What is an Izakaya? Ultimate Guide to an Incredible Experience

Updated September 16, 2019
What is an Izakaya

What is an izakaya?

I’m telling you, even after 20+ years in Tokyo, they are entirely my favorite thing about Japan. Not because of the alcohol (I’m not much of a drinker), but the food.

The food and drink!

It is impossible to describe in words just how incredible Japanese izakaya food is. I wish I could, but it’s something you have to experience yourself. Some even having incredible traditional Japanese foods.

Are Izakaya the Same as Japanese Restaurants?

It’s easy to see why many visitors to Japan mistake izakaya for a Japanese restaurant. The food and drink menu is very robust compared to bars in the U.S.

I suppose it would be perfectly acceptable to simply think of them as izakaya restaurants. When you want a great sampling of Japanese foods you’ll be hard pressed to find something better.

I don’t think I would classify them as Japanese restaurants though. There are some common things about izakaya that you wouldn’t expect at a regular Japanese restaurant — such as otoshi (more on that later).

There really should be an izakaya restaurant guide of sorts. In fact, I’ll work on adding more articles here on TokyoSpark to introduce you to some exceptional local izakaya.

Entering and Being Seated

The first time entering a Japanese izakaya can be a bit daunting but don’t worry, it’s easy to navigate even if you know zero Japanese.

When you go to an izakaya, it is much like entering any restaurant. The staff will greet you at the entrance with a friendly smile and a question.

“Hello, how many in your party?”

But of course, they’ll say it in Japanese. This is your first challenge. The keywords to listen for are “… nan-mei sama dess ka?

If you hear this you know they are asking a “how many” question to which you can just use your fingers to indicate how many people are in your party.

The types of seating

After they know how many are in your party, they may ask another question or lead you towards the seating area where there are usually a few choices: counter, ozashiki (tatami), or a hybrid setup called horigotatsu.

Counter seating is obvious. Ozashiki, on the other hand, is unique to Japan. It is low tables over tatami mat (bamboo). Foreigners often find it difficult to sit for long periods of time on the flat tatami, but the cultural allure draws us in.

For that reason, horigotatsu were invented. They are mostly the same as ozashiki, but with a sunken area beneath the table where your legs can hang more comfortably.

This makes it easier to sit, but often they’ll lack back support… so you know, it can still be tiring. But it is nice to experience at least once while you’re in Japan.

Take your shoes off

Something I almost forgot to mention. When seated at ozashiki and horigotatsu tables you will have to remove your shoes before stepping up onto the tatami mats.

Generally, there is a locker-like setup nearby to store and lock your shoes.

Another thing you’ll notice at the edge of the table are slippers. Slip them on when you need to use the restroom (or otherwise walk away from the table) without putting your shoes on.

If you have large feet like I do, it can be quite a squeeze to get the slippers on. Apparently, Japanese feet tend to be smallish.

Standard “Rules” to Keep in Mind

Okay, don’t let this dissuade you. It’s pretty standard across nearly all izakaya. There’s a seating fee. It varies by shop but is usually around ¥300-¥1,000 (per person).

It’s not just a fee though. The izakaya will usually bring you their signature otoshi. A dish served immediately to whet your appetite and give you something to nibble on while you wait for your order. This will vary by the izakaya. 

If it helps, there’s no tipping in Japan and this tiny fee is less than what you’d likely have tipped. 

An hour or two limit; sometimes

Don’t be alarmed when the izakaya is really busy and there are parties of people waiting to be seated, they might institute a time limit. 

This limit is usually 2 hours, but I have experienced a 1 hour limit as well. It will vary from place to place.

What’s on the Izakaya Menu?

Variety. If I had to describe izakaya food in one word it would be variety. The first thing you’ll notice about the menu at an izakaya is each food item is rather small. 

This is amazing!

It gives you the opportunity to try a wide variety of dishes without stuffing yourself on the first. And you’re going to want to try some of these:

  • Yakitori – literally translates to “grilled chicken,” but you’ll quickly find yakitori consists of far more of the chicken than you might first imagine. It’s chicken skewers grilled over a flame (it’s delicious!
  • Ikayaki –  yaki means grilled and ika is squid — grilled squid!
  • Tamagoyaki –  tamago means egg. Tamagoyaki is a sort of rolled grilled omelette. Some shops will make it a bit sweet while others will be salty, it’s a toss-up.
  • Gyoza – we refer to these as “pot stickers.” They’re a pork and veggie dumpling steamed and pan grilled (they’re absolutely amazing too).
  • Karaage – this is Japan’s famous fried chicken. Similar in appearance to nuggets, but sometimes cooked like a cutlet — karaage is boneless (see tebasaki below)
  • Korokke – this is croquettes, usually something like ground beef mixed with potato and deep fried. A Japan favorite is the kani kurimu korokke — deep fried crab and cream sauce.
  • Tebasaki – chicken wings! And wow does Japan have some delicious wings. Usually peppery, sometimes slightly sweetened, or a sesame sauce flavor, but no matter what, if you love chicken wings you love the wings in Japan.
  • Okonomiyaki – if you’ve done any research into Japanese food you’ve probably learned about this. It’s the savory pancake-like food with ingredients like squid, pork, shrimp, etc… and if you want to learn more I have an in-depth guide to okonomiyaki right here.
  • Sashimi – sashimi is sushi without the rice. Carefully sliced cuts of raw fish. Usually enjoyed with soy sauce and wasabi. This is a staple at most izakaya.

