Reddish orange lanterns glow softly in the dark while the sound of laughter is exchanged amongst office workers, college students and friends. Some describe an izakaya as a Japanese bar, pub or casual restaurant, but these words hardly grasp the nuance. Izakaya means “a place to settle and drink”' and is where one can find affordable drinks and delicious food. It’s a place to forget time and enjoy the present while connecting with colleagues and friends.
History of Izakaya: From Personal to Social Consumption
The historical records of izakaya can be traced as far back as 1,200 years ago during the Heian period. At that time, sake was a luxury only for nobles and prohibition made alcohol far less available for commoners to consume in public. “Homemade” alcohol was the only option for many, made by diluting sake kasu (sake lees) in warm water.
The Edo period (1603-1868) introduced a new era of open alcohol consumption. People could purchase sake by weight, known as “hakari uri”, to enjoy at home. As towns flourished, standing bars and casual dining places were introduced, shifting drinking culture outside the home. Social alcohol consumption brought about the word izakaya - a place for people to linger while enjoying sake, food and conversation.
Prior to WWII, izakayas were individually owned, serving mostly male locals. Japan’s economic development after the war introduced izakaya chains, opening doors to new customers such as college students and women. Food and drink options were also expanded to include mixed drinks and even western food.
Various Types of Izakaya
It’s common to find dedicated izakaya neighborhoods called “~ Yokocho” or “~ Gai” in Japan. They’re often found along streets, alleys or under raised railway tracks, and some are so intimate they only have room for a couple of people to sit at the bar. These districts are easily spotted by their outdoor red lanterns, called “akachochin”, which guide people into the izakaya. Bar-hopping, known as “hashigo-zake” or “hashigo”, is a popular activity in these areas, offering an opportunity to experience the unique ambiance and varied tastes of different spots.
Izakaya chains are a popular option for large groups. They often have spacious individual rooms and some offer unlimited affordable drinks and food options, known as “nomihodai” and “tabehodai”. The friendly pricing and casual atmosphere make them an easy and enjoyable place to casually swing by with friends or colleagues.
Popular Izakaya Food
Izakaya food is served in small portions which are often meant to be shared. It’s common for one person to handle the ordering while incorporating everyone’s preference. And yes, there’s plenty of food to choose from!
This must-have grilled skewer is commonly made with various parts of chicken and can include a variety of seasonings paired with vegetables such as garlic, leeks (negi), and shishito peppers. Typical flavors include salt (shio) or glazed soy sauce (tare).
A great option, especially during winter, this one-pot dish consists of several ingredients (such as Japanese radish “daikon”, boiled eggs, konjac, and fish cakes) simmered in a hot “dashi” broth. People can select their favorite ingredients and add a tiny dollop of spicy Japanese mustard, known as “karashi”.
Other popular izakaya dishes include:
- Motsu nikomi- Simmered miso based pork intestines and vegetables.
- Tako wasa- Fresh raw octopus, mixed with wasabi, dashi, mirin and soy sauce.
- Ume suisho - Finely chopped shark cartilage dressed in ume (Japanese sour plum).
- Japanese potato salad - A creamy potato salad made of Japanese mayonnaise, thinly-sliced ham, cucumbers, carrots, onions and potatoes.
- Eihire - Dried stingray served with Japanese mayonnaise and shichimi pepper on the side.
Izakayas, in essence, are a place to gather while enjoying affordable drinks, good quality food and great company. Many see these places as comfortable spots to gather with people outside of the home. Izakaya drinks and food may not be “fancy” but the down-to-earth familiarity allows people to relax and enjoy the moment. The echo of laughter never ends in an izakaya, and this may be the reason they began and continue today.
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.