The Ultimate Bianco Guide To: The Best Izakayas In Tokyo
*Update: I’ve added a google map (here) to this guide now. You now will be able to see all the places I’ve visited, from Ramen to Izakayas and Matcha greatness on a big map that puts them all together in one master list. Lovely right?
Okay - let’s finally add an Izakaya guide to my never-ending Japan food journey, and to my Tokyo food Google map. I’ve wanted to publish this guide for almost a year, but this man got wiser, ate his way through a lot of restaurants in Tokyo, and ended up with a big problem:
Just like my ramen guide, there is no way to create an ultimate Izakaya guide. There are too many good Izakayas with too many variations, way too many secret corners, and too little time to even get close to fulfill this task.
Again, I came up with a simple solution. I decided to make this an endless and continuous guide and update it more when I'm actually travelling to and working in Tokyo. I still have a couple of years on the clock to make this guide an ultimate experience. The streets are saying I might even be moving to Tokyo soon, so let’s see how fast we can get this guide to ultimate.
That being said, see this guide as a starting point or guidance to make your first steps into the world of Izakayas. You will find some great places here to drink, eat, get drunk, and eat more. I will even add some Izakayas exclusively only on my Google Map, ‘cause I really want to solely focus on the special stuff here.
Since there are so many good places in every neighbourhood, around every train station, and probably next to your Airbnb, calm down and don’t stress yourself.
This guide will help you to know what to do, give you a feeling of where to look for and more importantly, give you a lot of freedom. Don’t think of this guide as me telling you when and where to go. Instead, take this as a helping hand for you to understand what to look for. And of course, if one of these spots is close to you, go for it. And if I mark it with a star on my map, I urge you to immediately go there.
Most importantly, this guide is a casual food loving monster. There will be some slightly more fancy places here and there, but the food life I am living and want to share is not centered around Michelin stars, secret doors, and impossible-to-get reservations - and an Izakaya is the best place for this mindset and life.
While Tokyo is world-famous for its flood in high-rated fine dining restaurants, famous chefs, and long-ass waiting lists to maybe get a reservation, an Izakaya, for me at least, seems like the democratisation of lovely food meant for everybody.
So even if you might end up in clouds of cigarette smoke next to a big group of drunken salarymen, eating a 3 Euro minced chicken meat skewer, next to 5 empty glasses of lemon sour, you will still eat unbelievable food and watch amazing chefs putting it down for you and the other guests like they are running against Usain Bolt for a gold medal A real Izakaya experience cannot be overrated, and the Japanese love for food finds a core passion place/love child in almost each and every Izakaya you will go to.
I will be live-researching the world of another culinary aspect of Tokyo, which means I will start as a fool and will (hopefully) be an Izakaya pro by the end. So let's take this journey together and finally start talking about the best place Tokyo has given to me, my friends, and our collective nights and livers - The Izakaya.
So what is an Izakaya, and what makes it so damn special?
An Izakaya is an after-work spot to have some food, drinks, ciggies, and a lot of banter and smiles. But what sounds like a simple pub with food has so many layers, variations, food, styles and prices that some Japanese food-samurai would have already killed me just by reading the first lines of my intro.
I'm sorry, samurai, I still have to level up before I become an Izakaya god.
Originally started as a place to drink your sake and have some snacks, the Izakaya became one of Japan’s most exciting and fastest growing food offerings and a real must-go for everybody who wants to know about real Japanese food and drinking culture far away from conveyor belt sushi chains and California rolls.
You usually go there in the evening or late night with your friends, co-workers, or even with your date to have some great food mixed with a lot of drinks and smoke. There is a variety in the food Izakayas offer, from fish-specialized to Yakitori places to all-you-can-drink Izakayas where you will surely realize that even the cheapest Izakaya will beat your posh Japanese restaurant in midtown by 5 Kamehameha.
From places with fantastic seafood, stunning sashimi and their very own special dishes such as tuna rips, or moonfish liver to bigger rooms full of laughing Japanese people that soon will all become your friends (yes, it is that cheesy). An Izakaya for me just means love for Japanese food and people.
It's probably the very first place you will get access to in Japanese society deeper than ever before. It's always hard to dive deeper into Japanese minds and manners, but good food and loads of drinks will definitely open some hearts and give you access behind Japanese rules and social constraints.
Again, the varieties are enormous, but it's not all about drinking. There are some more private and quiet Izakayas you can enjoy your food and drinks. So over the years, I will try to introduce you to some of them and learn some lovely insights with you. What a life, right?
