Izakaya (居酒屋) – Japanese Drinking Experience
Before I trekked my way into Japan, the term “Izakaya” has been largely ambiguous and ill-defined to me, pretty much stripped of its true meaning and role. The bubble-bursting moment fell upon me in Osaka, when I stepped into one of these overly merry establishments and found my wallet unprepared, subsequently rendering me flat broke. Despite the overall inexpensive dishes, variety is what makes fun in Izakayas since most of the food that is being served is traditional in character so you’ll be missing on a great deal of Japanese cuisine should you go a “narrow” course with only a dish or two. I had learned this the hard way.
Damn Izakayas… they come in all shapes and sizes: either being a simple street stand with red lamps (Japanese call them “akachouchin”) silently glowing or a more conventional establishment that could be a part of an Izakaya chain, these establishments have one thing in common: patrons that visit them to have a good time and relief from work. The menus can be scary to foreigners or those not accustomed to dining in those places (Izakayas are viral places at night so you are bound to end in one if you explore the dynamic nights there) since their are fully packed with a plethora of various dishes (sashimi, tofu, takoyaki, yakitori and dumplings just to name a few) with no English description or whatsoever. Luckily for all of us roaming souls that are not fluent in Japanese, but still somehow end in one of these illustrious Izakayas, pictures by definition save us – yes, pictures of those meals that convey all needed information about their ingredients and look. When I got that off my chest (took me a while to study the expansive menu), I was ready to throw a couple of orders at the chef who was completely absorbed in his cooking… to this day, I do not know how did he hear me.
The first thing to do was to wash my hands with “oshibori” (that’s a fancy word for a wet towel) after which I ordered fruit juice and to my surprise, I also received a small appetizer called “otoushi”. I took my time sipping the drink to talk with total strangers around me; in these quite loud places Japanese people “transform” into a whole different bunch from what you expected or saw on the internet/TV: they become more open to random banter; they can even amaze you with their “engrish” fluency and happily drink with you. During my talk with some middle-aged man (by the looks he seemed to be your classical salaryman or some such) I ordered takoyaki for starters which was brought promptly, I might add. After literally devouring it, I found it surprisingly light and went on a gourmand spree from there, trying sashimi and eating it like there is no tomorrow. Needless to say, that was just the beginning of the shooting spiral. The time at Izakaya seems to have been stopped, even stretched into eternity in my mind.
My evening has ended in a quite happy manner, relaxing both me and my wallet (it proved to be a fatal combo for me in the next two days). The Izakaya I visited was a typical one with a capacious terrace and wooden tables plus benches, but there are also those of a smaller caliber that are practically stalls where you eat while sitting at the bar or even standing. My adventure and the subsequent financial crash showed me that these Izakayas are essentially what passes in the West as pubs and taverns; it is a place to be merry with your colleagues or friends (if you want a romantic dinner, run from Izakayas) or an establishment to simply kick back and relax. Overall, drinks are alcoholic ones, being the raw beer (namu beer) a typical round opener after which usually sake comes, but in many Izakayas you can find soft drinks that won’t make you hug the pavement or lose count after the third round. My recommendation to all food enthusiasts is to visit a flamboyant place such a as an Izakaya at least once (they are being opened all around the world in these recent years), but I advise them to be prepared for a barrage of tasty dishes that will certainly throw challenging glances.