Your Guide to Izakaya Fun

An izakaya is a bar that specializes in plates of food that go well with alcoholic drinks. Most izakaya have extensive menus with lots of choices. But what makes an izakaya in Japan different from a traditional restaurant is that you tend to eat less and not get as full at an izakaya. Many Japanese customers will order two or three dishes and a drink before heading to the next izakaya. There’s no reason to order an appetizer, a salad and then an entree; choose what you like in any order you like. That’s one of the attractive point of dining at an izakaya.

However, you can certainly be a little adventurous when you visit an izakaya. There’s no reason to go there and just order the fried chicken and Caesar’s salad. Here’s our advice on what to order.

Dashimaki Tamago

This is very popular with Japanese people: eggs are soaked in dashi and seasoning, then pan-fried and rolled. Izakaya show their distinctive style with this dish. Some make it sweet, others salty and still others prefer to bring out a soy-sauce flavor. It can be a fun part of your izakaya hopping to find the one that makes your favorite dashimaki tamago.


An ohitashi is a very popular appetizer. A seasonal vegetable is quickly boiled and soaked in dashi (which loosely translates as soup stock). The dashi is the basis for all Japanese cuisine. It typically uses katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), kombu seaweed or dried shiitake mushrooms as its base. The ohitashi appetizer gives you a quick taste of that izakaya’s dashi. If an izakaya’s ohitashi tastes of chemicals, leave that izakaya off your list.


Himono is raw fish dried in the sun, a favorite way to preserve food in Japan. The drying process breaks down the proteins in the fish and enhances the umami. Also, the lack of water in the fish sharpens the flavor. Compared with a grilled fish, a dried fish is less “fishy.” With the enhanced umami, himono-style is the favorite way to eat fish for many Japanese. The favorite himono fish are horse mackerel (aji), mackerel (saba) and the Okhotsk atka mackerel (hokke).


The best izakaya will send a chef to the fish market to choose the best possible fish. Instead of ordering the typical sashimi combo, stick to that store’s recommended offerings. If you’re dining alone, this is a good way to kick off a conversation with the chef.

Shime is that last dish after the drinking is done to fill your belly. Onigiri rice balls with miso soup, a warm ochazuke (dashi soup over rice with chunks of seafood), soba, ramen — each izakaya will have its signature shime, so ask your server what the house specialty is for that last dish of the meal.

Shime (Ochazuke)

Dashi soup over rice with chunks of seafood

Shime (Ramen)

Shime staple!

In Japan, when visiting an izakaya, as long as you have good manners, you’ll be welcomed in even in the most local ones, regardless of your nationality. If you have the chance, spend a night izakaya hopping to find out what sort of izakaya is the one for you.

Author profile

Yasushi Kurita was born in Tokyo. He has spent the last 30 years as a writer for print publications and TV. When he was in college, he spent two years in New York. His favorite band is the Atlanta Rhythm Section, making him one of about 15 Japanese people who actually like that band.