My journey will be quite variable and the quality of my pictures - of course - is heavily influenced by the art and style of each Izakaya, from high-class pictures to drunken mobile snaps. My Izakaya life is clearly about having a good time, so not every time I will carry around my big Sony Alpha but only my phone or analogue camera instead. Let my art direction be as unique as the Izakaya itself.
So, let’s get down to it. Follow me on my next big journey, right next to ramen and everything else Tokyo has to offer.
P.S. You will find all locations by name in my google map (click here). Use it! Also please eat everything together. Place everything in the middle of the table like eating tapas, order a drink as soon as you sit down, and cut the bill at the end of the night in equal parts. If you can't do that, Japan and I can't love you.
The Ultimate Bianco Guide To: The Best Izakayas In Tokyo
KAIKAYA BY THE SEA
Let's start with Kaikaya by the Sea. If you’ve been keeping up, you’d know I put this restaurant in almost all my guides. I come back to this place on my first day back in Tokyo every time. The food here is staggering, and the way you get introduced into the Izakaya life is very busy, friendly and entertaining. Yes, there are a lot of tourists (this place is fucking famous), and at one point I was afraid if I was too hyped about a famous Yelp champion that doesn’t deliver authentic Japanese food vibes.
No - after eating in lots of places with zero tourist and only locals in them, no superior ratings but incredibly good and highly traditional food, Kaikaya has remained one of my favourite places ever.
If this is truly your intro to the Izakaya life, Kaikaya is the spot to go: it’s easy to order, their assorted sashimi plate and tuna ribs are out of this world, and their boss Tange brought in some crossover dishes he got inspired by through his worldwide journey. My advice is to start with the 10-course menu, order some sake, and give yourself a slow start into this journey. And don’t forget to eat the sakura ice cream at the end.
Kaikaya has gotten more hectic each day, with more tourists than ever, but that's okay. In best case go there a couple of days before you want to eat there and book a table and be easy on yourself. Do a slow start and don’t try to look for the holy grail. Kaikaya is totally fine, and yes, it’s totally okay to start your journey with other tourists around you. For more info just read this, or this. I still love you, Kaikaya.
Now let's break out the big guns and tackle a secret Izakaya deep down hidden in a small housing complex in Naka-Meguro. At first I wasn’t quite sure if I should share this one at all, but I trust your manners and behaviour to act appropriately in this lovely restaurant.
It was January 2018 when the hardest snowfall of 4 years hit Tokyo and one of my friends took us to this secret spot hidden in one of the smallest alleys I’ve ever seen. On our way, I wasn’t even entirely sure if she knew where we were heading to, but then we finally reached this small house that looked more like a garage than a restaurant.
Once inside my heart was jumping. This place had it all. First of all, I noticed that the size of their drinking glasses was almost the same size as my hometown's Oktoberfest glasses - good. Then, I caught on to the local atmosphere that this hidden location had - even better. This Izakaya was full of locals and had a really chill atmosphere. Since there was so much snow outside, this place also could be a regular busy hell, so you never know. But both styles would suit this place very well.
Happily, for us, the AO corner had an English menu, and their food really made this place more special. They had a herb salad that started off everything right, there were these amazing meat balls already waiting for us in green peppers, minced tuna that you had to roll inside nori seaweed, and a special tofu for which I lost the notes about. Also, don’t forget to order Akimo/Moon Fish liver. I will tell you more about that later.
One thing I want to mention is that I tried to get a seat last time via their Facebook page and I was not quite sure if they were really fully booked or they were a little afraid of letting in a group of only foreigners. Try to check it out with a Japanese friend, if you have one, or you can try your luck like me.
You will sometimes get rejected at Izakaya doors and, from my perspective, this is just because the chefs and their crews are sometimes afraid of not being able to communicate and bring you the right food. It’s essential for them to make you happy and sometimes the language barrier can be too much pressure for them. If this happens, don’t get discouraged. Just keep on trying somewhere else.
Let's dive a little deeper into Tokyo and step out of Shibuya. Sangenjaya is a lovely neighbourhood west of Tokyo's pulsating, never sleeping heart, and offers a lot of local restaurants and nice corners to walk around and find your love. It even has its own Izakaya Alley, but I will tell you more about that on another day.
Now it’s time for Sanjuumar, a small Izakaya hidden in a back alley of Sangenjaya. They are specialised in fish and sake, so just go there and be ready to eat really good seafood and get drunk. Just look out for a small balcony on the first floor, with its stairs plastered with images of fish and more fish and get excited.
