When the work day is over, and it’s time to take a load off, grab a beer and get a bite to eat, the English have their pubs, and the Japanese have izakayas. Izakayas are a staple business in Japan. Every town has at least one, and Tokyo has thousands of them. Usually small and dark, out-of-the-way, tucked into a side alley or even in the back corner of a metro station, izakayas seat a small clientele every night. Their owners are sometimes the only staff, catering to a seated bar of maybe 8 to 10 customers. The larger izakayas will hold a few dozen people, but they are few and far between in Tokyo where there are over 160,000 restaurants.
I’m not going to lie to you, one of my life goals is to live in Tokyo and have the perfect neighborhood izakaya right downstairs where the owner knows my name, and I can get preferred seating. What a dream! That’s probably why for REMOVED and RELEASED, I made Sanaa’s best friend, Miko, the heiress of a well-known izakaya. I wanted a place where Sanaa could gather with her friends and family, a neutral spot that would be theirs until it was time to pick up and leave. A family-owned izakaya was my best idea, and Izakaya Tanaka was born of my many nights dreaming in bed of my own such place.
What is an izakaya like in Japan?
As I mentioned above, many izakayas can range in size from tiny little nooks to larger restaurant chains. The typical menu situation is usually nomihodai (all you can drink) or tabehodai (all you can eat). You eat or drink all you want for a set number of hours, then the bill is tallied and you leave. It’s not a pop-in and pop-out type meal.
Sitting in an izakaya for a meal means being there for a few hours. When you find an izakaya you like, you grab a seat and prepare for greatness. A wet, hot towel is first provided so that you can slough off the dirt of your day at work. You start your meal with beer and a lighter sushi, moving onto fried items and possibly some shochu (the Japanese equivalent of vodka), and finishing up with rice or noodles to fill your belly before heading home.
Some izakayas specialize in food like yakitori (grilled items including chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetables) or house-made tofu or pickles or ramen. The variety is staggering which is why this tradition of izakayas thrives so well in Japan. Many izakayas can exist in one town and not have an overlapping menu or clientele. When you factor in specialty drinks or cocktails, every izakaya becomes a gem.
What makes an izakaya special?
Sometimes it’s hard to pin down what makes a place special, you know? Maybe it’s the owner of the izakaya, an old woman who has owned the place for 45 years and knows what you like. Maybe it’s the decor? In one of my favorite parts of REMOVED, I describe Izakaya Tanaka…
“Miko’s family has been running this place for three generations. It is one of the few places in Ku 7 that’s been around for almost seventy years. Her great-great-grandmother hand-painted the menu signs hanging along the front of the bar, and the family’s collection of golden maneki-neko line the walls above the booths. If I stay till close with Miko, I often take down the noren curtains out front before we lock the place up. They were also painted in a large flowing script by her great-great-grandmother. She was a master with the brush.”
I looked at photos of izakayas for weeks and pinned down all of the elements that I loved about them before deciding on how Izakaya Tanaka should look. I guess I have my own izakaya already!
But the many people that I have known to live in Japan always talk about their favorite izakaya with glassed-over eyes and wistful expressions, remembering every meal and every drink they ever had there. I believe it’s a combination of things that makes an izakaya special to any one person. It’s the food, the atmosphere, the conversations exchanged there, and the jokes laughed over as each person pays their bills and stumbles into the streets home.
Need some izakaya at home?
I have this fantastic book called Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook that is full of delicious recipes and photographs of izakaya too. It’s a great introduction to izakayas and their food. If you can stop by an Asian grocery store and pick up some specialty ingredients, you’re good to go. But the best part of izakayas is really the atmosphere, so you also may want to look at this Pinterest board I put together of Izakayas not only in Japan but around the world. There may even be one in your town that you can go to! New York City has several, and I have friends across the country that report in to me about their favorites. My friend, Cori, loves Zen Box Izakaya in Minneapolis, and really, if you can get good izakayas in the middle of the Midwest, I’m sure there’s one nearby you can try out.
Check out my Pinterest board here: http://www.pinterest.com/spajonas/japanese-izakayas-izakaya-food/
Hopefully it’ll inspire you to Google nearby and try something out locally. Happy eating! Itadakimasu!