If you can't see the video, go here: http://youtu.be/pe0EMLeYH1I
This topic wasn't on our schedule, but we found ourselves in an Izakaya on a quiet night and Nat said "Hey, we could make a video now". So we did. And there was much rejoicing.
So what is an Izakaya? In short, it's the main, traditional watering holes in Japan. This country has a lot of bars and I'd be more surprised than an aeroplane pilot who finds a bunny in his headlights if you can go to a Japanese city and not find a British themed or styled pub. You might even find one that's a major gaijin (foreigner) hangout and make some new friends... or run from new enemies. You know, whatever your social circle. So, yes, Japanese folk can drink like the rest of us... well, at least they have the opportunity. However, it is a borrowed Western idea, just like McDonald's (except beer actually improves your health), just like baseball, just like some other cool similie I can't think of right now. Don't judge me!
Izakaya are the true Japanese style establishments that primarily exist to ply the customers with alcohol just as long as they ply the owners with money. So, in it's basic principal it is also the same. However, there are many differences. So here they are in handy list format:
- Greetings and shoes: Don't be surprised if the waitresses bow and greet you at the door and then ask you to take off your shoes. If they don't take your shoes at the door then they will probably ask you to when you enter the private room.
- Private rooms: You can sit at a counter in some places (it is cheaper) and you can sit at an open table if you like, just like a regular restaurant, but Izakaya also have private areas marked out by sliding doors and in here you are in your own little drinking world. Have a look at our video to see how it works. The awesome thing is the staff can move the walls and doors around to make different sized rooms based on requirements. Confuses the hell out of drunk foreigners.
- Food: At most, in the west, we would scoff some crisps, nuts or mini-pizzas (in those posh gaffs), but Izakaya are very close to being restaurants. They offer a full menu and often a huge variety. Though some may specialize in certain types of food. You'll have to shop around to find one with a menu you like, but be adventurous. There are some strange but fantastic foods. I swear once I picked stuff at random and I got fresh baby squid on ice. Of course they have normal food too. Also, because Japanese think it is bad to drink on an empty stomach, you will be forced to accept a small dish of snacks on your arrival, along with your towel. This is not free! But you can't refuse it either. Otherwise ninjas jump out of the walls and take you away.... no one knows what happens next....
- Drinks: They have all the usual and all the types of Japanese drinks such as sake (rice wine), shochu (potato or rice spirit), umeshu (plum wine).
- Towel: Wipe your hands! Wipe them!
- Cute slave: The waitress is at the mercy of you and your magic summoning button all night. Use it wisely, and be nice to the girl. She has to put up with a lot.
- Sharing: The western man's drink time snack is his treasure, take it without permission and be at the wrath of his insatiable drunken cravings. However, in an Izakaya, the idea is to share. Some dishes will be very small and compliment one another. Others, like the chips (french fries - see the video) will be very large and meant to be shared. The idea is that people order bits of whatever they like and then you sample a different set of whatever you like on the table, while you are chatting, singing, dancing and insulting a fellow gaijin's home country and choice in women. Or something.
So now I have tempted you, how do you find them? Well, like I said, they are everywhere. If you can find any building with bars and restaurants in it, there will be an Izakaya but it can be hard to tell exactly which is which. You could keep an eye out for the kanji that says Izakaya (居酒屋).
The easiest way however, is to let someone show you. Around any meal time that isn't breakfast, but especially at night, there will be plenty of people in Izakaya uniform (or super thick winter coats, if it is winter) carrying a menu. As you walk near them they will shove the menu in your path and spout a sales pitch. That's your cue! Nod enthusiastically! Speak to them if you can. They work for the Izakaya and they will take you to their restaurant. If you want a certain something or you see something on their menu, tell the worker and they will likely call it down to the Izakaya on a secret radio and warn the others you are coming. They will probably show you to an elevator if it isn't on the ground floor, and then you can laugh as the same person sees you off and then runs all the way up (or down) the steps to greet you when you get off the elevator and show you inside. They do that sometimes. It depends how many workers there are. Feel free to discuss deals and special offers with these people. It is their job to entice people inside, and that is often why they will be girls.
There is another type of person who wanders the street at night, looking for customers, and that is not an Izakaya worker, but karaoke. You can usually tell them apart as the karaoke name will be branded on their clothing.
So that's it! Take some friends, have a party, enjoy your Izakaya!
Have you ever been to one? What was the strangest or most amazing food you ate there?