I advise you to use Google Translate here and just tell the waiter that you ready to eat everything he brings to you. Look deep into his eyes and say “omakase.” It basically means the chef decides what you’re going to get. Trust
Ask for their fried tuna. It’s a must. Also see if they have king crab on their daily board, which is actually not that easy. So here we face one of the first problems you will encounter almost all the time - the language barrier.
In this guide, you will find places that will really give you a hard time ordering and communicating with the staff. I am very sorry, but besides some recommendations for special dishes, I can't really help you here. It's all up to you. Sometimes it feels awkward to go somewhere and be so Lost In Translation, but see it as a challenge and just be brave enough to dive deeper and deeper into Japan's Izakaya life. Use Google Translate, make yourself a list of things you like and translate them before your trip (I did a small one for you further down) and remember dishes (and their names) you liked and ask in the next Izakaya if they have them.
So basically to be really honest with you, I don’t follow even one of my rules and always start at zero if an Izakaya has no English menu. I survived and you will, too.
Time for the Koenji street and a little lesson in doing Tokyo and Izakaya right. Please try to really leave Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku as often as possible. I always wonder how many old couples, families, and almost all other tourists are flooding the very same streets and neighbourhoods at the same time. Tokyo has so much more to offer and the excellent stuff you will find far away from all the flashing lights in your tourist guides. I encourage you to take the train and explore smaller neighbourhoods. To make things easy, start with Koenji.
This brings us to another lesson: Always check near the train stations for a dense network of small streets and food stalls. Japanese people work a lot, leave their office late, and commute for hours. Because of this, life is centered around train stations. Some offer tiny Izakaya alleys, some offer a network of streets connected to each other full of food and drinks. This is where you will find the best places for pictures, romantic or loud evenings, and fewer tourists. It’s the taste and vibe of the real Tokyo.
In Koenji, you will find one of my favourite, and most photogenic, spots. Hidden directly under the train tracks, very close to the station, you will find the Konji street: a mix of neon lights with smoke in the air, people, galleries, bars, and Izakayas, a mix of old and young alike. It's incredibly lovely. I actually ate in almost every place there and you should, too. There is this small Izakaya that is insanely famous, frequented by young people on weekdays - Izakayas all open up around 5pm, so don’t come too early and eat some ramen before instead. Then, there is this cheap, but nonetheless great Izakaya offering one of the best potato salads of my life.
Another quick lesson: always order the potato salad. The Japanese version is a banger and an Izakaya classic.
You will also find fish-specialised Izakayas and a lot of other options in this street, too. Just check it out and make sure to explore the rest of the Koneji. There are cool secondhand shops and a lot of authentic vibes around this neighbourhood. I love it.
Yakitori Imai tells the beautiful story of Takashi Imai who was the one-man show behind an Izakaya, making waves. His Yakitori place got so famous that he moved his business to Aoyama now, a rather expensive and quieter neighbourhood near Omotesando. He also added a strong crew to his team.
Imai is a big name now, and reservations are a must. This place is minimalistic and very dedicated to one thing: charcoal-grilled chicken.
The way they prepare, respect, and love Yakitori here is almost an art, and you can see how deep the levels of dedication can go when it comes to Japanese food. A simple dish like Yakitori also finds its lovers and experts in fancy places like Imai. Depending on your personal taste, it’s up to you where you decide to eat. The higher you go in price, the higher the chance is that you can witness the skill of a real "shokunin", meaning a Japanese artisan that dedicates all his power and ability to mastering one technique, dish, or art.
From the legendary sushi master Jiro to a wide range of other shokunins, Tokyo has its own league of superheroes.
Unfortunately, as said before, you have to lean posh and expensive in most of these cases and me being a street kid in heart forever, I will never feel really home next to suits, ties, and too many rules. Imai belongs to one of these places. The food is fantastic, but the price is something big, too. The atmosphere is a bit stiff, and everyone tries to keep his or her cool instead of letting loose as you normally would in so many other Izakayas. All in all, I would say you should go there for a date, and only for a date. With romantic vibes and the fact that you can still eat grilled meat on a skewer, it’s the perfect spot.
After guiding you to a secret spot like AO Corner or Koenji, it’s time for some obvious and very touristy call outs. Gonpachi Nishiazabu is the famous Izakaya everybody knows from the infamous Kill Bill fight scene, but is surprisingly a good Izakaya by itself. When we were first invited to that place for a business meeting, I was super scared to end up in a theme park-like restaurant with lousy food and music. And yes, the music was actually evil. Besides an old-school drummer show somewhere around 8pm, they played cheesy western radio pop music, at least when I was there. I really can't stand that shit, but OK. Then, there was a massive amount of tourists. Except at Shibuya crossing and some not so good other restaurants around Shibuya, you will probably never see so many of them sitting all together in one room. So yeah, we kinda landed in a the dreaded theme park restaurant…
What not really sounds like a beautiful night and experience still is something you should but not have to witness. So, what's good about it? As said at the start, Gonpachi Nishiazabu gave the main inspiration to one of Kill Bill's most iconic scenes, and if you love Tarantino, you will also enjoy being here at least once. They still serves good food, but like, “good and nothing to complain about” food.
The tofu here is impressive, I have no idea what they are doing with it or if this was a special one, just show them my pictures and ask for it. Also, the Kakuni/simmered pork belly, one of my all-time favourites, is delicious here, same as the tempura and their selection of Yakitori.
I was preparing myself to hate this place, and I just didn’t. So even though some of your Japanese friends will probably joke about this place or some long time visa experts will act overly cool if you tell them you been there - just fucking do it if you want to. Nothing wrong with that. It is probably the best Disneyland-ish restaurant worldwide.
Time to step up our Izakaya game a bit and head to Galali. This two floor, big and elegant Izakaya is located around Ayoma and Omotesando and serves top class food and sake. You should order some Akimo here, now that I mentioned above already. This moon fish liver is one of the best things I've ordered there and will make you and your waiter very happy, because he will realise you are keeping it real. Be aware: I love it because it resembles the consistency and taste of foie gras and swims around in a perfect dashi broth. It's something for gourmets and lovers of exceptional food; not everyone comes to Japan just for sushi and ramen, you know.
If you’re too anxious to tap into new food fields, stick to your fried chicken and burn in hell (just joking, I still love you). They have a fantastic sashimi plate here, so order your sushi, my friend.
We ordered the assorted sashimi plate, too, which also made the waiter pretty happy. It felts as he almost wanted to tap my shoulder.
The fish was terrific and everything was super fresh and on point. We left this place happy and with a lot of question marks and more to-do’s, though. Since we kept it classic and fish-related in this Izakaya, we missed out a lot of good things the other people in these places order. I really need to come back and try more, and so should you.
On a side note, we did not book a table and just walked in. Might work for you, too. Otherwise, try to bookmark it on your maps (or use my map) and check by there some days ahead and book a table. Again, it’s not that easy with limited Japanese skills, but it’s doable. Don’t be scared.
Our journey now leads us to Ueno, a business district in north east Tokyo that not so many tourists spend time in, except when walking around the Ameyoko market during daylight hours, exploring the endless goods you can purchase. But same as finding excellent ramen spots, you will find good Izakayas there, trust me. I spent a couple of times working and staying in that area and witnessed it with my own eyes and belly.
This guide will definitely have a couple of spots in Ueno that will serve you good food if you make it around here. When you visit Ueno, just know that it is not a beautiful neighbourhood at first sight. It’s nothing like Koenji or Nakameguro, but it has its corners with their own unique vibe; think a Bukowski version of a business district with lots of red lights and good food.
Oh, also! There is a really beautiful neighbourhood called Nishi-Nippori not far away that nails it when it comes to beautiful old school style streets, shops, and people. Combine both neighbourhoods for a high contrast experience and if you still have time and energy, visit the kitchen street afterwards and you’ll be in heaven (if you love kitchen supplies, that is).
What a long, boring ass intro. Sorry, enough neighbourhood talk. Let’s talk about Izakayas in Ueno and start with an iconic one: Daitoryo.
This huge ass Izakaya is always crowded, overfilled with guests over two floors. It enjoys a mixed crowd of daytime drinkers and thinkers, businessmen, groups of young friends, and some old couples hanging out, all eating good food. On the first floor, you will see the classic Izakaya counter and the second floor presents a more cosy vibes to your Izakaya experience with traditional tatami style tables.
Daitoryo represents the beer hall aspect of Izakayas mixed with all kinds of dishes you should try out. I had the help of my lovely friend Tomo getting here, and if you know the spots he put in the ramen guide (read it here), you know we can entirely trust him with bringing us to eat and drink wherever he chooses. Ordering here, again, will be a challenge and I decided to create a small list of dishes you have to try/ask for in every Izakaya. I'm a nice guy, and I needed that for myself, too.
Also, please always look at your neighbour's plates. If something seems tasty, point at it, remember the name, order it. Be an explorer.
