‘Izakaya’ are more than just plain pubs

by Yoichi Kosukegawa

Kyodo News

Upscale Tokyo eateries may be garnering Michelin stars of late, but they are hardly a mainstay of the nation’s food culture. The average Japanese is more likely to be found in a traditional “izakaya” (pub) than in a high-end sushi bar or “kaiseki” (haute cuisine) restaurant.

Izakaya are friendly pubs that serve a wide range of inexpensive, small-plate dishes along with a variety of drinks, and are a frequent gathering place for colleagues after work or friends looking to spend a pleasant evening together.

Mark Robinson, a 46-year-old Tokyo-based editor and journalist who has contributed articles on Japanese culture to newspapers and other publications, is one of those enchanted by izakaya.

Robinson, born in Tokyo and raised mostly in Sydney, recently wrote a book that evokes the appeal of izakaya.

“Most people abroad think Japanese food is always very formal, expensive and difficult, but it doesn’t have to be those things. It can be cheap and fun and simple,” he said in an interview.

“Of course, izakaya masters are very serious about their food, but the atmosphere is really to be enjoyed,” he said. “I didn’t feel that there was any other book that explains this phenomenon to Westerners or to English-speaking (audiences).”

Robinson said izakaya are more interesting than mere restaurants and bars because of the choice of dishes and the way customers design their meals as the evening progresses.

“You just order one or two things at the beginning. And then as your mood changes, you see new dishes,” he said. “The evening is like a journey.”

His book, “Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook,” released in Japan in January from Kodansha International Ltd., introduces eight Tokyo izakaya well known to the author, ranging from a traditional eatery with a long history to a modern one with a chic interior.

As one of the common criteria for what he thinks makes a good izakaya, Robinson cites “the closeness of the master to his customers.”

At the eight izakaya, making food is part of the evening’s entertainment, as customers can see over the counter and watch chefs prepare the dishes. “It’s not just about sitting down at the dining table and having food that appears from behind closed doors,” he said.

The book, with color photos taken by Masashi Kuma, also features recipes for 60 quintessential izakaya dishes that Robinson was taught by the chefs of the eight pubs. These tasty treats include “hiyayakko” (chilled tofu) and “motsu” (a stew made from beef intestines).

In addition, it provides a wide range of information, including the history of izakaya, notes on Japanese ingredients and spices, a guide to sake, “shochu” distilled spirits and other izakaya drinks, and advice on how to order.

Robinson said he wanted to describe izakaya culture to give people an appreciation of how deeply the pubs are rooted in daily life and a sense of their “community role.”

Although Japanese have a reputation for being circumspect, a visit to an izakaya helps dispel such notions. As the evening progresses and the food and drinks flow, people speak with less inhibition and utter truths that might not otherwise be spoken.

“They are much more than just places to eat and drink,” Robinson said.

The book will be released in March in Europe, in April in Southeast Asia and in May in the United States and Australia.

Robinson believes izakaya may become one of the biggest Japanese cuisine trends internationally since the sushi bar.

“There is a big trend toward small-plate dining,” he said. “Izakaya are on the verge of becoming a significant Japanese culinary export.”

Robinson said foreigners may find it a “challenge” to visit an izakaya for the first time, especially if there is no English menu and no English-speaking staff.

But he noted, “Even Japanese people are sometimes a bit nervous about entering a new izakaya.”

The book advises first-time izakaya-goers to stick their head inside the “noren” (split half-curtain) hanging over the entrance and hold up a few fingers to indicate the number in their party. Once seated, a good way to start the evening is by saying, “Toriaezu biiru wo kudasai” (Beer for now, please).

After that, it is time to peruse the izakaya’s food offerings, and it will not be long before “you will be getting something to eat and having a good time,” Robinson said.