Going to an Izakaya: 10 Words You Won’t Learn in Japanese Class

Gathering around food and drinks in an izakaya (a Japanese-style pub is an important part of Japanese culture, and you may have heard about nomunication. Joining Japanese people at the izakaya is a good way to break the ice and to get to know them better. If you go to small, five- or six-seat places, you may even make new friends. However, there are some words useful in these situations that are usually not taught in school or in your typical Japanese language manual. Here are ten useful words and concepts that may come handy for your first (or next) izakaya experience!

2021-01-27   Japanese Language,

1) Nomihoudai(飲み放題)Tabehoudai(食べ放題)

If you are going to an izakaya with Japanese people to celebrate something, chances are they will have made some research about the best courses and this often includes nomihoudai, and sometimes tabehoudai plans as well. Nomihoudai (飲み放題) (from 飲む, nomu: drink, and 放題, houdai: as much as you want) is, as the name indicates, an “all-you-can-drink” plan. For a limited time (two or three hours plans are frequent), you can order as many drinks as you want from a limited menu. Some places will ask you to finish your current drink before they bring you your next one.

Tabehoudai (from 食べる: taberu, eat) is basically the same but for food.

2) O-tooshi (お通し)

Edamame (soybeans in the pod) are a common o-tooshi

O-tooshi (お通し) is often a source of misunderstanding for foreign tourists. People unaware of it often complain that they have been charged for a dish they didn’t even order. It’s a reaction that I can understand: most izakayas will serve you a small dish, called o-tooshi, as soon as you’re seated, before you even order anything. The dish is often underwhelming, and you may refuse it if you wish, but you will have to pay for it anyway: o-tooshi is just a different way to express table charges, usually around 500 yen per person.

Just check for the word お通し on your receipt, often written before the total. Japanese people don’t seem fond of o-tooshi either, but that’s just a kind of tacit rule to make the businesses run. Some places will not serve you an o-tooshi, but will ask you to order two or three snacks per person instead.

3) Nama(生), Non-aru (ノンアル)



, nama, literally a ‘fresh’ one, is short for nama biiru (生ビール), meaning tap beer, as an opposite for bin biiru (瓶ビール), bottled beer. Nama is often the first drink ordered in large gatherings in izakaya because it is served most quickly. You may also opt for a non-aru biiru (ノンアルビー), a non-alcoholic beer. But don’t feel bad if beer and alcohol is not your thing: you’re free to order something else!

4) Haibooru(ハイボール)、chu-hai (酎ハイ), sawaa (サワー)

Some of the most popular drinks in Japan are drinks that are not very common or popular in other countries. The ones you should absolutely remember are:

  • – Haibooru (ハイボール) , from the English word Highball: it’s spirits mixed with soda. In Japan it’s usually whiskey with soda.
  • – Chuu-hai (酎ハイ), short forshochuu highball (焼酎ハイボール): it’s shochuu (a Japanese hard liquor made from potato, barley or rice) mixed with carbonated water and flavored with fruits. The most common one islemon-hai (レモンハイ).
  • – Sawaa (サワー), comes from the English ‘sour’. It’s very similar, and often confused, with the chu-hai. It’s spirit (for example vodka, but it can actually be shochuu too, adding to the confusion) mixed with carbonated water and flavored with a sweet fruit juice (here again the most common one is lemon, レモンサワー, lemon sawaa).

Chu-hai and sawaa come in many different flavors: grapefruit, oolong tea, lime, apple, lychee… etc.

These are lemon-hai. Or maybe lemon-sawaa. They’re almost the same anyway.

5) Torizara (取り皿), Haizara (灰皿)

If you are learning Japanese at school, you may have learnt that a plate is called sara (), in Japanese. However in izakayas the custom is to share the food from bigger dishes, and there is a specific term for the small-sized plates in which each person puts their  share: torizara (取り皿), from toru (取る): to take, and sara (): plate. If you are eating many different things, especially with sauce, you may want to get a new set of clean plates. In this case, just say torizara kudasai  (取り皿下さい): plates please. Not to be confused with haizara (灰皿: , hai: ashes, and , sara: plate), which means ‘ashtray’. Yes, most restaurants and izakaya in Japan are still smoking spaces…for now.

6) O-hiya (お冷)

If you want to have a glass of water (in Japan, it’s free), and are learning Japanese, you might find yourself asking お水下さい, o-mizu kudasai. You fool! Well yes. izakayas also happen to have a specific term for water:o-hiya (お冷), literally ‘a refreshed one’ (in Japan water usually comes with ice cubes in it). Asking for o-mizu will get you water, but you will sound much more of an expert if you order it this way: o-hiya kudasai (お冷下さい).

7) Shime, (締め or 〆)、Shimeru (締める or 〆る)

If you are learning Japanese, you maybe know the word 閉める, shimeru: to close, as in closing a door. Shimeru, (締める、or more informally 〆る) is very similar. but it means ‘closing’, ending the gathering. On the menu, indicates dishes that you usually eat at the end of the party, like for example shime-udon (〆うどん) if you are eating a nabe: you put udon noodles in what is left of the broth to finish it.

During parties or after-work gatherings, when time to go home approaches (or maybe your nomihoudai time is soon over- are you still following?) you will hear people say shimemasuka? (締めますか?) ‘Shall we end?’, often followed by shime no kotoba (締めの言葉), a final word often said by a person of authority (or someone thought to speak better than others).

After which, usually, people will all clap their hands at the same time (usually only once, but there are variations), a gesture symbolizing the ‘closing’ of the party. This gesture is called tejime (手締め), from te (): hand, and shime. For some reason, I love it. It gives a final feeling of unity with the group you’ve spent the evening with (I have this weird thing for gestures and symbols).

Watch this humorous video from the comic duo Rahmens to practice and perform the tejime like a boss:

8) The o-kanjou (お勘定) gesture

Well, actually, o-kanjou (お勘定) the bill, is often asked for before the shime no kotoba, but there is a reason I’m only introducing it to you know. If you are in a smaller, more intimate izakaya, you may ask for the bill in a more silent and discreet way using the following gesture (and the optional silent mouthing of o-kanjou kudasai (お勘定ください): ‘The bill please’:

This is the gesture to ask for the bill in an izakaya.

Have you noticed the similarity with the kanji for shime? That’s where it comes from.

9) Nijikai, (二次会)、Sanjikai, (三次会)

Japanese people do like to party and go to different places on the same night. If at the end of the main event you hear Ittan shimemasu ka? (いったん締めますか?) or ‘Shall we close once?’ then you can be sure some of your fellows are intending to go to a nijikai (二次会), literally second gathering. A part of the group will have an after-party in a nearby bar or izakaya. Don’t feel pressured to follow if you don’t feel like it, but certainly join if you want more fun. It may even be followed by a sanjikai (三次会) or third gathering. I know some people that have even been to a gojikai (五次会), a fifth gathering!

This young lady may be coming back from a sanjikai.

10) Takuru (タクる)

After the sanjikai (三次会), chances are you have missed the last train home. If you don’t want to be seen sleeping on the streets (a common sight in Tokyo), and don’t feel like sleeping in a karaoke box or a capsule hotel, a good option is to takuru (タクる) together with people living near your place or on your way home. This informal word comes from takushii (タクシー): taxi and the common verb ending ru: it just means grabbing a taxi.

It’s late, there are no trains and you want to go home? Just takuru!
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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.