Also (part two)! Please start drinking lemon sours. These will accompany you over your whole Izakaya journey. It’s shoju with soda and some lemon. Easy. Next to highball whiskeys, which I personally find a bit too strong, the lemon sour of almost every Izakaya is almost always spot on and my favorite Japanese drink. Go for it!
Time for a special place, AND one of the best yakitori places I have ever been to. Tori is hidden around Ueno’s red light district and offers an extraordinary place for excellent yakitori. Yakitori specialised Izakayas, also called “Yakitoriya” or “Tori-Ryoriya”, are - at least for me - the formula 1 of the Izakaya life. Only concentrate on chicken meat skewers. From getting the chicken from the very best suppliers around Japan to cutting and dividing the chicken into numerous crazy cuts you probably never have heard of before, they do this in a way only Japanese chefs are capable of. There is a massive amount of different cuts and liver, chicken skin (my favourite), heart and throats are just the tip of the iceberg of more and more skewered and cuts.
To help you to find the right skewer for you, I managed to write up the most iconic ones in a short list:
To finalise your Yakitori order, you will almost always have to decide the flavour of your skewer: a sweet soy sauce based marinade called tare, or the salt option called shio. It depends on what you order and if you like your meat more pure or more flavoured. A good example is the chicken skin: this type of meat is fantastic to just eat with some salt on top. The minced meat on a skewer, in contrast, tastes fantastic with some tare coating. Just try it for yourself!
Tori is one of those places where I don’t need to get into much detail because basically everything was amazing. From the different skewers, even the vegetable ones, the drinks, the service, and the incredible taste - this is one very good Izakaya/Yakitoriya.
I sat right in front of the yakitori grill and could watch how three chefs were finessing every skewer with so much love and attention to detail you can only see in Japan. From cutting off every unnecessary tiny bit from the chicken to peeling small tomatoes off their skin over the charcoal fire and serving me the best-grilled leek I ever had in my life. Please get it all.
There was a point where all three chefs were taking care of just a small handful of sticks with such care for detail I never have seen before. If you ever want to know about Japanese craftsmanship and cooking skills, just go there and watch them grill the meat and vegetables - a practice that is rather unsexy in western countries, but still very tasty, has turned into art in Japan.
I advise you to try and have someone book you a table here in advance via phone before you go. I came here pretty late and alone and somehow felt that I was fortunate to get a seat. Since I don’t think you will cross this neighbourhood very often, prepare yourself to have a booked place for it after maybe a day around kitchen street, Nishi-Nippori, and Ameyoko market.
We stay in Ueno and come across a really cosy and family owned Izakaya called Jun. Jun is the very best place to have a lowkey evening with lots of drinks, good food and an overall friendly vibe. This Izakaya gave me the feeling of being in a small town in Japan with its very welcoming vibes and grandmother-style food with a lot of smiles. It's very easy to forget that you are surrounded by offices and businesses out here. I love it.
Jun is dedicated entirely to boar meat, so everything you get there has some pork magic attached to it.
It's a charming place, and again you should just jump deep into the menu and order as much as possible. It's probably about time, if not done in Koenji before this, to start falling in love with the Japanese version of potato salad. It’s a little bit more creamy and intense compared to the European, and especially German one, and is an Izakaya staple dish you should not miss.
After ordering your beer or lemon sour, start looking over the menu; you will fall in love with their menu. Don’t forget to order some quail eggs on top and keep reminding yourself that an “Omakase” will get you new food without needing an English menu. Or use my small notes from above or even Google Translate. Don’t be scared to just order. The waiters are always afraid to bring you the wrong things, so don’t make their life too complicated.
Remember when I told you that there is a charming, old neighbourhood close to Ueno called Nihon-Niboshi? Matsuyoshi is right at the starting point from this, and if you head north east after eating here, you will witness beautiful old streets, small shops and supermarkets and old-school Japanese life. I really love it. You should not miss out on this one.
But let's talk about Matsuyoshi: this Izakaya is specialised in Yakitori and Kamameshi. Kamameshi is a traditional Japanese rice dish cooked in an iron pot - I only went there for the Yakitori and loved it all.
The young chef was preparing the different meats and vegetable skewers right in front of our eyes, and I have to admit I have never seen someone preparing my skewers more beautifully and smoothly. This guy was surfing on that grill and his technique was smooth as a motherfucking dolphin.
Maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but these Yakitori were amazing. Everything was very much on point and tasty all in an extremely cosy and inviting setting. Please visit Niho-Noboshi and eventually this place, too!
