The moment you step inside waiters and cooks behind the busy counter exclaim in unison “Irrashaimase!”, thus welcoming you with typical Japanese hospitality. There is no better place to get authentic quintessential Japanese experience and unwind with finger-licking food than izakaya (literally “drinking place”) – ubiquitous eatery in Japan largely frequented by locals. Similar to pubs in UK or bars in the USA, Japanese izakayas are where young people start their nights out, salarymen in suits gather on their way home, and students take a break to grab a cheap meal and drink. The atmosphere is anything but pretentious. It’s loud. It’s delicious. It’s fun. Food is freshly grilled to order and glasses of sake, draft beer or whiskey are refilled with the speed of light. Once inside and comfortably seated grab a glass of drink and then peruse the menu. There are izakayas that have just a few house specialties – some prize themselves for their raw chicken eats, others are famous for horse meat sashimi or fugu milt (fish sperm). As much as I like to experiment with things I eat I personally am very picky with my raw food choices, so I just love me some scrumptious sizzling yakitori (grilled meat on skewers), chicken wings and whatever else catches my eye on the menu. Portions are small, just like Spanish tapas, which grants a perfect excuse for ordering a lot of items on the menu to get a better taste of casual Japanese eats. It’s such a great way to to enjoy a beer and yarn with friends over some delicious savory nibbles. Most Tokyo izakayas open their doors in the late afternoon, around 5 P.M..
While there is no such thing as the best izakaya in Tokyo, there are plenty of great places in the capital where you can randomly pick and choose one that lures you inside. Here is my list of the best places where you can find great izakayas in Tokyo.
Golden Gai in Kabukicho Red Light District, Shinjuku
My personal favorite and probably a bit controversial of them all is a secluded area in Shinjuku’s red light district seeded with tiny bars. Each and every of them has a character of its own, with retro ambiance of the Showa times. Some would hardly accommodate four people.
Hidden underneath the railroad tracks right in between the Yurakucho and Shimbashi stations in Tokyo’s central Chiyoda Ward you’ll find a very neat alley of quaint restaurants, ramen bars and eateries. They serve regional specialties from all over the country, including areas such as Hokkaido, Tohoku, Shizuoka, and Kyushu. It’s a great place to savor flavors and ingredients rarely tasted or seen elsewhere in Tokyo.
Omeido Yokocho, or a Memory Lane, Shinjuku
Also refered to as Piss Alley (appetizing, I know) is another alley with a ramshackle collection of tiny bars and eateries. Omoide Yokocho started just after WWII in the late 1940s, early 1950s, and you can see the burns and similar damage visible on the walls of many izakayas caused by frequent fires over the decades. You’ll find everything from yakitori joints to cafés and soba eateries lined up.
Nonbei Yokocho, or Drunkard’s Alley, Shibuya
Conveniently located right by bustling Shibuya Station Nonbei is known as one of the coolest yokochos in Tokyo. Some of the yakitori shops have been here since 1950s and can transport you back in time with their olde worlde ambiance. Not all izakayas are tourist-friendly and offer English menus. But if you feel brave enough ask for the chef’s osusume (recommendation). In a way that’s part of the fun to randomly order and taste something unique and new while also getting a glimpse into the drinking and social scene of Japanese culture.
Have you been to any of the Japanese izakayas? What was the most memorable thing that you ordered?