Translated by Lester Somera
Izakaya Guide: Menus, Prices And More At Japan's Best Drinking Spots
Written by ニコ
Izakayas (Japanese bars) serve drinks and food in a relaxed atmosphere, with home-style dishes and various snacks that go great with alcohol. This article introduces typical izakaya menus, prices, and other recommendations related to izakaya!
Ordering at an Izakaya
Food and Drink
You can directly order dishes one at a time from the staff. You can also request set menu courses, but be aware that in many cases, you need to have made a reservation beforehand.
Nomihodai services allow you to drink as much alcohol and soft drinks as you can order from the nomihodai menu within a specified amount of time: usually from 90 to 120 minutes. There will be a separate charge of 1000 to 2000 yen, but set menu courses with advance reservations will sometimes include the cost already. For more information, we recommend that you check out our nomihodai article.
Order a Drink First
When you sit down, you’ll be asked what you want to drink, so choose something from the menu. The drink will be brought out along with something called “otooshi”. If you ordered a set menu course, leave the rest to the izakaya; the staff will bring out each course item.
Otooshi, somethimes called tsukidashi, is an appetizer that comes in a small bowl along with your first drink. Otooshi varies from day to day. If you’re lucky, it will be a sophisticated homemade item. There are various theories about the origin of the phrase “otooshi,” which can mean “to pass through” or “to “let someone in.” One theory holds that it confirms “the order has made its way to the kitchen,” and yet another says that it means “the customer has been shown to their seat.” Typically the charge for otooshi is included in the seating charge, which is typically 300 to 500 yen. If you don’t want it, you have to tell the izakaya ahead of time (some places will allow this, while others won’t). For more information, check out our otooshi article.
Touch Panel Orders
Some izakaya chains have touchscreen menus with multilingual inputs, making ordering a breeze.
Useful Japanese at Restaurants
Check out our Japanese restaurant phrases article for some expressions you can use at izakayas.
Izakaya Price Ranges
Most inexpensive chain restaurants charge 200 to 600 yen for one dish, and drinks will cost between 250 and 500 yen. Food at chain izakayas with quieter atmospheres usually goes for 400 to 1500 yen an item, and beer and chuhai can be between 400 and 800 yen. Shochu and sake will be pricier depending on the brand. While it depends on how much you drink, expect to pay around 1500 to 2000 yen at a cheap spot, and 3000 to 5000 yen at a more upscale izakaya.
Set Menu Courses and Nomihodais are a Real Bargain
Set menu courses at izakayas will typically contain 5 to 8 dishes, and cost between 2500 and 4000 yen per person. You can also add a nomihodai option for 1200 to 2000 yen, which is a steal for a group that wants to drink a lot. However, be aware that izakayas set menu courses and nomihodais may be unavailable for groups that are too small, and may require prior reservations. Rules and systems vary from place to place, so do your research beforehand. For more information, check out our nomihodai article.
Prices at Privately Owned Izakayas
Food at privately owned izakayas will usually run from a few hundred yen to 1500 yen at the most, and drinks will cost 400 or 500 yen, though some more expensive alcoholic drinks can cost around 1000 yen. Most of these places differ from chain izakayas in that they will have boards on the wall with daily special recommendations, featuring fish and other ingredients that arrived on that day. While they are more expensive than chain izakayas, they make up for it with fresher ingredients and dishes prepared by expert chefs.
If you go further out into more rural areas, most izakayas are privately operated, and you can eat original dishes made using locally-sourced vegetables, fish, meat and other ingredients. If you’re in a town by the sea, there will definitely be izakayas that serve up fresh and delicious dishes, so take a pass on the chain izakayas and look for a small privately owned one. Since costs of living are lower in rural areas, you can eat fresh dishes at a bargain price. You can also sample local sake brands and ask the chefs for something not on the menu at these flexible places, two more points in favor of private izakayas.
The etiquette points we introduce here aren’t iron-clad, but most Japanese people are used to them, so they’ll definitely be amused and happy if you demonstrate your knowledge of izakaya manners.
First, the Toast
First, everyone raises their glasses and shouts 'Kanpai!' before lightly clinking their glasses together. However, at more upscale establishments, it’s standard to avoid the clinking, especially with wine glasses. Be careful.
Before Someone’s Cup Runs Dry
Before someone you’re sitting with finishes their drink, you’re expected to ask ”What are you ordering next?” and confirm their new order. If they’re drinking bottled beer or sake, it’s also customary to refill their glass or sake cup.
Splitting Up Food Portions
It’s typical when ordering something with a group-sized portion, like salads, for someone in the group to take the lead and distribute individual portions.
Raise Your Hand to Make an Order
When you want to make an additional order, hail a staff member with a hearty ”Sumimasen!” It may be hard to make yourself heard in a busy izakaya, but if you raise your hand and wave a bit, they’ll come to your table.
This is less of an etiquette rule than a custom. When you go around to several izakayas to eat and drink from their different menus, this is called hashigo-zake. It can be fun to spend around 2000 yen on a drink and a plate or two at one spot, then head to the next spot. However, if you always go to the same izakaya and the staff comes to remember your face, you will get the regular customer treatment, which sometimes gets you access to secret menu items and other privileges.
Points to Note
When you’re walking through downtown, touts will try to get you to stop in at their izakayas by talking these places up as cheap and delicious. However, many of these places have low-quality food, and try to rip off their customers by billing them exorbitant prices. If you get accosted in the street by someone you don’t recognize, it’s best to ignore them and keep walking. Another thing to remember is that drunk driving is prohibited in Japan, and there are harsh penalties. Police officers do frequent checks, so remember: if you drink, don’t drive, and if you drive, don’t drink!