There’s a lot to love about going out to eat in Japan, but izakaya might be just about the best of all of them. Written with the kanji characters 居酒屋, izakaya literally translates to “stay and drink shop,” which actually isn’t a bad description.
While the closest English word to izakaya would be “pub,” izakaya serve more than just snacks. You can, and usually should, get a full meal while you’re at an izakaya, made up of small plates of sashimi, fried chicken, tempura, edamame soybeans, and all sorts of other dishes meant to be shared between you and your friends. All of that gets washed down with selections from an extensive drink list that includes beer, cocktails, sake, hard liquor, and even wine in some izakaya (soft drinks are available too).
However, if you’re an izakaya first-timer, there might be a few fine points of the dining experience/etiquette you’re not yet aware of. That’s no problem, though, because Suntory, of beer and whiskey fame, has produced a helpful English video full of izakaya tips.
Let’s take a look at some of the key points Suntory covers, and also add in a few useful things the video doesn’t mention.
1 When you enter, you’ll likely get a hearty “Irasshai!!” (“Welcome!”) from the staff. You’ll then need to let them know how many people are in your party, by saying:
● hitori (“one person”)
● nimei (“two people”
● sanmei (“three people”)
● yonmei (“four people”)
- Pretty much every izakaya serves an otoshi, an appetizer which is automatically brought to your table without you asking for it. While Suntory’s video says the cost of the otoshi “will be added onto the bill in lieu of the cover charge,” the cost of the otoshi essentially is the cover charge, since not only is paying for the otoshi mandatory, the portion of food is incredibly small, nowhere near the amount you’d get when ordering actual appetizers from the menu.
Suntory’s video says otoshi usually cost between 300 and 500 yen, per person. While that’s a pretty common ballpark range, at some fancier izakaya, the otoshi can be quite a bit more, and even approach 1,000 yen. If you want to confirm ahead of time how much you’ll be charged, before being seated you can ask the restaurant staff “Otoshi ha ikura desu ka?” (“How much does your otoshi cost?”).
- When you sit down, you’ll be given a moist towel called an oshibori. These can be hot or cold, depending on the season. Using the oshibori to wipe your hands is always acceptable, but using it to wipe your face is a more debatable practice. The video says doing so “could be considered bad manners,” but you’re not likely to cause offense by wiping your face so much as come off looking a little slovenly. Using the oshibori for your face or neck is generally considered to be the sort of thing that uncool Japanese middle-aged men do, though those who are willing to step over to that dark side report that few things can match the restorative powers of using a cold oshibori to wipe the sweat from your neck or a hot one to warm up your face on a chilly winter night.
Oh, and on the off chance that your server forgets to bring you an oshibori, or you need another one (they do make very handy rags for wiping up spilled drinks or food), you can always ask for another by saying Oshibori kudasai to your server.
- Something important that the video forgets to mention is that at an izakaya, everyone in your party is expected to order at least one drink. As mentioned above, izakaya are sort of halfway between a bar and a restaurant. They serve enough food that you can arrive starving and leave stuffed, but you’re not supposed to come in, order food, and only pair it with free beverages like water or hot green tea. At the very least, you’re expected to order a charged soft drink, like juice, cola, or oolong tea.
There’s also a general understanding that you’ll order at least one food item for each person in the group, even though they’ll all be shared. But when it comes to drinks, one drink per person is pretty much the standard.
- As discussed in the video, Toriaezu nama, meaning “I’ll take a beer, to start,” is an extremely handy izakaya phrase.
Looking at the individual parts, nama, in the context of ordering drinks at an izakaya, translates to “draft beer.” Obviously, you can use it for ordering draft beers at any point in your meal, with the phrases to use being:
● Nama hitotsu kudasai (“One draft beer please”)
● Nama futatsu kudasai (“Two draft beers please”)
● Nama mitsu kudasai (“Three draft beers please”)
● Nama yotsu kudasai (“Four draft beers please”)
Toriaezu can also be used in other ways too. Izakaya meals are supposed to be leisurely affairs, where you order additional rounds of food and drink as you feel like it. So when you’re finished making your first order, you can tell your server *Toriaezu kore de onegai shimasu* (“We’ll have this to start”) so they know you’re done ordering and they can go get you your food and drinks.
Japan does indeed like a solid head on its beer. A 7:3 ratio of liquid to foam is considered the ideal pour, so if you’re from the “less is more” school of thought regarding head, be mentally prepared for that.
If you’re visiting an izakaya with friends, no one is supposed to take even a sip of their drink until everyone in the group has their beverage, and you’ve all touched glasses with an energetic Kampai! (“Cheers!”)
- Calling out Sumimasen! (“Excuse me!”) when you want to make another order isn’t just acceptable, it’s practically required. Japanese restaurant service generally feels that once the customers have their food and drinks, the staff should get out of their way and let them enjoy themselves. Your server won’t be coming back by the table to chitchat and ask how you’re liking everything, so you will need to call them over. Raising your hand is also good advice, especially if you’re a foreigner with pretty solid Japanese pronunciation (I can’t count how many times I’ve called out “Sumimasen” in an izakaya, had a server turn around and look right at me, and assume it must have been one of the Japanese customers who called out instead of me).
However, before you go shouting and raising your hand, take a quick look at the table and see if there’s a button on it. If there is, pressing it will call a server over to you, with no need to say anything at all.
- Suntory’s video claims “the highball is the most popular long cocktail in Japan,” and it’s definitely true that a lot of people like the drink. However, calling it “the most popular” izakaya drink might be Suntory’s pride as a whiskey maker talking.
In actuality, the most popular cocktail at izakaya is the “sour,” also called *chu-hi*. These are made with the grain-based liquor called shochu, soda water, and fruit flavorings, either a syrup concentrate or juice squeezed fresh at the table. Sours come in a variety of flavors and aren’t any more expensive than beer. Just be aware that despite their sweet, refreshing flavor, there really is alcohol in there (anywhere from four to nine percent alcohol, usually).
- Finally, while Suntory’s video is full of great tips for what to do while you’re at an izakaya, it doesn’t cover what to do when you’re ready to leave. To wrap up the meal, get your server’s attention with a sumimasen (or a table button press) and say Okaikei onegai shimasu (“Check please.”).
And with that, you’re all set for your first experience in the wonderful world of izakaya, which most likely won’t be your last.
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