Skip to content

Travel Photos: Izakayas and Cafes in Japan

January 6, 2012

Installment Number 2 (of many) of the Japanese food photos. This time: two reasons (of many) why I love eating and drinking in Japan.

Japanese “rare cheese” on sweet potato chips with powdered sugar, at an izakaya.

An izakaya is a type of restaurant that is less like a restaurant and more like a bar, with food. Good food. The portions are usually small but shareable, like at a Spanish tapas restaurant, and the menus– at least at the large chain izakayas– are usually large, laminated, and covered in photos. Izakayas offer their fair share of deep-fried junk food, and often stay open late into the night, many until 4 or 5am. So in other words, an izakaya is kind of like a tapas bar, and kind of like a good old American diner, where you’re expected to drink.

I also wanted to take a moment to share my love of Japanese cafes. If you’ve never been to Japan, then you’ll perhaps be surprised to know that Japan is not so different from many other places in this regard. Cafes are everywhere, and– like in many other countries– some are more like coffee shops, some are more like restaurants, and some are more like bars. There is no such thing as a typical Japanese cafe (although as a side note I would like to make the observation that a VERY large percentage of them devote their stereo systems almost exclusively to Brazilian bossa nova). Some serve sandwiches and cappuccinos, some serve french pastries and fruit smoothies, and some serve hearty meals and gin & tonics…

Afternoon tea at Quarante-Quatre Cafe, Hiroshima.

But first thing’s first…

1. Izakayas

My favorite drink to order in izakayas has always been umeshu (plum liquor) mixed with soda (or simply on the rocks). The soda version is called an umeshu soda-wari, and if you’re lucky you will also get a small sour green plum (actually a type of apricot), that will have potentially absorbed so much alcohol, that eating it might make you feel as if you’ve ordered a second drink.

Another Japanese classic is “Hoppy” with a shot of shochu (a type of Japanese potato-based whiskey). “Hoppy” is a non-alcoholic malty beer-flavored drink, which was invented to get around the higher taxes on beer than on hard liquor in the 1950s. Instead of beer, people would order a Hoppy with a shot of shochu in it, something still possible at izakayas today. The Hoppy is called the soto, or outside, and the shochu is called the naka, or inside. (So for an extra shot of the whiskey, you can ask for “naka dake,” only the inside.)

And now for the food. Here is a smattering of izakaya food photos: often salty, deep-fried, and designed to make you drink (I’ve left the french fries photos to your imagination), but delectable nonetheless.


Butter scallops and mushrooms; deep-fried shrimp in chili sauce.


Chicken karaage (fried chicken) with daikon-oroshi (grated daikon), served with a dipping sauce or in a broth.


More chicken!


Ochazuke with umeboshi (pickled plums), and yaki-onigiri (grilled rice balls with butter & soy sauce).

A teeny tiny cheesecake pudding for dessert (about the size of a golfball, and quite good).

A yakitori-ya, or a grilled (skewered) chicken restaurant, is a type of izakaya, featuring mostly, you guessed it…


Tori negima (skewered chicken with scallions), and chicken with spicy Korean miso sauce.

Tsukune (chicken meatball), tsukune with melted cheese in the middle, and a side of edamame.


More chicken tsukune and a vegetarian skewer: shiitake mushrooms with freshly grated ginger. (You can also get skewered gingko nuts!)

Most skewers available at a yakitori-ya come with a choice of either shio (salt) or tare (sauce). And most yakitori restaurants come with a full izakaya drink menu, but the chicken often goes down best with nama (draught beer).

2. Cafes

One thing I’ve learned from eating out in Japan is how much presentation matters. (And it goes without saying that flavor matters, too.) So you find yourself marveling at the extra large portion sizes of mediocre food in the U.S., when the delicious and artfully-prepared Japanese mini-portions seem to make you just as full, but many times as satisfied.

A mini waffle with ice cream and fresh blueberry sauce. (About 1/6 the size of such desserts in Korea!)

A fresh persimmon chocolate tart (foreground) and a fresh mango and mousse cake (background), at Qu’il Fait Bon in Tokyo.

Iced yuzu-cha (citron tea).

Salmon and cream cheese sandwich at Cafe Moni, Okayama.

Cuteness at Cafe Moni.

Green tea at Blue Flat Cafe, Hiroshima.

That’s not to say that you can’t get a hearty meal at a Japanese cafe…

Shrimp fried rice at Orange Cafe, Tokuyama (Yamaguchi-ken).

Baked sweet potatoes, onions, and chicken, served with mustard and baguette, at Orange Cafe.


Gin & tonics with (rarely encountered in Japan) lime! Orange Cafe, Tokuyama.

Tomato, bean, and melted Gouda sandwich at The Market, Okayama.

And did you know that Japan has official (New Orleans) Cafe du Monde cafes with beignets?

Cinnamon and more traditional powdered sugar beignets, at Cafe du Monde, Hiroshima.

And possibly more French patisseries than even France.

An Andersen Bakery, decked out for Halloween, in Kyoto.

Finally, let me give you a glimpse of some of the lovely places I was sitting when I ate all of this food. (Many Japanese cafes provide neatly folded blankets to keep customers warm in the winter.)

My beloved Orange Cafe, in Tokuyama, Yamaguchi-ken.

Fresh-baked bread at The Market, Okayama.

Quarante-Quatre Cafe, Hiroshima.

A coffee (and beer and ice cream) stand in Ritsurin Koen gardens in Takamatsu.

Ritsurin Koen, Takamatsu.

Fig and cream cheese tart (top left), chocolate, pear, and ginger cake (bottom left), and the two slices shown again from above, at Qu’il Fait Bon in Tokyo.

Want to see more? Check out my other Japanese food installments of travel photos: one about Seafood and Sushi, one about Udon and Tofu, one about Bentos and Rice Dishes, and one about international food in Japan.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2012 6:33 pm

    What an amazing experience! I will need to have your recs of sushi places in town.

    • January 7, 2012 11:53 am

      I like East for sushi (especially whatever the sushi chef recommends), Takenoya for other Japanese food (and, randomly, dim sum!), and Itsuki for atmosphere : )

  2. February 5, 2012 6:17 pm

    This makes me miss Japan! Have fun!

  3. June 6, 2012 12:18 pm

    Any idea what the “rare cheese” is? We encountered a cheese-like product in Japan, loved it so much we learned how to make it in the US – miso cured tofu. But the serving style – on potato chips w/ powdered sugar is very interesting.

    • June 6, 2012 2:37 pm

      Interesting! I bet that miso-cured tofu cheese-like product is a whole different thing (which I’d be curious to learn how to make!), since usually when I see “rare cheese” on a menu in Japan, it refers to this stuff, which is a bit sweet and very soft and creamy, almost like a very melty cheesecake, or a subtly cheese-flavored custard.


  1. Travel Photos: Kyoto Tofu and Takamatsu Udon « spontaneous tomato
  2. Travel Photos: International Food with a Japanese Twist « spontaneous tomato
  3. Travel Photos: Bento Boxes and Rice Dishes in Japan « spontaneous tomato
  4. Travel Photos: Seafood and Sushi in Japan « spontaneous tomato
  5. Japanese Pumpkin Soup with Leeks (Kabocha Soup) « spontaneous tomato
  6. Travel Photos: Okonomiyaki and Sushi in Japan | spontaneous tomato

I love, love, love reading your comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: