Izakaya – The Heart of Japanese Nightlife and Cuisine

by Milana
Izakaya - The Heart of Japanese Nightlife and Cuisine

Have you ever heard of izakaya? It’s basically a type of casual dining spot in Japan where you can enjoy a wide variety of small dishes along with drinks like beer, sake, or cocktails. It’s like a gastropub or tapas bar, but with a distinctly Japanese twist. The cool thing about izakaya is that they have a really cozy and laid-back atmosphere, so they’re the perfect spot to hang out with friends, socialize, and enjoy some delicious food and drinks. That’s why izakaya is a super popular destination in Japan, both among locals and tourists. Whether you’re in the city or in a more secluded area, you can find an izakaya nearby where you can experience the unique culture and cuisine of Japan.

A brief history of izakaya culture

Izakaya has a rich history that dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868) in Japan. During this time, people began to gather in small, informal establishments to drink and socialize after work. These establishments were called “sakaya,” which literally means “sake shop,”. They served alcohol and small snacks to accompany the drinks. Over time, the sakaya evolved into “izakaya,” which offered a wider range of dishes and became more focused on socializing and creating a welcoming atmosphere. In the 20th century, izakaya became more popular and widespread in Japan, and today they are a staple of Japanese nightlife and cuisine. While the tradition of izakaya has evolved over time, it remains an important part of Japanese culture.

Popular dishes you might find at an izakaya

Dishes are typically small, shareable plates that are perfect for trying a little bit of everything. From grilled skewers (yakitori) to fried dishes (tempura) to savory pancakes (okonomiyaki), there’s something for everyone on the menu. Many izakayas also offer daily specials that highlight seasonal ingredients or unique flavor combinations.


Yakitori, which means grilled chicken, is a popular dish you can find at izakayas. It consists of skewered chicken that is seasoned with salt or soy sauce and then grilled over charcoal. They will serve yakitori as a small plate to be shared among friends while drinking and socializing at an izakaya. The dish is simple yet flavorful and provides a perfect accompaniment to a cold beer or sake. In addition to its delicious taste, yakitori is also relatively inexpensive, making it a favorite among locals and tourists alike.

yakitori japanese food


Edamame is a popular Japanese snack that often serves at izakayas. These green soybeans are lightly salted and are a perfect appetizer to munch on while enjoying drinks with friends. Edamame is a healthy and delicious snack that is rich in protein and fiber. Eating edamame is also a fun and interactive experience, as diners need to pop the beans out of their pods before eating them. This simple and tasty snack is a must-try when visiting an izakaya in Osaka.


Karaage is a popular Japanese fried chicken dish that you’re likely to find at most izakayas in Osaka. The chicken is typically in a mix of soy sauce, sake, ginger, and garlic, then coated in a light batter and deep-fried until crispy and golden brown. The result is juicy and flavorful, with a satisfying crunch that makes it the perfect snack to pair with a cold beer or sake. Some izakayas even offer different variations of karaage, such as spicy or garlic karaage. So be sure to ask your server about their options.


Takoyaki is a popular Japanese street food that can you can also find at many izakayas. These small, snacks in the shape of balls from batter filled with diced octopus, tempura scraps, green onion, and other seasonings. They cook them in a special takoyaki pan, which gives them their signature round shape. Once cooked, they usually come with mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce, and bonito flakes. Takoyaki is a fun and delicious snack to share with friends while enjoying a few drinks at an izakaya.

Takoyaki - Japanese Food


Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake-like dish that is a staple at many izakayas in Osaka. The name translates to “grilled as you like it,” and that is exactly what makes it so special. They make dish with a batter of flour, eggs, and shredded cabbage, and then filled with a variety of ingredients, such as pork belly, shrimp, or octopus. It is then cooked on a hot plate and topped with a sweet and savory sauce, mayonnaise, and dried seaweed. Each region in Japan has its own take on Okonomiyaki. But the Osaka-style is particularly famous for its light and fluffy texture and generous toppings. You can enjoy it with a cold beer or other drinks at an izakaya, making it the perfect dish for a fun and casual night out.

Japanese food - Okonomiyaki


Gyoza is a popular Japanese dumpling you can find in many izakayas in Osaka. Typically they fill these dumplings with ground pork and vegetables, then wrapped in a thin dough and pan-fried until crispy on one side and steamed on the other. They serve them with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, vinegar, and chili oil. Gyoza are a great appetizer to share with friends while enjoying drinks at an izakaya. In Osaka, you can find many izakayas that specialize in gyoza and offer a variety of fillings, such as shrimp, chicken, and vegetarian options.


