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Last Night at the Izakaya
Welcome to the izakaya
The izakaya is a small snack bar where friends or coworkers get together to hang out. They are generously sprinkled all over Japan to help the locals get their weekly dosage of cheap food and drink.
If you are visiting Japan as a tourist, swing by for a few hours after a long day of sightseeing. It will be a welcome break from the temples and shrines. If you live here as an expat, like I do, there's no need to worry: your Japanese friends will bring you to one sooner or later.
I don't go often but my girlfriend invited me recently. She was meeting her closest buddies and wanted to show me off. I didn't disappoint but, as usual, I made my share of mistakes giving them plenty of anecdotes to share at the office for the rest of the week.
Don't let the same happen to you. Keep reading and I'll walk you through the experience.
The izakaya offers cheap drinks (300-400 yen) along with cheap appetizers (300-400 yen).
Appetizers include small, simple dishes. The idea is to order a variety of appetizers to share with friends. Drinks include simple cocktails, Japanese beer and a small selection of liquor such as whiskey or sake. They also offer tea if you've had enough alcohol for the night. If you're looking for wine or something in a martini glass then you're in the wrong place.
I don't mind beer but when I'm at the izakaya I like chuhai. Chuhai is a shochu with club soda and sweet flavoring such as peach, lemon or orange. Shochu is a Japanese alcohol distilled from "mugi" (barley) or "imo" (sweet potato). Chuhai is about as strong as beer (5-10% alcohol), but not as strong as shochu (25%).
The only problem with chuhai is that it's like candy. It's easy to overdo it too soon. This is why you need your buddies and lots of food to slow you down.
What you see above is my drink and a plate of "edamame," or boiled soybeans. While most Americans go for pretzels or nuts, in Japan it's almost always edamame. They take a few seconds to peel and pop. Keeping your hands busy slows down your drinking and eating. But don't worry, it's an opportunity to enjoy the company of your friends!
Take it slow...
The hardest thing for me is to take it slow. With so much great food around me I can't help myself. Just a piece of this and a piece of that. Oh, that's new, let me try that. Wow, that's good, one more time... I sometimes ignore the company and stuff my face. By the time I realize what's going on, I'm full and dizzy.
Not cool. This isn't dinner time so it's not about the food. It's about your friends. Talk to your friends, the drinks will relax you and the food will keep the drinks from hitting too hard.
Watch your back - Don't forget where you are
What you see above is the normal dining area of the average izakaya. Patrons sit on the floor but wooden floorboards can easily be removed for more leg room. This is a godsend for someone as tall as me (6'3").
Either way you play it, remember that the floor is hard, even with cushions, and there is no leaning back on a chair. If you lean back, you'll fall and maybe trip a staff member or a fellow patron on his way to the restroom.
Not cool. Once you're actually seated, you'll realize this immediately. Just keep it in mind after your second or third drink. I mention this because I like to lean back on a chair when I get tired, which usually happens soon after I eat and drink a lot. Try not to make the same mistake.
It's possible to keep it slow and enjoy the food. If you're bored with pickled vegetables, tofu and soybeans, try something else. Try the "karage."
Karage is deep fried, boneless pieces of chicken or other meats such as octopus. It is perfectly sized for chopsticks. "Tori nankotsu" is a type of karage which includes deep fried chicken cartilage. It is pictured on the right (we ate some). It tastes great so there is no need for any sauce.
Most places also serve steak fries. The natives call it "fried potato." You'll find other Western appetizers but not many. I go for the Western and fried stuff for last, as a fail safe. Before that, it's all about the Japanese food.
Try to play it the same way. Your friends will help you.
These phrases will help you
Your friends might encourage you to practice some of your Japanese. Go for it! Here are a few words to help you get started:
Please = Kudasai
Plate = Torizara
Chopsticks = Hashi
How much (cost)? = Ikura?
Yummy = Oishi
Thank you = Arigato
Many words are the same in Japanese as they are in English. These include: beer, menu, glass, whiskey and others. Keep calm, be yourself and you'll do fine.
All good things come to an end
It's time to go. Maybe you'll move on to a bar, a club or another izakaya. Most likely, you're going home. Go to the register and pay. But how? Look at the bill but all the items are listed in Japanese. Who ate what? Who drank what?
Forget it. Unless it's someone's treat--they should tell you in advance--then everything is split equally. For example, if the bill is 20,000 yen and there are five of you then each person pays 4,000 yen. That's it. Even if you only ate edamame while the other guy ate all the shrimp tempura. Even if you only had tea while the other guy had several beers. That's the way it goes. The important thing is that you all had a good time.
And if you didn't have a good time? If you felt ripped off? Well, then you went for the wrong reason and you have to lighten up. Don't be so shy next time. It's your night, too! However, there are three things to remember:
1. Don't tip. There's no tipping in Japan.
2. Don't let one bad night at the izakaya ruin the whole experience for you. It's not fair to you or your friends.
3. Don't drink and drive! There are trains and taxis everywhere.
I hope you had a fun. See you next time!