If it is your first time in Japan, make absolutely sure that you give yourself the chance to experience real Japanese-style izakaya dining. An izakaya is a Japanese “pub” where people go to relax and enjoy not only drinking, but also the local flavors of Japanese tapas and grilled foods. They have been compared to taverns, saloons and pubs in western culture, but there are quite a few differences.
Izakaya literally translates to “stay-in liquor shop.” They were started in the Edo Period, when sake was sold in single servings instead of by the bottle. As a result, people would drink at the liquor shops, which led to the shops eventually beginning to serve simple fingerfoods such as yakitori (chicken skewer) and tamago-yaki (rolled omelette). Even today, some liquor shops still have places to sit and some simple foods for the customers to enjoy a casual drink. These days there are more than 80,000 izakaya throughout Japan, in a variety of types. The most common being the casual Aka-chouchin, characterized by the classic red lantern with the kanji for izakaya (居酒屋) illuminated by the entrance.
Though there are many izakayas in Japan, the ones out in the countryside areas can be intimidating to foreigners that have little experience in eating in local places without english menus. I frequent an izakaya in Chikura, Chiba-prefecture, called Yucho, and will give you a quick guide to my experience so that you can enjoy an inaka (countryside) izakaya on your own!
Depending on the izakaya, customers can sit on tatami mats and dine from low tables in Japanese style, or sit on chairs at the bar. If you don’t speak much Japanese and would like to watch the cooking, I recommend sitting at the bar – you’ll meet people, talk to the bar staff and can see and copy other people’s food choices that look enticing!
First you’ll be given an oshibori, or wet towel, that is hot or cold depending on the season. Then the eating begins with an appetizer “service” that most izakayas charge to the bill in lieu of an entry fee. The service, or otoshi, is often pickles or steamed vegetables. At this point, you can order your drink of choice and relax. When dining at an izakaya, you don’t need to order all at once; it is tapas style and you can order as you like, because the foods are simple and can be prepared quickly.
I recommend trying a few different skewered snacks. Common choices are yakitori (chiken), asparabekon (bacon wrapped aparagus), negima (chicken and green onion) and shiitake mushroom. The prices are usually more reasonable than those at restaurants and fancy bars, and Yucho is no exception. Each skewer was about 100 yen.
If you are in a coastal area like Chikura, I would recommend checking if there is any fresh sashimi available. Yucho has the best katsuo sashimi I have ever eaten! Katsuo is similar in taste and texture to highly quality tuna sashimi, but is eaten with shoyu, garlic and ginger instead of wasabi. It is very popular in Chiba prefecture.
Since Yucho is a specialty izakaya, the bar master wanted me to try some very different foods. For example, I ate a giant okonomiyaki salad! Not the healthiest option, but I highly recommend it if you are a fan of the Kansai treat. The bar master also introduced us to his son, and gave us a bag of free cucumbers to take home with us!
My last recommendation for an izakaya experience in the countryside is to go with the flow – just relax, because everyone there is most likely trying to have a good time. Don’t be surprised if people talk to you or offer you drinks, and don’t be afraid to try some new food, or the staff’s recommendations. and of course, enjoy yourself!