YORU NO MORI
Time for a special Izakaya near Shibuya crossing that my friend Josh introduced me to. Josh is my Tokyo fixer for a lot of work-related projects. We get shit done in Tokyo, and we are also pros in everything that starts with a beer and ends in a hangover (the reason why we only have one picture here). He is a Tokyo legend and everything Josh-approved will win your heart.
For one of our last meetings, he booked the backroom of Yoru No Mori and made us all fall in love with their crazy good food. From a small collection of several starters to a perfect assorted sashimi plate, there was one big highlight: Oden. I never had Oden that good and was impressed by every tiny detail and every ingredient that they cooked in here.
I highly recommend that you go there and get the back room at least once in your life with all of your friends (probably reserve a table some days before) or just sit on the counter and be happy. This place really is cosy!
Again, there is no English menu, so just let the chef do his thing, and don't forget to ask for Oden.
We are out with Josh once again, and again he brought me to a perfect place. The last spot was such an elegant place, and now it’s time to turn up the volume a bit and add way more drinks to the mix.
Rakuchin has a lot of good chicken but also fish dishes, and of course a lot of lemon sours - my favourite Izakaya drink, not sorry for repeating myself - and an excellent chicken/beef broth that you can drink out of a mug. They literally put a big tea jug next to your drinks, and you can refill this hot and delicious broth as much as you’d like. A grandmother's dreams.
This Izakaya is super crowded at night so assume you’ll wait a bit, or try to book a table by walking in the day before.
So what else is there to add about Rakuchin? The vegetable starters were amazing, the carrot salad was the best carrot centred dish of my whole life, the spicy chicken wings were top notch, and their grilled caramelised corn is a dream plus the drinks keep coming very often. Thank you, Josh.
Please go there, especially if you looking for some love and or local vibes in Shibuya. It's down a charming alley and lets you flee the flashing lights and millions of tourists around the crossing
We stay near Shibuya crossing to go to another excellent Izakaya that my good friend Hanae brought me with all her friends to celebrate my last days in Tokyo last year. We always have fantastic food once Hanae decides where to go. I call her “Izakaya-Senpai” for a reason, so needless to say I trust this woman.
At Uokin, it all starts with a lot of fish; fish on a high-quality level. The assorted sashimi plate was one of the best dishes I ever had. Just look at it above
Again, the potato salad and all the other small dishes they served were all hitting the nail on the head. You should try to order an Omakase menu to experience the diversity of their skills on your table. There was one dish that I am still dreaming about: a fried maki-like roll filled with grilled cheese. I will try to find out the name, or just try to show them this. I know this sounds nasty, but damn I loved it.
Our meal ended with a special dish that comes with a closed lid and a countdown timer for your table to know when to open it. This James Bond-like table setting turned out to be dashi-flavoured rice with different ingredients/toppings. Even though you will think that some really heavy closing meal, it is way more smooth than expected.
Dashi, by the way, is the source of almost all Japanese dishes, a broth made from Kombu and Katsuobushi. It’s where the magic starts and it’s an ingredient you should take very seriously and pay high respect to.
This modern and posh little place really had it all and felt really relaxed. Again a welcome, cosy island in the Shibuya jungle!
Still in Shibuya but down with the prices, up with the drinks and volume, and just a little bit down with traditional Japanese food and quality: Welcome to Surmire.
What sounds like an introduction to an absolute shithole is actually one of my favourite spots in this city. Behind an unmarked black door, you will find a three-story Izakaya featuring digital screens to order and a lot of fast food style dishes. Try their pizza (it's not really pizza), their potatoes topped with grilled cheese, and all the other stuff they have. It’s cheap for a reason, and sometimes you just need fast food, cheap drinks, and loud nights. At least I do.
I don’t have many pictures from here, even though I’ve probably been there more times than everywhere else. So just don’t be a snob and go there. Actually, if you are a snob (which is fine), better don’t go there. Seriously. It’s not your spot, and we have better options for you in this guide, my dear.
For the rest: have fun.
There was this one rainy night in Shimokitazawa where we were looking for a warm shelter after a really colossal sushi dinner. We found Jindaiko and expected to drink a couple of drinks to survive the rain. Little did we know about the sales talent of the ladies working there and the soon to arrive way too big plates after plates of Yakitori. They have a unique way of eating them: with cabbage and their own dipping sauce.
I just remembered I had to eat it all alone, ‘cause I was in this place with a vegetarian fighting hard for my belly to not give up.
So why am I adding this place to this list? First of all, the food is good, but I really don’t know that so precisely anymore to be honest. I was so full that I can't really remember feeling my taste buds. But what I do remember is that this family-owned Izakaya has a very unique technique to prepare your skewers: by adding a kind of dancing/clapping routine to the mix. This technique seems to be passed over by generations of this family.
It was adorable and so fun to watch, I have to admit. I usually would not really rate that kind of thing but since I am a big fan of weird people and places, this one had to make it into the guide
At one point of your Tokyo travel adventures, you might end up in Asakusa to visit the beautiful Senso-Ji, Tokyo's oldest and most famous temple. This place is always busy as hell, and it's not 100% easy to enjoy this place with a million other cameras and faces. What I do like to do is walk around the area in the evening and have the temple and streets almost exclusively for me.
Since this already sounds super romantic, I’ll top off the experience and guide you to a little Oyster bar near the shrine called Daimasa.
This place is dedicated entirely to oysters of all types - and sake. An oyster-sake mix is a pretty good start into the night, and the quality you will find at Daimasa is spot on. From different daily and seasonal oysters from various regions, you can choose from to fried oysters, and some pretty unique dishes such as Namafu Dengaku: a miso-coated wheat gluten cube that was incredibly good.
Daimasa really does things right and very sleek and elegant. On top of that, they have an English menu and a very relaxed atmosphere.
This place is a perfect hideout after seeing too many tourists, wandering around the area alone, or just an ideal location for a date. In my case, I went there alone, ate 8 oysters, and drank a lot of sake. Works, too.
Let's head back to Ueno and check out one of their OG Yakitori places: Yakitori Bunraku. Right under the tracks of Ueno station next to a bustling corner of the Ameyoko market, you will find this authentic and longtime running Izakaya. They have an English menu and a pretty simple but solid offerings.
From their chicken skewers dripping in garlic to some liver and beef tongue, Bunraku is not trying to play any games. They deliver straight, excellent and cheap Izakaya basics that are easy to enjoy. It's also a perfect place for daytime drinking after you check out the endless shops around the Ameyoko market or just watch the old boss lady preparing one Motsu Nikomi (stewed pork intestines) after another. Be brave and order one; they are an Izakaya classic and really good. On top of that, they have some Yakitori in garlic tare that is everything you and your next kiss need.
KUSHIKATSU TANAKA UENO
We stay in Uneo to present you the next drink heavy Izakaya after you had your daytime drinking at Bunraku. Kushikatsu Tanaka actually offers Kushikatsu, an Osaka street food champion and speciality: skewered meat or vegetables breaded in panko crumbs and fried in a lot of oil or fat. Very Homer Simpson. All you have to do is to dip these skewers in the sauce on your table and enjoy it. It’s nasty beautiful and a really heavy dish. Don’t forget there are strict rules: only dip your skewer once into the sauce. Please follow my instructions.
So Kushikatsu Tanaka is suited for some late night drinks and snacks and should be visited with your pals and friends only. The restaurant is part of a big chain, so it’s your chance for a first-time experience of Kushikatsu after a night out than a cultural/culinary exploration of Osaka food.
So don’t make use of this place for a date night and definitely order the Gari-Gari Kun Sour - a popsicle dipped in alcohol. Lovely.
Consider this place as a fast food place. The only reason I put this in the guide was to introduce you to Kushikatsu and the Gari-Gari Kun Sour. So I repeat, just go there with your friends when you’re drunk and hungry for fast food. This is not a gourmet temple or secret location.
Let's head into a small street that connects Akihabara and Ueno. Close to Toko's otaku heaven and tech town and sleazy sex shop hub - Akihabara is quite a deal - you will find Motenaishashou.
This Izakaya offers a wide variety of Izakaya specialities and masters some of them in a really slick and smooth way. They have a fantastic assortment of dishes from Yakitori to tempura (try the Ebi one please) and sashimi. It's an essential but a very well executed set up with some highlights such as the moonfish liver again (Ankimo) and a delicious breaded and fried ham.
On top of that, they have traditional tatami seating in the back of the restaurant and offer an excellent shelter between these two busy neighbourhoods. Just go down they tiny stairways to the basement and enjoy your time off after the insanely busy Akihabara and Ueno streets.
HUKUEI KUMIAI SHIBUYA
There are restaurants every 2 metres and the ones on the ground floor are already too much to make the right decision. But what happens on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors mostly stay a completely secret to foreigners and tourists. I always wonder how even Japanese people know that there is something really good hidden close to the rooftop - but they do.