Would you like salt or sauce?

Many items, especially yakitori, you’ll find in izakaya food menus will have a choice between shio or tare. That is salt or sauce flavor. The sauce is usually a soy sauce based mixture created in-house — each izakaya having their own taste (most are slightly sweetened).

The Drinks

Chances are if you ‘re visiting an izakaya you’re there for the drinks as much as the food. Izakaya typically offer quite a wide variety of adult beverages not often found outside of Japan.

  • Biru (beer) — The Japanese love beer. Mostly the good old-fashioned “name biru” (tap beer). But you will find some variety of bottled beer as well.
  • Shochu — This is a type of clear rice alcohol that mixes so well with tea, juice, etc. that you often don’t even notice it (that’s probably shochu’s best attribute if you’re a light drinker). This is the base alcohol found in “sours” (mixed cocktails) in Japan.
  • Sake — this is the classic rice wine “nihonshu” you see in movies. It’s usually quite strong and the flavor differs by brand — often served warm.

There are a plethora of more drinks, but from my vantage point, these are the basics you’ll find at essentially all izakaya.

When you’re ready to order

After looking at the menu in finding what you want, it’s time to get the staff’s attention.  This can be quite a bit different than what you may be used to back home.

Some shops will have a call button you can push to send the staff running to your table.  But many of the best ones don’t.  So what do you do?

 You yell “Sumimsen!”

While yelling sumimasen it’s good to put a hand in the air and try to make eye contact.  Don’t worry, you’re not being rude, sumimasen means “excuse me.” 

It’s normal in Japan to yell out for the wait staff. Obviously, don’t yell loudly in anger, just a raised the voice to catch their attention is enough.

After they arrive at your table the fun begins. It’s time to order!

A Simple but effective Ordering Trick When You Can’t Speak Japanese

I call this the “point and count” method (and I expand upon this technique here). It’s self-explanatory, with one hand  you point at the item on the menu. With the other you hold up a finger count of how many you want of that item. 

Repeat until you’ve ordered everything you want.  The real challenge is when the menu has no pictures, but that’s for another guide.

The sights and Sounds (and Smells)

This is where things start to get interesting. The normally reserved Japanese people start to show their personalities. Izakaya can often be boisterous and loud with lots of laughter and conversation. 

It’s as if this is their chance to escape for a little while and have fun with friends and family.  A small break from life for a moment.

Because of this, izakaya are usually loud. Not like a sports stadium, but not quiet. It’s fun, lively… it adds to the ambiance.

Something to keep in mind

Izakaya are pubs. Drinking and smoking are the norms. If you’re sensitive to tobacco smoke you won’t enjoy the izakaya’s atmosphere because you can’t hide from the smoke.

There usually is no non-smoking area (and even if there were you’d probably still not totally escape the smoke.)


Some, but not all, have all-you-can-eat-eat/drink options.  Sometimes they’re separate, and sometimes they’re together.  And sometimes they are part of a special dining course.

Nomihodai — this is all-you-can-drink. Nomimasu means “to drink.” When combined with –hodai it means all-you-can-drink. It seems many izakaya are adding this option to their menus.

Tabehodai — this is all-you-can-eat. Tabemasu means “to eat,” and combined with –hodai… well, you know the rest. Tabehodai is not as common as nomihodai.

Typically with nomihodai and tabehodai come a time limit. This varies by the place, but on average you should expect 2 hours. Some places have a special deal for larger parties and events such as birthdays — ask when you make reservations.

How Much Does it Cost?

The cost may be the best part! For the most part, the price you end up paying is up to you. It depends on how much you eat and drink (don’t forget about the seating fee).

There is one caveat, however. If you’re out with a group of Japanese people the entire party usually splits the check evenly (unless someone opts to pay the entire bill).

This is because going to an izakaya is often a group event and everyone ends up sharing the food. It would be difficult to know who ordered what, so they split the check evenly. 

This is done at the table amongst the group. I have yet to see an izakaya divvy the check.

Izakaya Recommendations

Mugi no Oto, Kabukicho, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

Mugi no Oto: An Amazing Izakaya You'd Probably Walk Past

Mugi no Oto is this tiny little amazing izakaya "hiding" in Kabukicho, inside of the crazy popular Shinjuku ward of Tokyo.
Hachibei Yakitori Roppongi

Hachibei: Incredible Yakitori in Roppongi, Minato

Hachibei is a contemporary basement izakaya in Roppongi specializing in the most amazing classic yakitori skewers locals love most about izakaya food.
Kushikatsu Tanaka izakaya chain

Kushikatsu Tanaka: Budget-Friendly, Delicious Fried Food Izakaya

Kushikatsu Tanaka is an incredible izakaya chain with locations throughout Japan specializing in delightful, budget-friendly skewered deep-fried food.
Iyaiya Sanbai, Minato, Tokyo, Japan

Iyaiya Sanbai: As Unbelievable As It Is, A No Smoking Izakaya!

Iyaiya Sanbai is a trendsetting, no-smoking izakaya trying to take the traditional izakaya mainstream in Minato, Tokyo.
Kotaro, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

Kotaro; A Cozy Izakaya Founded By A Classically Trained Chef

Kotaro is a cozy izakaya in Shibuya serving food cooked by a classically trained chef.