If you want an authentic Japanese experience, local delicacies and a great night out, you need to visit a traditional Japanese izakaya. But in a big and busy city like Tokyo, where can you find the best izakaya?
Izakaya are a Japanese version of a pub. They are lively but casual drinking establishments with a small variety of food that can be shared at the table, similar to tapas bars in Spain.
At the best izakaya you’ll receive a small sharing plate of food and some chopsticks before you order any drinks or food. It’s a welcoming ‘gift’ that will sometimes be charged to your bill at the end. But, unless you can read the Japanese bill, you might never know.
Izakaya are usually found around train stations and entertainment districts, and come in all shapes and sizes from tiny single-counter joints, to a divey after-work hang out, to a multi-story chain restaurant. The best izakaya are the small ones that don’t fit more than 10 or so people.
For travellers and tourists, izakaya are the low-budget dining option for when you want a drink or relaxed meal for ￥2,000 – ￥5000 (£12-30). Some will even offer an all-you-can-drink plan for 1-2 hours, starting at ￥2,000 (£12-13).
Where to find the best izakaya in Tokyo
Ebisu Yokocho opened in 1998 in the old Yamashita shopping centre near Ebisu station. It’s a lively arcade with plenty of bustling izakaya, western-style wine bars, sushi shops, oden, grills and some strange menu items.
Ebisu Yokocho opens from 5pm every day and will be packed from 8pm, so you might find it difficult to find a seat if you’re visiting with a group.
Golden Gai alleyways near Shinjuku Station
The Golden Gai alleyways are six tiny and dimly lit alleys lined by almost 200 bars housed in ramshackle buildings surrounded by the giant centre of commerce and entertainment that is Shinjuku.
Some bars will not let you in because they are full or don’t want to cater to westerners. But, we did find a great little place that was friendly and could fit eight of us. They served great plum wine (a new favourite drink!) and local whiskey.
The area around Koenji Station has several promenades and alleyways with plenty of cosy and welcoming izakaya. Some are so small that they could only accommodating up to ten people at a time. And, some don’t have English menus, so you might find it difficult to order if you can’t read the Japanese characters.
Just opposite the station entrance, in the basement of an un-assuming grey building, is a toy-themed izakaya. It’s very budget-friendly and you can even sample some unique treats from the menu (think raw pig uterus and crunchy locusts).