Sunday, November 30, 2014

Izakayas: Traditional Japanese Gastropubs, Male Supremacy and Why is Smoking Indoors still acceptable in Japan?

Izakayas are found all over Tokyo. They are Japanese gastropubs or food pubs. They are basically café restaurants selling alcoholic beverages and food. Usually oily kinds of food served in small plates for sharing that go well with beer and sake. Most of these joints are frequented by salaried men who enjoy booze + food + social camaraderie with colleagues. It’s some form of popular local social scene among corporate workers in suits after work.

Most izakayas have a red lantern (see below), sometimes white lantern outside the establishment. However, some of them do not have any, as seen in the above example.

It’s very interesting to see the ‘male supremacy’ culture in Japan. The gender roles are still very traditional. Japan’s breadwinners are the men and the women are supposed to quit their jobs and stay at home once they are married. The independent and strong-willed leader (before joining the Japanese Imperial Royal Family), Crown Princess Masako, among many other things, has led a long case of royal depression as she was unable to produce a male heir to the throne. On the streets, in the subways and metro, and of course in the izakayas, we mostly saw men in dark suits. It is clearly the men running the economy. Recently, I read in the news that two of the female ministers that Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has supported into the position have resigned due to possible corruption issues. The fight to female equality and emancipation in Japan, well I guess, may take some time.

In Chuo ward district where we stayed for the holiday, we saw izakayas on every block. Some are old and traditional in style whilst others have caught up with the times. All the izakaya pictures in this entry were taken in our neighbourhood in Kodenmacho which is part of the Nihonbashi area of Chuo.

Dutchman and I in fact ate at an izakaya twice, which I will post separately soon. Our first experience was a bit hilarious because we ordered the wrong food. Well, what can you actually expect when everything on the menu is written in Japanese Kanji?

Izakayas are also generally loud places. When you walk in the establishment, all the wait and cook staff greets you, well shouts at you actually—‘Irasshaimase!’. The yelling caught me off guard. What the heck was that about? Haha. Well, they are generally an upbeat place with a young employed staff. The constant yelling goes into the night as new customers arrive and leave. Yes, when you leave, they again bid their goodbyes in chorus—‘Onegaishimasou. Arigatou Gozaimasu!’.

Japanese people by nature are usually polite and soft spoken, well at least based from the ones we have encountered, thus izakayas somehow brings out the other side of them. Their loud, and if I may add, their smoky side.

This is a traditional izakaya, just around the corner from our hotel.

Mostly men in suits eat at izakayas, although we have seen women as well and even a family.

These two workers were very drunk, they just came out from an izakaya and were walking in zig-zagged patterns with arms over each other's shoulders. Dutchman was quite amused because in Europe only gays would touch each other like this. In Asia however, straight men hug each other and walk arm in arm, but only when they are overpowered by alcohol.

Now the biggest question however since my visit to Japan is this: Why is smoking still allowed in cafes, bars and restaurants?

Uh, beats me.

The smoking phenomenon is perhaps the most backward aspect I have seen and experienced in Japan, well not to mention the male supremacy as well which I am sure is debatable for many. I was truly shocked when I saw people taking out their cigarettes and lighting them from across our table. Within seconds smoke filled the room. Yuck. Luckily I had one of those surgical masks on because I was not feeling well. In Japan, you are somewhat forced to wear this if you exhibit coughing in public. It’s a—‘If you cannot beat them, join or let them quandary’, both for the mask and the smoking thing.

After a few visits to izakayas, cafes and restaurants, I realised that smoking is the most normal thing to do indoors, especially at izakayas. Thus, when visiting Japan, you have been warned about this unexpected smoking oddity.

A red paper lantern outside the door is a sign that the establishment is an izakaya.

However, some of the modern places do not have lanterns such as the above.

Beer is very popular in Japan.

This is perhaps more of a casual restaurant than an izakaya. There is probably a thin line in distinguishing them as some of the restaurants offer alcohol and have a bar area.

Travel Period: November 2014
Destination: Chuo (Tokyo), Japan

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