You may have noticed already, but one of my favourite things to talk about on this blog is food. I am too lazy/forgetful/drunk (delete as you wish) to recall saying this before, but it’s true: Japan is one of the great unsung foodie nations on Earth. Half of the TV shows here circulate around food (and those that don’t will stealth-sneak in something about it, like its some sinister government plot), and Tokyo boasts the highest concentration of Michelin stars, beating out even Paris. And if you are now envisaging a French and Japanese child dueling with a baguette and a fish repetitively, then I salute. You and I, we think on another plane.
But this is not to say the Japanese are food snobs. Far from it. The Japanese love hearty, deep fried comfort food as much as anyone, usually with an ice cold beer and surrounded with friends. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Izakaya.
Izakaya (居酒屋) literally means ‘stay and drink place’, but in simple terms it is the Japanese version of a pub. There are some similarities of course – that of the local drinking hole where folks gather in a social setting to get blasted out of their face and eat anything that will fit in a deep fat fryer.
But it’s the differences between our idea of pub and the Izakaya that are the fascinating part. First, the Izakaya tends to be less ‘free roam’ than a pub: you are given a seat, which either faces the counter, or in a semi-private booth for you and your friends. True, you have the ‘立ち飲み’ (Tachinomi, lit. ‘stand and drink’) establishments which are about as close as you will get to a real pub in Japan without resorting to an ACTUAL pub, but for me this difference is a mixed blessing: on one hand I do miss that chance to wander, rub shoulders with other revellers and socialize outside out of a pre-established circle of mates. But on the other hand, sometimes you just want to be in the company of familiar faces.
The other big difference is in the style of food. While pub food as we know it tends to come in a typical one-person one-dish setup that is a full meal, in an Izakaya that is actually quite rare. Typically, the menu will be full of edibles that are just a bit bigger than your typical side dish, and the idea is that you order several of these throughout the evening that you and your friends can munch at leisure. These foods tend to be of the simplistic variety: prices of fried chicken, French fries, yakisoba and yakitori are staple choices, though it’s not all meat and grease – you can get salads, sashimi, and of course no beer supping session would be complete without a small basket of boiled and salted edamame (soybean pods).
And this is where some of the most important and wonderful Japanese words of all come into play: 飲み放題 and 食べ放題 (‘nomihoudai’ and ‘tabehoudai’) which means ‘All you can drink’ and ‘all you can eat’ respectively. Many Izakaya have options for 90 minutes, 2 hours or three hours with nomihoudai, tabehoudai or – dare I say it – both. Can you imagine these kind of things in your home country? I can in the UK. There would be chaos. People would have to start buying hula hoops for belts.
And yet, despite not exactly being on the higher end of the scale when it comes to exquisite Japanese experiences (especially as many Izakayas still allow smoking, with some of the most half-assed attempts at separating smoking and smoking you will ever see) the Izakaya is every inch the authentic Japanese experience, beer stains and all. There’s a reason why Izakaya are scattered absolutely everywhere and come in all shapes and sizes – from multifloor chains to tiny two-seater drinking holes – and are not just an integral part of Japanese social life but deserve to be much higher on the to-do list of tourists to Japan.