Sashimi is a type of Japanese dish that typically consists of thinly sliced fresh raw fish or seafood served with soy sauce and wasabi. It is a staple menu item at many izakayas in Osaka, where you can find a variety of fresh and high-quality sashimi. Some popular types of sashimi served at izakayas include tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and octopus. Sashimi often comes as a starter or side dish to accompany drinks. It’s a perfect option for those who want to sample a variety of fresh seafood while enjoying a night out. Be sure to ask your server for recommendations on which types of sashimi to tr. And don’t forget to dip each slice in soy sauce and wasabi for the ultimate flavor experience.

Sashimi varieties


Tempura is another popular dish that you can find at the izakayas in Japan. This dish consists of seafood or vegetables that are battered and deep-fried until crispy. The result is a light and crispy texture that pairs well with dipping sauces such as tentsuyu, a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, and dashi. Tempura is often comes as a small plate or as part of a larger meal, making it a perfect option for sharing with friends and trying a variety of flavors. Some popular types of tempura include shrimp, squid, pumpkin, and eggplant.

Japanese food - Shrimp tempura


Oden is a Japanese one-pot dish that you can find at izakayas. It is a comforting and hearty stew made with various ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon radish, konnyaku (a type of jelly-like food made from yam flour), and fishcakes, all simmered in a dashi-based broth. The ingredients are usually served on skewers, making it easy to pick up and eat. Oden is a popular dish during the colder months in Japan and is often enjoyed with a cold beer or sake. It is a great option for those looking for a warming and satisfying meal at an izakaya.


Nabe is a type of Japanese hot pot that is a popular dish at izakayas, especially during the colder months. It consists of a simmering broth, typically made with dashi and soy sauce, in which various ingredients such as meat, vegetables, and tofu are cooked. The ingredients usually come raw on a plate, and diners cook them in hot broth at their table. Nabe is a communal dish, often shared among a group of people, making it a great option for socializing at an izakaya. There are many different types of nabe, each with its own regional variations and unique ingredients. Some popular types include sukiyaki, shabu-shabu, and yosenabe.

Pairing Drinks with Izakaya Food

Izakayas offer a wide range of beverages, including sake, shochu, beer, and whiskey, to name a few.

Sake is a popular drink to pair with izakaya food, as it complements the flavors of many dishes. For example, dry sake goes well with fried or salty foods, while sweeter sakes pair well with spicier dishes. Shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit, is also a popular choice and can be enjoyed on its own or mixed with soda or juice.

Beer is another popular drink to pair with izakaya food, especially when it comes to fried foods like tempura and karaage. In Japan, beer is often served in small glasses, so you can try a variety of brands and flavors without getting too full.

Whiskey is also a popular choice, particularly among older generations in Japan. Highballs, a combination of whiskey and soda, are a popular way to enjoy this spirit with izakaya food.

Izakaya Culture and Socializing

Izakaya play a significant role in Japanese socializing and nightlife. These establishments offer a laid-back atmosphere that encourages patrons to relax, unwind, and socialize with friends or coworkers. Many Japanese people enjoy going to izakaya after work or on weekends to de-stress and catch up with friends. Izakaya is often bustling with lively conversation and laughter, making them a popular spot for socializing.

In addition to providing a social outlet, izakaya also plays a role in Japanese business culture. Many companies host “nomikai,” or drinking parties, at izakaya to build camaraderie and strengthen business relationships. These events often involve toasting, sharing plates of food, and engaging in conversation, providing an opportunity for colleagues to get to know each other on a more personal level.

Customs and etiquette to keep in mind at Izakaya

When it comes to customs and etiquette, there are a few things to keep in mind at an izakaya. One of the most important is the concept of “otoshi,” which is a small dish that will come to you automatically when you sit down at the table. This dish is not free and they will not add to your bill at the end of the meal. It’s also customary to order a drink when you sit down, even if you’re not ready to order food yet. When it comes to ordering food, it’s best to start with a few dishes and then order more as you go, rather than ordering everything at once. And, when you finish with your meal, it’s polite to say “gochisosama deshita” to thank the chef and staff for the meal.

Tips for solo diners or foreigners visiting Izakaya for the first time

Here are some tips to make your experience more enjoyable. First, don’t be afraid to ask the staff for recommendations or assistance. They are usually very friendly and happy to help. Second, it’s a good idea to learn some basic Japanese phrases for ordering food and drinks. Third, try to observe how locals are dining and drinking, and follow their lead. Fourth, it’s best to have cash on hand, as many izakayas don’t accept credit cards. Finally, don’t be afraid to try new things and step out of your comfort zone. Izakayas offer a wide variety of dishes and drinks, and it’s a great opportunity to try new flavors and experience Japanese food culture.

