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Japanese Drinking Culture in the Izakaya

Japanese Drinking Culture in the Izakaya

Japanese drinking culture at Izakaya

The sun sets, marking the end of a long workday in a Japanese metropolis. Where do the masses of office workers, known as Salarymen, along with their superiors and colleagues head to? Naturally, to the city's pubs. And not just any pubs: Izakaya are the traditional Japanese gastro-bars that visitors should be familiar with.

Izakaya in Japan: restaurant or pub?

Izakaya can take various forms: from small, traditional family businesses to large, lively chain establishments. It is the most popular nightlife destination in Japan: Over 80,000 Izakaya line the streets there. During the day, many Izakaya are closed and only open in the evening after work. They are mainly found near train stations or hotels, in entertainment districts or shopping centers. Traditional Izakaya can be recognized by a red lantern, the Akachochin, at the entrance and traditional Japanese music in the background. There, instead of reading a paper menu, you can read about the dishes offered on paper strips. For foreign visitors, the larger bars are particularly attractive, luring them with a colorful menu, helpful photos, and even English explanations.

Entering an Izakaya in Japan opens up the world of refined local nightlife culture. Izakaya often have a bar where visitors can sit and watch the kitchen, long tables, or places for a few people. In the summer, people also enjoy gathering outside. Some pubs have standing tables, although Izakaya literally means "sake shop for sitting down." However, they can be seen as a kind of restaurant since you can also eat well here. In the modern version, guests can even order on tablets instead of with a waiter.

Many Izakaya in Japan have separate rooms that can be closed with sliding doors. On the tatami mats inside, there is a low table in the middle. Here, colleagues or friends kneel and enjoy food and drink in a private atmosphere. The later the hour, the louder you hear the cheerful groups talking and laughing.

Nobody stays hungry in this bar

The Izakaya takes care of your culinary needs, from quick sake to a complete meal, which is why they are often equated with restaurants. Of course, the cuisine here is typically Japanese. However, food is served in small portions called Sakana. The word, which actually means "fish," is used here for the appetizers consumed with alcohol and shared among the guests. With the first order, guests are already served small seasonal appetizers called Otoshi (or Tsukidashi in the Kansai region). Quality is also a focus in the kitchen. Japanese Izakaya dishes include:

  • Sashimi and Sushi
  • Fried fish and caviar
  • Green cooked edamame beans
  • Fresh white tofu, often served in soy sauce with spring onions (Hiyayakko) or fried and served in broth as Agedashi Tofu
  • Tsukemono – delicious sweet and sour pickled vegetables like radish, ginger, and plums
  • Korean spicy Kimchi
  • Fried seafood or vegetables: Tempura
  • Chicken in the form of Yakitori, grilled skewers, or fried as Karaage
  • Korokke, fried patties made with potatoes and crab meat
  • Onigiri rice balls with various fillings
  • Peanuts and rice crackers

Hearty Japanese dishes made from noodles or rice are also enjoyed during longer stays, usually towards the end of the gathering. Some izakaya even offer Okonomiyaki and Oden. The latter is a soup made with Dashi fish broth, fish croquettes, eggs, tofu, seaweed, radish, and a variety of other possible ingredients. Especially in winter, this hot and satisfying specialty is popular. Dessert is not as widespread in Japanese izakaya, unfortunately.

But what do you drink in an izakaya? Classically, of course, there's sake, called Nihonshu in Japan, but beer, wine, and stronger spirits like whiskey are also popular. Shochu, a type of liquor made from rice or potatoes, is also commonly ordered, preferably as a highball – mixed with lemonade. Spirits are often served with lemon juice and syrup, creating the so-called Sour Mix. For those who want to stay sober, soft drinks or tea can also be ordered.

