orders on. Seasonal and temporary items are oftentimes shared on notes or menu boards over the counter or on the walls. If you need to get the servers or chefs attention just call out a simple "sumimasen" (meaning excuse me) or "onegaishimasu" (meaning please) and wait for someone to come to your table to take your order.

As soon as you sit down at an izakaya you are almost certainly being served a small dish you didn't order. This is called otoshi and act as a small seating charge and something to eat while you wait for your first order to be served.  If you are in luck you will get something tasty, I personally like edamame, Japanese potato salad or a simmered dish as otoshi, but you might get something that you don't like or might even be scared to try. Do try though, since it is a chance to try something you might never have ordered had you seen it on the menu. The actual charge of this small dish varies, but it is typically between ¥300-¥500.

Share with friends
At an izakaya you have the opportunity to try a lot of different Japanese dishes, and since it is customary to share the food you don't have to worry about ordering too much. Order a few different dishes and use the small plates (often already on the table) as personal dishes and pick food from the communal plates with your chopsticks.
Surume ika (grilled squid), hiyayakko (chilled tofu) and chilled ripe tomatoes.
What to eat
Cold small dishes like edamame (boiled soybeans in their pods), hiyayakko (chilled tofu) and poteto sarada (Japanese potato salad) is something I always order. Since these dishes are cold it usually doesn't take too much time before they are being served. Chilled vegetables or pickles is also a good choice if you want something that is served quickly.

Skewered, grilled food like different types of yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), shishito (grilled small green peppers) and shiitake (Japanese mushrooms) are often a staple at izakaya. These are kalled kushiyaki (literally meaning grilled skewers), if you want to try the deep fried version look for kushiage (which means fried skewers).  Surume ika (grilled Japanese squid) is one of my favorites, served with Japanese mayonnaise.

Fried food goes really well with your beer (or other beverage of choice) and one of Japan's most famous and popular fried foods is karaage (deep fried chicken). The Japanese also enjoy kaki fry (deep fried oysters), gyoza (fried Japanese dumplings), and different types of fried fish.

Sashimi (raw fish pieces) might also be served and are usually very fresh and tasty.

There are also more substantial dishes like noodle and rice dishes if you are feeling very hungry or want to limit the amount of yen you spend on food.
Drinks and typical cold dishes at an izakaya.
What to drink
Beer is a popular choice, as well as nihonshu (sake) and highball (whiskey and soda water). Most izakaya serve a variety of alcoholic beverages also including wine, sochu (distilled Japanese spirit), cocktails and sours. My favorite drinks being umeshu (Japanese plum wine) and grapefruit sour (grapefruit juice, sochu and soda water). Of course you can get non alcoholic cocktails and soft drinks as well, but you should know that izakaya literally means 'alcohol shop to sit and drink in'. It is not uncommon for the regulars to have their own bottles of nihonshu (sake) or sochu (distilled spirit), for which they have already payed, stored at the izakaya waiting for their next visit.

Some places offer "nomihodai" (meaning all you can drink) which is a fixed pricing for all you can drink during a set time period, usually 1,5-2 hours.  You can also find "tabehodai" (meaning all you can eat).
Bottles of alcohol, already payed for by the regulars and stored for their next visit.
Ask for recommendations
Not all dishes served are written on the menu. As stated previously, some dishes are temporary or seasonal and might be written on notes on the walls or on a "specials" menu. You can also ask the chef or server for their recommendations, "osusume" and be sure to get what they think is the best tasting food of the evening.

At an izakaya the food is prepared and served as soon as it is ready, so you will most certainly not get all of the dishes at the same time. Dining in this way,  with dishes being ordered and served throughout your dinner is nice and casual and makes you feel right at home.

Pay your bill
In Japan the bill is often payed at a pay desk at the entrance, and you simply take your order receipt and pay before you leave. In some places you pay at the table. Either way it is a good idea to ask for the bill before leaving your table. Just say "okaikei onegaishimasu" (meaning "the bill please") and if you want to make things clearer you can also cross your index fingers to show that you are ready to pay.
Bar seating at an izakaya. Various grilled skewers (kushiyaki), wine and beer.
Some helpful words and phrases
You can get by with body language, pointing to the pictures on the menu (if there are any) and some English words like "beer" and common Japanese dish names like "yakitori" and "edamame". But if you want to have a better chance of being understood and be able to order what you want these words and phrases might come in handy:

teburu seki (tee bu ru seki) - meaning "table seat".
kaunta seki (kaun taa seki) - meaning "counter seat".
eigo menu (ey go men yuu) - meaning "English menu".
ijo desu (iih joo dess) - meaning "that is all for now" as in you are done with your order.
onegaishimasu  (oh ne gai shi mass) - meaning "please" (requesting something etc.).
sumimasen  (suu mi ma sen) - meaning "excuse me", "sorry".
osusume (oh su su mee) - meaning "recommendation" (when asking for recommendations).
arigato (ah ri ga too) - meaning "thank you".
ohiya (oh hi ya) - meaning "cold" as in "can I get some cold water".
omizu (oh mi zu) - meaning "water" (another way of asking for water).
rokku (rocku) - meaning "on the rocks" (on ice).
soda (soo da) - meaning "with soda water".
okaikei (oh kay key) - meaning "the bill" as in "may we have the bill please".

If you want to learn more phrases and get further guidance on restaurant Japanese, here is a great article by Mike.

Now, go out and try for yourself! It really is Japan's best way to eat and drink, especially if you wish to try genuine Japanese food in a casual and relaxed setting.

Johanna Forsberg