When it comes to going out for drinks, in Japan, they do things a little differently than back home. Whereas we would most likely head to a bar, the Japanese go to an izakaya.
Most translation tools will tell you that an izakaya is like a tavern or a pub, but that’s not quite right. While izakayas are very much drinking dens, particularly after work or at the start of a night out, unlike pubs there will be little or no interaction between separate parties. Also unlike pubs, all groups are seated and are served by waiters and waitresses at whom you must holler ‘sumimaseeeeen!’ to get their attention. That’s not to say things are any more sedate than bars back home. When the beer and highballs get flowing, things can get raucous, particularly as many izakaya offer ‘nomihoudai’ (all you can drink) courses.
While drinking is generally very much on the agenda, izakayas are also places to eat, with patrons sharing dishes between them. While differing establishments may have their specialties, and some are more upmarket than others, the general description of the fare on offer could be “for the accompaniment of booze”. Think, karaage, edamame, sashimi, and yakitori. Fine dining this is not.
As both a central business hub and home to one of the country’s largest train stations, the Meieki (literally translated as ‘Nagoya Station’) area has many izakayas to choose from, each servicing their niche. Below is a small selection that you might try.
All around Nagoya, perhaps related to the city’s military history, you can find an izakaya called ‘Kabuto’ (helmet). Some are connected, some aren’t, but this one is the best one. The food is a mix up of standard izakaya fare, with yakitori, sashimi, and nabe hot pots. But they also have some quite interesting stuff such as horse meat and ‘raw’ chicken.
The best thing about Kabuto is that it has some tables that hang out into the street, which is excellent for people watching, especially in winter as the tables double up as a kotatsu. They also have English language menus, which makes things a little easier.
Established in 1956, the Sakae branch of Gomitori is credited as being Nagoya’s oldest-running izakaya, and is famed for its classic Nagoya cuisine. There are two Gomitoris in the Meieki area, and while the newer one is closer to the station, it cannot rival the older one for atmosphere, as its dark dinginess creates are real drinking den vibe.
While neither of these is the original, they do still serve up the same Nagoyan food, and they do it well. Most recommended are the famous dote miso stew, the dote miso pork cutlet skewers (miso kushi katsu), and tebasaki chicken wings made with Nagoya’s prized kochin chicken.
Imagine a world where the Showa era never stopped, and pre-bubble-period kitch remained forever, and you have Hakuri Tabai Hanbey, or just ‘Hanbey’ for short. The walls and every available surface are adorned with movie posters, advertisements and toys from that bygone era, and overhead enka music blares away; all making for an original, if a little discombobulating, drinking atmosphere.
It is also very cheap, with a large jockey of beer for around 290 JPY, and some food items for under 100 JPY. The food itself is, well, not exactly excellent, but if you are just up for a lively place with a difference, then Hanbey is a good shout. They also have an English language menu with translations so laughingly bad that they have to be done so on purpose.
Using the freshest seafood from the nearby Yanagibashi Market, Uogashi Hompo Pichiten is well known for its delicious sushi and sashimi. But as well as being extremely fresh, the food is very reasonably priced, and they do selection plates, which makes things easier for those who don’t know what they want (or even looking for!) As well as seafood, Pitchiten does a huge tempura selection that is not to be missed: if you can fry it, they will serve it!
There are a handful of Pitchitens around the city, and the one pictured above is nearest Meieki (a stone’s throw from Lucent Tower) However, though a little bit of a trek from the station, this one here has a sort of beer garden upstairs, which is great for dining during the warmer months.
This is just a small selection of the many, many izakayas that you can choose from in the Meieki area. If you want to find something different, one great way is to speak to one of the ‘misenavi‘ guys. These are young men and women – students, mostly – for whom their job is to connect diners with restaurants. You will see them outside of the Dai Nagoya Building and the surrounding areas wearing bright red or orange jackets. Just tell them what kind of thing you want (whether it be seafood, cheap drinks, all you can eat or drink nomihoudai and tabehoudai options) and they will do their best to connect you. Oh, and they get their commission from the restaurants, so you don’t need to pay them.
Images: by Mark Guthrie (Own Work)