Naoto & I spent several evenings in Japan with family and friends drinking and dining in izakayas. An izakaya is a Japanese pub. The style is similar to tapas where you order several small dishes and share. I am not a huge food sharer (once I ate Ethiopian food with a guy with a head cold…it scarred me for life!) but I am a huge fan of the izakaya. I love the casual atmosphere. I love when you walk in and every. single. server greets you, no matter where they are in the restaurant. (I always feel like Norm walking into Cheers!) I love the hot towel (oshibori). I love that Naoto can order some “safe” dishes for me, and some wild and “crazy” dishes for himself and the family. (See whole fish below…Naoto had the honor of eating the head.)Most izakaya menus are entirely in Japanese. The first time we went to Japan, Naoto tried to read the entire menu to me. That got annoying, (I’m sure for both of us) so on this trip, I just told him to order what he wanted, and to make sure there were a few things that I would enjoy. I mean, there was really no point in him telling me about the six-headed squid on the menu when I would never eat it.
So while Naoto was devouring his fish head, I could eat sushi and sashimi, chicken skewers, goma-ae (pictured below, spinach with miso sesame sauce…I love this!), and other vegetable dishes.When we had dinner with Naoto’s family, we sat at a long table in the main room of the izakaya. The other times, with Hisae and then with Naoto’s friends, we sat in a smaller, private rooms. In Japan, the servers are not constantly checking on you like they are (for the most part) here in America. If you need something, you just ring a bell (as we did in one of the establishments) or yell out, “Sumimasen!” (excuse me) and the server comes to take your order or clear your plates or bring your bill. (It’s a beautiful concept…American restaurants, let’s talk about adopting this.)Because I’m not a huge beer drinker, and because I wanted to avoid a Tokyo hangover at all cost, I mostly drank cocktails. Usually they consisted of some kind of house-made liqueur (yuzu or lychee or peach or plum) and soda water, or some secret concoction. We also drank sake (of course!) and shochu (not my favorite). When we met up with Naoto’s college friends (Jessica and Keiichi, along with their son Ethan) we ended our meal with zosui, a rice soup made with chicken stock and other vegetables. Ours was cooked at the table, which was awesome because we were all cold and wet from the downpour we walked through to get to the izakaya. (None of us had umbrellas, which is unheard of in Japan.) The zosui had chicken, scallions, mushrooms, tofu and cabbage…Jessica literally stuffed the pot with the vegetables and they cooked down into the delicious broth. It was so comforting! Many thanks to our friends and family who made our izakaya visits so much fun!