So, Hukuei Kumiai Shibuya actually is not that hard to find once you know. Right next to the adidas store you have to take an elevator to the 7th floor and enjoy one of the cosiest Izakaya moments of your life. Right where thousands of people walk, scream and push each day, you will find serenity in drinks and food.
Hukuei Kumiai Shibuya offers traditional-style rooms and service and a lot of cosiness and fun. Once you enter the Izakaya, you get guided into your (please, remember to pre-book) room where you will find a small tatami table with a buzzer for calling your waiter or waitress.
Hukuei Kumiai specialises in grilled dishes, and their grilled chicken is one of my favourite grilled chickens of all time (wait for the one in the next spot). Their menu has pictures and makes it very easy for you to get everything you want.
As mentioned before the two grilled chicken dish they have are amazing. One comes with Yuzukoshō, my favourite paste consisting of chilli, pepper, yuzu (Japanese lemon) and salt, and the other one has a super tasty Yuzukoshō. The chicken is really tender, it almost melts on your tongue, and you should not miss out on that. Their slightly grilled Edamame I also need to mention, and you need to order. The rest is up to you. Just enjoy the night, BUT make sure to order fast. You will just have 1.5 hours in there most of the time, since their booking system is challenging. You go in, order, and leave again happy but fast. Also, they have “Giant Lemon Sours.“ Just saying.
Let's go up some levels again and sit down in the next Izakaya hidden on higher floors. Not far from the place before, opposite of H&M, you will find Minato on the 5th floor of the building. A tiny entrance will guide you up to another highlight of this guide.
Again, you will find small cabins that create a cosy atmosphere, but a bit more simple and plain than last time. This Izakaya is all about charcoal grilled food and does not really take too much care about making their place look like an Izakaya heaven.
That is, except for this one boss room. If you are a huge group, please try to get this the room with its big window towards busy Shibuya. It's a magic atmosphere and really worth the struggle.
Struggle, because the boss running this place speaks no English and booking alone can be a little bit hard. Go there around 5pm, when every Izakaya opensm, and try to talk to him. Tell him “Omakase“ is absolutely fine and smile a lot. He is not smiling all the time, but sometimes he will crack one. This is another place where it would be smart to have a Japanese speaking person with you, or to be equipped with the right vocabulary. But I leave that up to you. Let’s rather talk about the food!
So after managing to get a table in their wonderful room, or pretty basic other no-window rooms, you should also just focus on their food. As said before, do the charcoal-grilled food, and they do it very well. Their grilled chicken is my absolute favourite in Tokyo, combined with the Yuzukoshō (yuzu pepper) it just makes love to my taste buds. So, please order it and be aware they have the grilled chicken and the fried chicken “Karage“ so don’t mix it up or better yet, just order both. Another thing you need to order… no, have to order… no, WILL order is their corn tempura aka “corn kakiage”. It's another incredibly good dish and totally worth it. If you also want to try something special, try their tomato with sugar! For the rest of your meal, you have to survive with Omakase style or show some of my pictures. Be strong. They also have Shashimi, and on top of that sometimes they have ice cream as a desert. Be happy.
That's It so far with my first drop of Izakayas.
I originally wanted to add a couple of more Izakayas to my first list, but I feel like we got down to the essence and first steps into this world quite well. You know, I have been to Tokyo thirteen times now, and my last stay was actually two months. I ate at a lot more places, but with this list, I really tried to focus on unique and starter places. This comes with me getting better and more knowledgeable.
So, first of all, don’t worry. Some of the spots I do not mention here I will still put in my google maps with a short text about each place. And on top of that, after thirteen visits to Tokyo in three years, I am actually planning to finally move to this town and break down some language and Lost in Translations walls.
After sorting out my visa, flat, paperwork and whatsoever this cruel machinery of grown-up life wants me to collect before fulfilling my dreams, I will hopefully live in Japan next year to finesse everything.
As mentioned already, this was the intro, and from this point on every Izakaya I will name should and will be more special. I will try to find out more specific names of each dish and will try to help you even more with surviving this jungle. For the start, I really like you to struggle a bit, same as I did. It's part of the magic and part of finding your own way into this wonderful phenomenon called Izakayas.
Enjoy it, look out for more, write me on IG if you can't find the spots and with a lot of luck, I will take you to all the Izakayas I will never mention in my guides because we just can't overrun these gems.
Thanks so much at Thoma Brit editing this mess with me. There is more to come.