“That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”
I was a complete novice in what I was about to experience, but as a relative newcomer to Japan, it was a great opportunity to learn about a slice of Japanese culture that was previously hidden from me. With my Japanese friends leading the way, we entered a rather non-descript multi-story building located in an area of town known for its night life. Each floor hosted several business establishments and we chose one that didn’t particularly seem to stand out among any of the others, except that it was obviously well-known to my more experienced friends. We were about to enter what is known as an izakaya.
Translated literally, izakaya (居酒屋) means “stay-saké-shop,” so it is basically a place to consume alcoholic beverages. However, an izakaya is much more than that as it has more resemblance to a British pub where food is served and people gather for social interaction. Sometimes these izakaya are called an akachōchin, or “red lantern” as the proprietors traditionally hang decorative red paper lanterns outside to attract attention. Upon entering the establishment, customers are often seated on the floor at low tables placed on tatami mats, a traditional bar or at western-style tables and chairs. The busier izakayas may also offer a tachi nomi style of dining, which means to drink while standing.
Everyone is customarily given an oshibori or wet towel when they are seated to wipe their hands and this is usually accompanied by a small appetizer such as edamame (soybeans). Food items are generally shared by everyone at the table and many izakaya specialize in certain food choices such as yakitori (grilled chicken on sticks), sashimi, tofu, grilled fish and even french fries (called “furaido poteto”). Some of the larger izakaya offer the dining option of nomi hōdai (all you can drink) or tabe hōdai (all you can eat) at a set price for a determined length of time. The more innovative izakaya come with a particular cosplay theme where the staff wear costumes while waiting on customers. The word “kanpai!” is echoed often as customers lift their glasses and toast one another in merriment. Regular patrons sometimes purchase a particular brand of alcohol and the bottle is placed on a shelf with their name written on it for their next visit. Like the classic TV sitcom “Cheers” that centered on a group of regular customers at a local bar, an izakaya can be a safe place to relax where “everybody knows your name.”
Ironically, some of the purposes for attending an izakaya can also be reflected in the reasons people may attend a local church. Meeting with like-minded people for companionship, encouragement and sharing of information are some of the attractive elements of an izakaya that are usually unavailable at onerous, pressure-driven places of work. When viewed in these terms, izakaya represent for many a form of escape through shallow social interaction and the consumption of alcoholic beverages and food.
While such responses are understandable and even ordained in some circumstances (Ecc. 3:13), there is certainly much more to life. One can also make many bad choices if his or her sole objective is to merely escape from the day-to-day unpleasantries of life. Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul advised new believers, emerging from previous dark cultural habits, to aim for something higher that would lead to more productive lives that honor their Creator. He said, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” (Eph. 5:18) Because God knows our name, our choices can lead to eternal blessings.