Drinking in Japanese - but the right way

Drinking in Japan is, of course, not just a simple pastime but is associated with its own set of rules. The visit to an izakaya begins with entering. A friendly waiter greets you with a smile and guides you to a seat. If you enter one of the tatami rooms: don't forget to take off your shoes! There are even lockers for this purpose. Once you are seated, you will receive a small white terry cloth for hand cleaning, called Oshibori. In winter, it is heated beforehand: a soothing start if you've just come in from the cold. After cleaning your hands, the towel is set aside on the table.


Then it's time for a toast. Often, the first order is Nama Biiru, draft beer, or a bottle of sake for the entire group. For regular customers, many izakayas even keep opened bottles for the next visit.

When out with colleagues, office hierarchy often carries over to the bar: the youngest employee might be expected to fill the boss's glass. If it's sake, pouring it correctly takes some skill. Sake is usually served in a small carafe called Tokkuri and poured into a small glass or a Masu, a small square wooden box. The Tokkuri is held firmly at the neck with one hand, supported from below with the other. The recipient, in turn, holds their cup with both hands.

Sake Set

We also offer beautiful Japanese sake setsSake set Shuin, 1 carafe, 2 cups

The lower-ranked guest must be attentive throughout the evening to ensure their superior's glass does not remain empty. Others reciprocate for their colleagues. Even if someone declines, it's often out of politeness. Therefore, if you don't want to drink more, never empty your glass, as it will be promptly refilled! Pouring your own drink is an absolute taboo. There are also rules for eating: everyone starts using chopsticks only when the superior does.

One particularity in izakayas, as in every Japanese bar, is that smoking is still allowed everywhere. On the streets, however, it's often frowned upon, and there are designated smoking areas.

Paying at Izakaya: A question of culture

A visit to an izakaya in Japan can quickly become expensive, as you pay not only for drinks and food but also a table charge, usually in the form of Otoshi at the beginning: The 200 to 700 yen (about 1.50 to 5.50 euros) per person is added to the bill, whether you wanted the appetizer or not. Typically, the bill in groups is divided among everyone: splitting the bill is not customary in Japan. Most izakayas also accept only cash. Traditionally, employees' costs are covered by the highest-ranking colleague or superior, or they are advanced and individually reimbursed the next day.

To make things easier, Japanese people also like to order Nomihodai – "All you can drink" or Tabehodai, "All you can eat." The drink flat rate costs from 2000 yen per person, about 15.50 euros. This way, everyone at the table can consume as much as they want within two hours. There's no need to worry about tipping in Japan either: good service is expected and does not need to be separately compensated. On the contrary, if you give a little more than the bill, the waiter will make every effort to return the excess amount.

Foreigners are often challenged in izakayas to show how much they can drink – the locals want to have fun. Drinking games are also very popular to make the time even more enjoyable. However, with the Japanese, things quickly come to an end. If you've ever been out late at night in a Japanese city, especially on Fridays near train stations or on trains, you may have encountered hordes of cheerful, overtired, or even sleeping salarymen. Not all of them are there voluntarily: societal convention demands following an invitation from a superior for a joint drinking session, even if you have to be back in the office at 7 am the next day.

Japanese sake view in the store »

Do we also have izakaya?

If a traditional pub seems too boring, you can also be entertained. Some izakayas are now dedicated to a specific theme, such as Ninja, Japanese elementary schools, Samurai, railways, or anime, offering live music, shows, costumes, and specially crafted dishes. However, you don't have to be in Japan to experience their pub culture. Japanese-style izakayas can be found, especially in Düsseldorf's Japan Quarter, as well as in major cities like Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, and Cologne. Be cautious in your selection: behind the name, there might be an "ordinary" Japanese restaurant instead of an izakaya. However, the name is also used by a restaurant in Hamburg known for its innovative cuisine and decor. At the "Izakaya" in Hamburg, the menu combines Japanese and South American flavors to create a gourmet experience. Whether you immerse yourself in izakaya culture in Japan or try something new in Germany: when visiting a Japanese pub, it's essential to remain curious and open and let yourself be infected by the good spirits of the neighbors. Kanpai – Cheers!

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