Japanese Nightlife: Izakaya

Jan Fornell

Born in Malmö, Sweden, in 1959. Lives in Japan since 1987. Linguist, translator, diversologist, art collector, traveler, gourmet.

Izakaya Basics

Where to find an izakaya

Izakaya are everywhere, but particularly clustered around train and subway stations. If you peep inside and see plenty of Japanese enjoying themselves over large mugs of beer, you are probably spot on!

Ordering

As izakaya mostly cater to the locals, they may or may not have an English menu or one with pictures, but if you don’t know what to get, just ask the people sitting next to you! Izakaya are friendly and social places where it is completely OK to strike up a conversation with total strangers, and after a few drinks even the reticent Japanese start displaying surprising language skills. The dishes are generally small and inexpensive, so order a couple of different things to share by everybody at the table. You can always order more at any time.
To order, catch the waiters attention by calling out “Onegai shimasu!” (meaning “please” – a very useful phrase to know). With your first drink, you will usually be served a small appetizer called otoushi, which also functions as a cover charge and will be included in your bill at a few hundred yen.
To pay when you’re finished, call the waiter again, who will lead you to the register and do the sums. For, say, two drinks and three dishes, expect to pay around 3000 yen.

Food

These days, izakaya serve all sorts of things, but the focus is invariably on traditional Japanese dishes that go well with beer and nihonshu. Among the perennial favorites are yakitori (pieces of chicken grilled on bamboo skewers) and oden (potatoes, vegetables, eggs, octopus and other things boiled in a broth). Izakaya specializing in seafood are also common.

Drinks

The Japanese themselves normally start off with a round of draft beer (“nama biiru” – another one of those essential phrases) and may then move on to nihonshu (the rice wine that for some reason is commonly called “sake” in English, but in Japanese “sake” (or “o-sake”) refers to alcoholic beverages in general), which can be drunk hot or cold, and there are hundreds of brands to choose from. Shochu – distilled spirits made from rice, barley or sweet potatoes among other things – is also popular and can be drunk neat, on the rocks, or mixed with water, fruit juices or even oolong tea. Naturally, soft drinks are available as well.

Yakitori Kyusuke, Ningyocho, Tokyo

Tonight, we are visiting a venerable yakitori place on a street appropriately called Amazake Yokocho (Sweet Wine Alley) in Ningyocho, which is a pleasantly old-fashioned part of Tokyo. It is a small shop with a zashiki area, where you take off your shoes and sit on tatami mats, but it’s a quiet evening and most of the early customers seem to prefer to sit by the counter, where you can watch the chefs deftly turning the chicken skewers over special charcoal brought all the way from Wakayama. So do we.

To start with, we order a couple of beers and the Kyusuke set, named after the restaurant itself. But first comes the otoushi, which here turns out to be diced tofu and black beans, and another small dish of grated daikon (giant radish) that I’m not quite sure what to do with. Grated daikon is usually a condiment, but the chef suggests that I try it by itself and it’s indeed surprisingly refreshing. Now the skewers begin to arrive: plain chicken with a soy-based sauce, chicken wings, tsukune (chicken meatballs), and my favorite, negima, chicken pieces interleaved with leeks. All tasty, and even more so with a touch of the Japanese pepper that I find in a small bowl on the table. Somewhat curiously, the fifth dish in the set is a soft-boiled egg with wasabi. None of them were very substantial, however, so we order more. I like chicken liver, so I get a stick of those, and some green peppers, and another beer.

While chicken of course is the house specialty, they have plenty of other things as well, and today’s offerings are handwritten on a beautiful, paper-thin, large wood shaving. Some deep-fried octopus, yes, some fresh bamboo shoots, yes, and some delectable chu-toro fatty tuna, absolutely! Now, the drink of choice with sashimi is nihonshu, so we order some of that too. As I’m no expert on nihonshu (yet), I happily go with the master’s recommendations, and they are perfectly satisfying – both the hot one and the cold one. All this for under 10,000 yen for two people! Who said eating out in Japan is expensive?

Kyusuke Yakitori

2-21-11 Nihonbashi Ningyocho, Tokyo.
03 – 3639 5409
Open 11:15 – 13:15, 17:00 – 22:00 (last order)
Closed Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
Nearest station: Ningyocho on the Hibiya line or Asakusa line.

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