During your trip to Japan, you should definitely experience izakaya bar culture.
In these establishments you can enjoy Japanese-style cocktails and tapas dishes for extremely reasonable prices.
The dishes tend to be smaller, and you would usually share the dishes with everyone.
If you don’t know what to eat, hop into an izakaya, and you will always find something that fits your taste.
It may seem daunting to approach such a different kind of drinking establishment, but with our handy guide to izakaya etiquette, we’ll make you into an izakaya aficionado in no time!
- Three izakaya-related words to remember
- How to order nihonshu, shochu, and umeshu
- Three of Tokyo’s best “backstreets”
Three izakaya-related words to remember
① “Toriaezu, Nama!” – “I’ll have a beer to start!”
When you go to the izakaya, you’ll probably see Japanese customers call out “Toriaezu, nama!” to the servers.
To put this phrase a little more politely, it means “I would like a draft beer to start with, please.”
In Japan, many people only begin ordering food once they’ve made a toast (we say kanpai!=乾杯！) with a beer, so that’s what gets ordered first.
But remember, you only say this during your first order.
From the second order you would just tell the serving staff “Biiru ippai, onegaishimasu” (A beer, please.)
② Otooshi, tsukidashi – Appetizers
When your drink comes, you’ll usually be served an appetizer despite not ordering anything yet.
These dishes are called “otooshi” or “tsukidashi” and are added as a cover charge to your bill at the end.
There are some bars who serve meticulously-prepared appetizers that have been selected to compliment the flavor of Japanese sake, so with just a taste of your appetizer, you should be able to form a picture of the flavor of the rest of the menu.
③ Shime – Last meal
You order shime once you’ve finished drinking.
The shime that you eat at the end is a carbohydrate and often something like a rice dish (like ochazuke) or a noodle dish (like ramen.)
After enjoying sides of fried karaage chicken or yakitori chicken skewers as you drink, a final carbohydrate is a great way to fill you up at the end for ultimate culinary satisfaction.
When someone orders shime, this means that the drinking is over.
Some people might be shocked that after all those drinks and snacks that people are ordering big, heavy dishes before they head back home, but trust us when we say that this is completely normal.
How do you drink nihonshu, shochu and umeshu?
▼Nihonshu (Japanese sake)
Nihonshu is made from rice and water, and the number of breweries of Nihonshu counts more than 1400 across Japan.
At the izakaya, the owner of the store will select nihonshu to stock to compliment the flavors of their food.
There are lots of types of nihonshu on offer, including milder and drier varieties, so one great thing is that the bar staff will be able to recommend you a brand that will suit your palate.
When drinking nihonshu, you can either order it for yourself in measure of 180ml (ichigo) or if you’re sharing with multiple people, just order 360ml (nigo) or more together with some extra ochoko sake cups.
Shochu is a distilled spirit that can be made with rice, barley, or potatoes. If you want a taste of pure shochu on its own, you can order it on the rocks or with water.
Among Japanese people, it’s more popular to use shochu as a base and turn it into cocktails called “chuhai” and “sours.”
Popular flavors include “Oolong-hai” which is shochu mixed with Oolong tea and “Nama Grapefruit Sour” which is made with fresh grapefruit juice.
These are often served in full size “jokki” (beer mug) glasses, which is the perfect size for people who want to drink a lot.
Umeshu is made by pickling ume plums in shochu or brandy.
You could even dilute it with hot water in the winter for a warm winter alcoholic treat.
On its own, this alcohol is very sweet, so you should order it on the rocks so that you can enjoy the authentic flavor of this drink without it overpowering you.
A lot of my international friends say that they particularly enjoy diluting this with ginger ale, so go ahead and feel free to give that a try too!
Calling on your local “backstreet”
In Tokyo, alongside all of the many chain izakaya, you’ll find small, independent joints, snugly hidden away from the bustling main streets.
Here, you will often find rows of them lining their own small streets called “yokocho.”
As day turns to night, you will see the lanterns begin to light up and the regulars start to gather as these cozy little establishments begin to open for the night.
Below, we’ll introduce you to three of the easiest yokocho to visit in Tokyo.
They’re often very welcoming of international visitors, so don’t be afraid to enter this mysterious world and find a new favorite place to drink.
Hanazono Golden Gai – Shinjuku (5-minute walk from Shinjuku Station)
Approximately 280 tiny bars are found within these maze-like alleys, so you’re always sure to find an interesting place to drink! Don’t be surprised to find the people cramped up in there striking up a conversation with you in these homely, little establishments.
Omoide Yokocho – Shinjuku West Exit (2-minute walk from Shinjuku Station)
This little group of bars has been around since the post-war days, where the drinking establishments stand side by side with yakitori grilled chicken stands and other grilled food places.
Enjoy the retro atmosphere as you time travel back to a forgotten age.
Nonbei Yokocho – Shibuya (Walking distance from Shibuya Station)
There are plenty of unique bars here, so we recommend that you don’t camp out in one bar for the evening, but wander from place to place (or “hashigo suru” in Japanese!)
We know that Japan’s drunken and passed out salarymen might be a well-recognized image worldwide, but remembering your manners will always end up leaving you with the best memories.
No one wants to have to cringe each time that they think back to that one night in Golden Gai!
Just be careful of walking and smoking or making too much of a ruckus in public places and you should be fine.
And remember to get the owner’s permission if you’re going to take pictures of the bar!
Now get out there and enjoy new drinks with good friends!