A blog on the Japanese Izakaya food and drink scene + tips on Tokyo nightlife
As I sit on my couch at midnight, I just finished watching Season 2 of Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (in Japanese, known as Shinya Shyokudo). A Japanese show on Netflix about a small Izakaya owner known as "master" who makes different kinds of dishes upon customers' requests. But each dish has a story behind them, which creates a unique approach to the storytelling of the show.
The dishes range from Chicken cheese katsu (fried chicken), curry ramen, grilled salmon mushroom, Kitsune Udon, and more. The show doesn't try to go overboard with a lot of action, or musical background, but does its best to take you into the world of the everyday lives of Izakaya customers.
Each episode story is unique and pulls you into these people's lives and what they go through up to that point. The stories range from a video game director searching for his mother, A boy who is reunited with a high school friend whos a gambling addict, A man who writes horoscopes to persuade a woman he loves. But there is one thing that brings them all together: Food. You never know who you'll run into next when you visit an Izakaya.
Midnight Diner does an amazing job of showing off what an Izakaya looks and feels like. If you have never been to Japan, then the word Izakaya will sound foreign to you. The meaning translates to "inside drinking shop", but we can go with Japanese bars/pubs to simplify it. Izakaya has been apart of Japanese culture since the beginning of Japan's foundations.
Japan has thousands of Izakayas, and each only holding up to 8-15 seats at a time. So space is very limited so it can be hard to find the right one if you don't know where to look. But Izakayas have their communities, with the same regulars always going to their favorite one because they like the owner, the food, or the people or a combination of all three.
If you're someone who is looking to experience what Midnight Diner offers, then it's best to come out after 11 pm in Tokyo. As the "master" explains, he opens his shops from 12 am-7 am every night, so all the action takes place late in the evening. In real life, this is the same for a lot of the Izakayas around Tokyo, but instead, they stay open until the last customer leaves. That's how dedicated these owners or bartenders are to this lifestyle.
Do your best to try the different types of dishes and drinks each izakaya has. Some range from yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), Oden (Japanese hot pot soup), katsu (fried food), ramen, the list goes on. Just don't expect an Izakaya to make you a dish if you bring your ingredients there like in the show (unless the owner is very much willing lol). Drinks as well are amazing to try.
Midnight Diner usually has a lot of the characters drink beer or sake, but many izakayas offer a lot more like green tea sake, lemon sour (with shochu), grapefruit sour, or yuzu-Shu (Yuzu lemon w/ sake). There's so much more to all these drinks and dishes, but try whatever you can when you visit Japan.
I've grown to appreciate these Izakayas over the years and it's been a great part of my life in Japan. I've been living in Japan for over 4 years now, and ever since I got introduced to the Izakaya culture, I felt a uniqueness and home-like feeling to these places. I have met a lot of locals this way and improved my Japanese over time as well just from sitting at an izakaya. Everyone has a story, and people will always want to hear your story, especially if you're new.
Izakayas are designed for you to interact with your neighbor. The small spaces make it perfect for that to happen, so don't expect to feel too left out if you're exploring on your own. A lot of what midnight diners are based on is the Yokochos or alleyways in the city. Tokyo has many of them all over, but one of my favorites has to be Harmonica Yokocho. Located in Kichijoji, this area has over 100 different Izakayas to choose from. Harmonica starts as early as 5 pm, but as mentioned before, if you wanna see when it's at its peak, coming at midnight or after will give you a different perspective of the area and meet all the locals in the area.
If you're looking to check our the local izakaya scene, and want someone to help you get around and check out some of the best Izakayas, Check out my Kichijoji izakaya tour at Okawaribarcrawls.com and experience Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, in real life.