The social side of izakaya

In Japan, izakayas are much more than just a place to grab a bite to eat or have a drink. They are a central part of Japanese socializing and nightlife. Many people with friends or coworkers after work unwind and socialize over drinks and food.

When it comes to customs and etiquette at izakaya, there are a few things to keep in mind. For example, it’s common for everyone at the table to share dishes family-style, rather than ordering individual meals. It’s also customary to pour drinks for others at the table, rather than pouring your own. And when you’re ready to leave, it’s polite to say “osaki ni shitsurei shimasu” to your hosts. It means “Excuse me for leaving before you.”

If you’re visiting an izakaya for the first time, there are a few tips to keep in mind. For solo diners, it’s perfectly acceptable to sit at the counter and strike up a conversation with the bartender. And for foreigners, don’t be afraid to ask for help with the menu or for recommendations from the staff.

Let’s dive into some of the most famous izakayas in Japan

Japan is home to countless izakaya, but some have gained fame and recognition for their exceptional food and unique atmosphere.

One of the most famous izakayas in Japan is Toriki, located in Tokyo’s Meguro neighborhood. This cozy establishment is known for its yakitori, grilled chicken skewers, and signature dish, tori-nabe, a hot pot of chicken and vegetables cooked at the table. The atmosphere at Toriki is welcoming and intimate, with a lively energy that is perfect for socializing with friends and colleagues.

Another famous izakaya is Uoshin, which has multiple locations throughout Tokyo. Uoshin is famous for its seafood dishes. Particularly its sashimi and grilled fish, which are expertly prepared with fresh, high-quality ingredients. The interior of Uoshin is designed to resemble a traditional Japanese fishing village, creating a unique and authentic atmosphere.

In Osaka, one of the most famous izakayas is Tsuruhashi Fugetsu, which has locations throughout the city. This popular chain serves up a variety of dishes, from kushikatsu to okonomiyaki, in a casual and lively atmosphere. Tsuruhashi Fugetsu is especially popular for its delicious and addictive dipping sauce for kushikatsu.

Explore the Rich Culture, Unique Cuisine, and Lively Atmosphere of Japan’s Izakayas through these books

Reading about izakayas is a fascinating way to explore Japanese culture, cuisine, and social customs. Discovering the unique dishes and drinks served in these lively establishments can broaden your culinary horizons while learning about the communal aspect of dining and drinking can deepen your understanding of the importance of community and social connection in Japanese society.

Top 5 books on izakayas

  1. The Japanese Izakaya Cookbook: 30 Classic Bar Bites” by Wataru Yokota – This cookbook provides recipes for traditional izakaya dishes such as yakitori, tempura, and karaage, as well as some modern twists on classic recipes.
  2. Izakaya: Japanese Bar Food” by Mark Robinson – This book explores the history and culture of izakaya and provides recipes for classic dishes like agedashi tofu, takoyaki, and okonomiyaki.
  3. The Sake Handbook” by John Gauntner – This book is a comprehensive guide to sake that covers everything from its history and production to tasting techniques and food pairings. It also includes profiles of over 100 sake breweries and their products, as well as recommendations for the best places to buy and drink sake in Japan and around the world.
  4. Drinking Japan: A Guide to Japan’s Best Drinks and Drinking Establishments” by Chris Bunting – This book explores the drinking culture in Japan, including izakayas, and provides recommendations for the best places to drink and what to order.
  5. Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook” by Mark Robinson – This cookbook includes recipes for traditional izakaya dishes as well as some modern twists on classic recipes, and also includes tips on how to recreate the izakaya experience at home.

Indulge in the Authentic Japanese Experience

These lively, cozy spots are a central part of Japanese socializing and cuisine. They offer a unique glimpse into local culture and nightlife.

Whether you’re a foodie looking to try out some new dishes or a traveler eager to connect with locals and experience the real Japan, izakayas are a must-visit. You can sip on sake or beer, sample a variety of small plates, and soak in the lively atmosphere as you chat with your friends or fellow diners.

And the best part? They are accessible to all types of travelers, whether you’re a solo adventurer or part of a big group. You’ll find them in cities and towns across Japan, from bustling Tokyo to quiet rural villages.

Give izakaya a try during your next trip to Japan. You won’t regret it!

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