After a day of sightseeing and inevitable Lost In Translation moments, settling into an izakaya is the perfect respite for any traveller in Japan. Izakayas are cheerful pubs serving food and drinks – tiny, raucous and informal.
They date back to the 17th century, when teahouses started selling sake to accompany snacks. Nowadays, they are popular with workers needing to unwind. They are found all over Japan, but Tokyo is brimming with them. Some are really beautiful, like Kan in trendy Naka-meguro or artist-themed Tatemichiya in fashionable Daikanyama. Others specialise in a particular food: Kaoriya in the lively Ebisu district is known for its soba.
But for an all-round destination, also in Ebisu, try Yokocho. It’s in a small, well-curated alleyway of izakayas in a former shopping centre. As you open the unassuming door off the street, your senses go into overdrive – your eyes scanning all the good-looking thirtysomething locals, ears welcoming the clanking of bottles and chatter, nose devouring the smell of barbecued meats and bowls of hotpot. Take your pick of yakitori (chicken skewers), hotpot (sliced meats and vegetables simmering in broth), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) or barbecue, all washed down with umeboshi sours (salted plum with shochu rice spirit and soda).
Most menus are in Japanese, so take a seat at the counter, watch the food being prepared and your ordering will naturally follow. We had tender beef tongue, charred edamame, crispy-skinned duck and moreish steak in spring onion sauce. With the stools touching, you will inevitably start chatting to your neighbours … and that’s the beauty of izakayas. The informality, camaraderie and variety make Yokocho a must-visit.