We were in the Ebisu neighborhood in Tokyo one evening with a local. He wanted to show us something , so we ducked down a side street and suddenly found ourselves in an amazing labyrinth of food stalls full of people huddled over bowls of ramen, eating skewers of meat, and drinking beer. We were amazed and enthralled as we stumbled through the narrow alley of eateries. When we came out the other end, we learned that we’d just walked through one of the most popular streets for izakayas in Tokyo.
If you want to get a feel for what Tokyo’s food scene is really like for locals on a typical evening, you have to find your way into the backstreets, where Western tourists are hesitant to go because of the cultural and language barrier. You have to find the izakayas!
Finding the best izakayas and immersing yourself in the experience like a local isn’t something you’ll have an easy time doing on your own, unless you speak Japanese. You won’t be able to read the menus or know how to find the really good izakayas. In order to navigate the backstreets on an izakaya tour, we recommend employing the services of a local. With help, the world of izakayas will open up to you and for an evening you’ll feel like a local.
I recommend an izakaya tour by Magical Trip. They will help you navigate through their favorite izakaya bars on a Night Food Tour with an awesome local guide. On the tour, you’ll hop through 3 hidden local bars and pubs with a local food tour guide, getting a chance to experience 2 lively food alleys in Shinjuku and Ebisu.
(SEE ALSO: Another tour we highly recommend in Tokyo is the famous Tsukiji Market tour.)
What is an Izakaya?
You might not know it from walking around Tokyo as a tourist, but izakayas are everywhere in the city. They are the basic equivalent of an English pub and they are a huge part of the dining and nightlife culture in Japan.
Sometimes izakayas are tiny hole-in-the-wall bars with only a few seats packed with business men in suits getting a drink and a bite to eat before they catch the train home. Sometimes they are larger, modern bars where large groups of friends hang out all night. And sometimes they are like those tiny, hidden streets packed with a dozen random food stalls and a flurry of activity.
In order to get a good idea of the differences, you’ll want to visit at least three izakayas during your tour. While it will be quite evident the differences in styles, some things are always the same – each bar will be crowded with a line, service moves fast, and you need to know what you’re ordering right away.
In case you don’t go on a guided tour, or you just want to know what to expect when you do, below you’ll find tons of info about izakayas in Tokyo.
What to Eat at an Izakaya
It’s typical to order a few small dishes of bar food and a drink. The food we ordered at the traditional izakaya consisted of sausage dumplings, sashimi, and cucumbers with chili sauce.
At the typical izakaya, we found more typical bar food, like wings and fries. Look closely and you’ll find other specialties to try that are a bit more unique.
My favorite was a big plate of steamy noodles with cabbage. We also had some pretty delicious yakitori (skewered meat!) that beat the pants off a really expensive yakitori dinner we had the night before. The dried squid dish… that one still has me boggled. It took forever to chew.
At the modern izakaya we visited, we tried a very strange sticky potato dish. The potato was almost like melted marshmallow. We also had a grilled tofu with bonita flakes, pork skins and karaage, which is a Japanese version of fried chicken that I LOVE and wish to eat all the time.
Of course, these are but a few of the many dishes you can try at an izakaya. There are literally hundreds of combinations and specialties that are being served. My best recommendation is to try as much as you can – all different types of things.
Here are 10 recommended dishes to order at an izakaya to get your started:
- Ikayaki – soy-marinated squid
- Gyoza – stuffed dumplings
- Yakitori – meat on a stick
- Hamachi Kama – yellowtail collar
- Tomagoyaki – layered folded egg
- Korokke – mashed potato croquettes
- Tebasaki – twice-fried chicken wings
- Agedashi Tofu – lightly fried tofu
- Sashimi – delicated sliced raw fish
- Karaage – fried chicken bites
What to Drink at an Izakaya
While the food served at izakayas varies greatly depending on the type of bar you go into, the drinks you can order at izakayas are similar to just about any bar. Beer, sake, and mixed drinks are the most popular. We had a different drink at each bar we visited, so we could try many different things.
Some unique drinks to order are Japanese whiskey, Chu-Hi — a Japanese drink made with shōchū and carbonated water, and all different kinds of sake.
Paying at an Izakaya
Most izakayas charge based on what you’ve ordered, like a typical bar, but sometimes you’ll find an all-you-can-eat izakaya that charges based on a certain time limit, like 2 hours. Some bars also charge a seat fee, and a small dish is included in the fee. If you don’t know what you’re doing, like us, you might find it impossible to know what you’re paying for. That’s why it’s easiest to go on a tour.
No matter what the fee ends up being, it won’t be particularly expensive, so you can just go with the flow and pay whatever amount is on your bill at the end.
The Traditional Version
The first bar we stopped at was a traditional izakaya. From the street, you may not know it’s a bar. They have narrow doorways, typically covered with a sheet of plastic. These are the typical bars that business men frequent before going home in the evening. The space is typically very small, with a narrow bar and cramped tables packed full of hungry men.
The suit-clad regulars may be a little miffed by tourists crashing their happy hour, but as long as you don’t get in the way of their snacking, you’ll be fine.
The Typical Version
Yes, a typical izakaya does differ from a traditional one. While the traditional bars tend to be hidden away behind small alleyway doors, a typical izakaya is more like a Western bar. It may also have an open storefront, or be located outside like a food truck. It has an open layout with standing tables and a younger, after-work clientele. There is often a line forming at the door.
These are the type of izakaya you see along the street and in alleys. There are many of these izakaya streets throughout Tokyo and around Japan. If you see one, stop in and eat where ever and whatever the locals are eating. There’s no better way to experience the food culture in Japan.
The Modern Version
Another type of izakaya is a modern one. It typically has a much larger and more modern style. You’ll find this to be a popular hangout for large groups of friends to gather and spend time. It feels like a place you’d go for a birthday party or a late night hangout.
These modern izakayas are a great place to try adventurous modern dishes. You can also order more high-end drinks here, so it’s a great chance to try some premium sakes.
We loved our time in Tokyo. It’s such a vibrant and unique city with so many things to do and see. Looking for more foodie things to do in the city? Check out the rest of our 3-day foodie itinerary, and if you’re planning to be in Japan for longer, we have a full Japan itinerary for you.
Don’t want to do the planning yourself? Try a guided tour
If you’ve been wanting to plan a trip to Japan, but don’t know where to start, we recommend looking into a guided tour with Japan and More. They offer anywhere from 7-21 day trips to discover all the best parts of Japan with a very small group, and the planning is taken care of for you.
SIDE NOTE: Traveling in Japan is expensive. If you’re planning to visit another destination besides Tokyo, do yourself a favor and check out the Japan Railpass, which will save you significant money when you travel to more than 2 destinations throughout the country. They have 7, 14 and 21-day passes that will help you cut down on the cost of transportation.
(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links.)
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited 70+ countries.