Visitors to Japan are so excited to try the local foods and drinks, and with their often extensive menus, izakaya are the place to go! But if you aren't fluent in Japanese, there will be some natural anxiety about going inside a shop for the first time.
What should you do? How can you respond? Here we'll walk you through the scenario so you can enjoy an evening out or get a few drinks in at the local izakaya!
1. Choose the store you want to go to!
First, choosing where to go is important. Let's think about it! Was there a Japanese izakaya that you've heard somewhere? If you have a store in mind, start there - otherwise they can be fairly easy to find around town! (Most are indicated by large sign boards with pictures of food and drinks on them.)
Generally, there are large chain stores and individual stores, which have advantages and disadvantages.
For large izakaya chains (such as Watami, Shirokiya, Shoya, or Isomaru Suisan), it may be easier for you to communicate with staff. The reason for this is not necessarily that they speak English, but that menus will have pictures and may be offered in English. Also, since staff are trained with set phrases and patterns, it is easier to predict what they will say and when.
However, tables and spaces may be separated like private rooms and there is very little interaction with other people. That can be an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on whether you are looking to mix it up with locals or have a quiet evening to your own.
On the other hand, if you a small izakaya operated by an individual, you can enjoy something of an "authentic" shop atmosphere with a table in the open space and you can see what people around you are eating and drinking. Normally, these shops do not have English speaking staff and may have a cast of regular customers. Here you may feel some of the language pressure, but a trip to the local izakaya can be an experience you'll treasure!
2. Walk on in!
When you head into a shop, you'll likely be greeted by one of their staff.
Staff: Irasshaimase! Nanmei-sama desu ka? (Welcome! How many people?)
Here, a simple show of fingers is an ample response.
However, if you'd like to try out your Japanese:
- 1 person: "Hitori desu"
- 2 persons: "Futari desu"
- 3 persons: "San nin desu"
- 4 persons: "Yon nin desu"
If there is a seat available, the staff will then direct you there or ask you to wait a moment while a table is cleared.
However if all tables are full (which can happen particularly at a smaller izakaya), they may indicate such to you.
3. Have a seat and feel the joy of your first success
Mission 1 complete! You've been seated. Depending on the izakaya, the staff may bring over a small hand towel (oshibori) with which you can wash your hands. When the staff hands you the oshibori, say "Arigato gozaimasu (thank you)" quietly as a courtesy.
Next up: your server will ask you what you'd like to drink. Now if you've been walking around town for a while and could use a beer, say: "Toriaezu, nama o kudasai! (Draft beer, please!)"
Ordering anything is pretty straightforward using the following pattern:
Drink/food + quantity o kudasai. ( ___ please.)
Basic Japanese numbers for quantity
You'll probably want to order two or three of something, such as drinks or yakitori sticks. Here are the basic words to count things:
- 1: hitotsu
- 2: futatsu
- 3: mitsu
- 4: yotsu
- 5: itsutu
- 6: mutsu
- And if you want one for everyone: ninsu bun
Putting it together
Ordering three beers is as simple as saying: "biru mitsu o kudasai".
Once you sit down, ordering a drink first is considered part of Japanese culture. And there are three core reasons why most people would order beer up front. First, it gives you more time to consider the menu - even Japanese take a while to thumb through the menu until they decide on what they want, and ordering a drink first is pretty simple. Second, in Japanese culture it's said that so many things happen with the first glass of beer. And third, it's also said that people who like beer have a lot of influence.
"Toriaezu, nama o kudasai!" - Be sure to remember this phrase!
4. Have a look at the menu until drinks arrives
It generally only takes a few minutes until drinks arrive, but sometimes it can take a while to decide on how daring you'd like to get with your selection. It does not take much time until the beer arrives, but if you have a menu you want to eat before you choose it! I walked all over the place all day and I'm tired and I'm hungry.
● Food commonly ordered by Japanese in an izakaya:
Salad, karaage (juicy fried chicken), yakitori, edamame (boiled green soybeans), fried potato (potato chips), potato salad
The food I recommend is no different. But at larger izakayas, you can order pizza - which can be surprisingly delicious. Same goes for hiyashi tomato (chilled tomato slices). The price is also cheap, so I often order.
● How much do things cost per person?
Generally, 3,000 - 4,000 yen (~US$30-40) is a reasonable figure to keep in mind. Beer and wine (around 400-500 yen a glass) are usually relatively cheap at izakaya, and you can enjoy a good sampling of food at a very fair price.
In large izakaya chain shops, there are food photographs on most menus, so it is quite easy to order. A simple phrase pattern to keep in mind is to point to different pictures and say: "Kore to kore to kore onegai shimasu (this one [kore] and [to] this one and this one, please [onegai shimasu])". Although many people want to try reading Japanese, sometimes it's easier just to point and ask!
(Note) How to order
There are generally three ways to order (or to summon staff):
1. Look for a bell button on the table.
Press it and a server will come to your table.
2. At chain izakayas, there may be a tablet on the table.
In this case you are likely in luck: many of these are multilingual and you can make your selection directly on the screen, then press "Order" and your selection will magically arrive.
3. When there is neither a ring nor a tablet.
This is often the case in smaller izakaya. To ask for someone to come over, raise your hand and say, "Sumimasen! (Excuse me!)" After this, you can point to the menu and order with the "kore to kore" approach above.
Once you order the food you want to eat and want to indicate you're done ordering, you can say this: "toriazu, ijyo desu (that's it for now)", and the staff will pass your order along to the chef.
5. Your order arrives
When your drinks arrive, you can clink glasses together with a "kanpai! (cheers!)" and enjoy your delicious meal. Take your time while dining - wherever you are, it'll likely taste amazing!
But remember what you ordered. This is because certain dishes can take a little longer to cook than others, and you don't want to be winding things down right as some delicious items arrive!
6. Getting the check
Once you've finished your meal and are winding things down, it's time to get the check and head to the next place.
Depending on your izakaya, getting the check can be as easy as tapping on the touchscreen or may involve calling over a server to get the check.
Once you've called over your server, say: "okaikei onegai shimasu (check, please)". They'll either then hand you a piece of paper with the total or motion you over to the cashier. In either case, have a look at the bill and head on over to the register.
Wrapping things up
Congratulations! With these phrases you're able to negotiate the izakaya - and most restaurants, yakitori shops, cafes and the like as well. If you started with a chain izakaya to make your time easier, why not give a local izakaya a go and improve your skill!
So today we've reviewed a total of 7 sentences in Japanese! To test your memory, what did the following mean again?
1. Futari desu.
2. Arigato gozaimasu.
3. Toriaezu, nama o kudasai!
5. Kore to kore (to kore) onegai shimasu.
6. Toriazu, ijyo desu.
7. Okaikei onegai shimasu.
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