The word izakaya entered the English language by 1987. It is a compound word consisting of i (to stay) and sakaya (sake shop), indicating that izakaya originated from sake shops that allowed customers to sit on the premises to drink. Izakaya are sometimes called akachōchin (red lantern) in daily conversation, as such paper lanterns are traditionally found in front of them.
Taipei izakaya in 1951
Historian Penelope Francks points to the development of the izakaya in Japan, especially in Edo and along main routes, as one indicator of the growing popularity of sake as a consumer good by the late 18th century. Before the Meiji period, people drank alcohol in sake shops while standing. Some stores started using sake barrels as stools. Later, snacks were added.
An izakaya in Tokyo made international news in 1962, when Robert F. Kennedy ate there during a meeting with Japanese labor leaders.
People at an izakaya, sitting by the bar and facing the kitchen.
Depending on the izakaya, customers either sit on tatami mats and dine from low tables, as in the traditional Japanese style, or sit on chairs and drink/dine from tables. Many izakaya offer a choice of both as well as seating by the bar. Some izakaya restaurants are also tachi-nomi style, literally translated as "drinking while standing".
Usually, customers are given an oshibori (wet towel) to clean their hands; the towels are cold in summer and hot in winter. Next, a tiny snack/an appetizer, called an otōshi in the Tokyo area or tsukidashi in the Osaka-Kobe area, will be served. It is local custom and usually charged onto the bill in lieu of an entry fee.
The menu may be on the table, displayed on walls, or both. Picture menus are common in larger izakaya. Food and drink are ordered throughout the course of the session as desired. They are brought to the table, and the bill is added up at the end of the session. Unlike other Japanese styles of eating, food items are usually shared by everyone at the table, similar to Spanish tapas.
Common formats for izakaya (as well as much other) dining in Japan are known as nomi-hōdai ("all you can drink") and tabe-hōdai ("all you can eat"). For a set price per person, customers can continue ordering as much food and/or drink as they wish, usually with a time limit of two or three hours.
Izakaya dining can be intimidating to non-Japanese because of the wide variety of menu items and the slow pace. Food is normally ordered slowly over several courses rather than all at once. The kitchen will serve the food when it is ready rather than in the formal courses of Western restaurants. Typically a beer is ordered when one is sitting down before perusing the menu. Quickly prepared dishes such as hiyayakko or edamame are ordered first, followed with progressively more robust flavors such as yakitori or kara-age, finishing the meal with a rice or noodle dish to fill up.
Typical menu items
A mock-up of an izakaya style menu
The wide variety of izakayas offer all sorts of dishes. Items typically available are:
Sake (nihonshu) is a Japanese rice wine that is made through the fermentation of rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Unlike wine, the alcohol in sake is produced by the starch being converted into sugars.
Rice dishes such as ochazuke and noodle dishes such as yakisoba are sometimes eaten at the end to round off a drinking session. For the most part, the Japanese do not eat rice or noodles (shushoku – "staple food") at the same time as they drink alcohol, since sake, brewed from rice, traditionally takes the place of rice in a meal.
Izakaya were traditionally down-to-earth places where men drank sake and beer after work. That trend is complemented by a growing population of independent women and students. Many izakaya today cater to a more diverse clientele by offering cocktails and wines as well as by improving the interior. Chain izakaya are often large and offer an extensive selection of food and drink, allowing it to host big, sometimes rowdy, parties. Watami, Shoya, Shirokiya, Tsubohachi, and Murasaki are some well known chains in Japan.
Akachōchin ("red lantern") with kanji "Izakaya" written on it
Akachōchin for nikomi (right) and nobori banner for nabe (center)
Izakayas are often called akachōchin ("red lantern") after the red paper lanterns traditionally displayed outside. Today, the term usually refers to small, non-chain izakaya. Some unrelated businesses that are not izakaya also sometimes display red lanterns.
Cosplay izakaya became popular in the 2000s. The staff wears the costume and waits on customers. Sometimes, shows are run. Costumes include those for butlers and maids.
Establishments specialising in oden are called oden-ya. They usually take the form of street stalls with seating and are popular in winter.
Robatayaki are places in which customers sit around an open hearth on which chefs grill seafood and vegetables. Fresh ingredients are displayed for customers to point at whenever they want to order.
Yakitori-ya specialise in yakitori. The chicken skewers are often grilled in front of customers.
Izakaya appear in Japanese novels with adaptations to TV drama and film. They have also inspired manga and gekiga. A modern novel Izakaya Chōji (居酒屋兆治) is an example where the main character manages an izakaya; in the film adaptation, Ken Takakura played the part of Chōji. A TV drama was produced in 1992 on Friday Drama Theater, Fuji Television. Another film Izakaya Yūrei, starring Kenichi Hagiwara, is a comical ghost story; a typical izakaya in Yokohama is run by the owner, his new wife and the ghost of his former wife.
Images of izakaya in jidaigekinovels and films reflect the modern drinking and dining style of today sitting at tables. This was not often seen in countryside – aside from station towns along kaidō highways in the 17th to mid-19th century. Capacities at izakaya were restricted in major cities in the period that jidaigeki TV shows and films/movies set in Edo.[clarification needed]
The 2012 manga series Isekai Izakaya "Nobu" (Alternate World Bar "Nobu") depicted a new izakaya whose front door opened to a parallel world, vaguely reminiscent of 15th century Germany, it featured a wide range of food and drinks from Japan. An anime adaptation premiered in 2018.
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