Foodosophy of Izakaya – personal reflections

[The following is part commentary and part personal reflection on a specific dining out genre.  All thoughts and opinions are solely mine (shokutsu).  It is followed immediately by a related post.]

Although we’ve covered many visits to restaurants in the greater Vancouver area, some of you may have been aware and perhaps wondering, why the limited coverage of izakaya [inserting pet peeve here: please people and writers, don’t pluralize this word]?  Other than Manzo (in Richmond) and Kakurenbou (downtown Vancouver) which could fall into this Japanese genre, discussion to this point on what is a popular segment of the dine-out scene here on the west coast and often a source of envy from North American diners outside Vancouver, have been few and far between…

To explain and well to put it bluntly… I personally don’t have any real interest in the local izakaya offerings.  I’m sure they are all fine and dandy, as they reportedly have many fans and are lauded by residents, critics and bloggers alike.  But for me, frankly, its like going to the PNE Fair with a couple of single ride tickets after many trips to Disneyland with an all-access pass.

You see, after many years of frequenting the nomiya and izakaya in Japan on an almost nightly basis either for business socializing, client entertaining or just with personal friends, I’ve come to hold a defined set of expectations and an appreciation for these places that hold a unique place in the fabric of modern day socializing culture in Japan.  As everyone knows, there is nothing that loosens the wheels of communications than a few drinks.

My often inebriated experiences have taken me and my abused liver through a wide ranging journey through the closet-sized drinking spots lining Shomben Yokocho in Nishi-Shinjuku, the smoky, old school, retro joints that are being gradually replaced from under the train tracks in Yurakucho that are popular with middle-aged salarymen, the cookie-cutter commercial and boisterous chain establishments that dot the city, and the very chic and ultra-modern spots in Aoyama and the like.

Its these memories that are so ingrained in my mind, reminding me of very enjoyable times and experiences, that I just know I will feel nostalgic about and thus inevitably disappointed in trying to have the same times in Vancouver.

Not to mention the outstanding drinks and dishes (especially those involving seafood) are just so difficult to either source or prepared knowledgeably to their fullest here in North America.  For the homesick Japanese ex-pat/student or the Canadian who’s experienced living for a short time in Japan though, I can see the Vancouver spots meeting their taste-of-home needs though.  And for the fact that its opened the eyes, taste buds and wallets of new customers who might have been hesitant to try Japanese food (yes, that “ew, yuck, its raw crowd”), I give it props for opening up a new world for them.

Returning to my own experiences, even the homey, neighbourhood izakaya that I’d find near my places of residence were a welcome, home-away-from-home, that I could pop into unannounced late at night after a busy work day for some more revelry.

I’d always feel welcomed by the ‘master’ inside, who knew my drinking preferences and always had a basic but delicious offering of food to provide support.  And there in lies my key thing when it comes to izakaya

What I find here in Vancouver is that people tend to think food-first, drink-second when it comes what they seek out at the likes of Hapa, Guu, etc.  Its almost like in many people’s minds that they just are another place to just eat Japanese food, and put the emphasis on eat.   Meanwhile they are just drinking water or tea…

[Note: breaking down the three characters that make up the word “izakaya”, it could be simplified in English as “to be”, “alcohol”, and “place”]

So while the food does play a role, its more a supporting one.  Something to nibble on, not get full on, and obviously not to replace a bigger meal, is what is fundamentally the izakaya experience from my point of view.

When I bring up the idea of izakaya in Vancouver with my Japanese friends who are also long-term residences of the city, I get the same response.  They don’t go, and have no inclination to go.  They’d rather have a home party, offering up selections of various imported nihonshu, shochu and beer, coupled with some Japanese tsumami (snacks) and zensai (appetizers).

Another complaint I hear among my wider range of friends in the city is that the value for the dollar is just not there for what you get at Vancouver izakaya.

Perhaps part of it is still that small plates dining is not all that widely popular with folks who are used to getting big portions on a single plate and meant to be eaten by one person.  The concept of sharing multiple dishes as is often the case in Asian cultures, is not quite there yet in the mentality of some North Americans.  And thus on countless occasions when pulled into going to one of these places, there is a loud chorus of “let’s eat somewhere else first” before going for drinks.

Another aspect that I believe helps with creating a larger scale izakaya culture in Japan are public transportation and local liquor laws.  I know in Tokyo, with its endless trains, subways and taxis, that was never an issue, and thus removed the need to drive after an izakaya visit.  Plus, not everyone owns a car in the big city or needs one.  And places would often be open as late as 4am.  Truly, who wants to be told that the doors are closing at midnight on a Friday or Saturday night when the party is in full swing?!?!

I could go on some more about this topic, but hoped to get some feedback from our readers on what they’ve found through their own experiences with izakaya here in North America, or perhaps even abroad?  For instance, does the drinking aspect of izakaya have no relevance for you and are you just there for the food?  Or do you miss it (e.g. lack of wide selection of Japanese liquor) due to lack of availability or simply the insane margins on them that you see in town?  Perhaps they all fully meet your needs in terms of what you know an izakaya to be?   Please share…

Meanwhile, a related new post on a local izakaya visit can be read here.

2 thoughts on “Foodosophy of Izakaya – personal reflections

  1. Great topic.

    I was first introduced to izakaya in my many visits (a couple of them were extended visits) to Japan where my brother lived for many years. He, of course, was a great guide since he speaks fluent Japanese. He is back here now, so I haven’t been back in a few years.

    It doesn’t surprise me that the izakaya in this town pale in comparison to Japan. It is too far removed from the context and thus morphed, re-contextualized, and re-invented here. Just like I am not surprised that burgers in Japan are also not really to my taste (except perhaps the rice bun MOS burgers). Same goes for pizza, English pubs and coffee (though I hear those scenes have taken great strides over there as of late.) North Americans have not taken to Sake so most drink beer (which is also quite a common choice over there, IIRC).

    The scene has expanded exponentially and has now been embraced by the city’s foodie hipsters since its very early days at Raku on Thurlow (which became the original Guu). And to be fair, many of the top izakaya here are Japanese run – and are often managed by family-owned and Japan-based restaurant mini-chains.

    In Japan, the izakaya thrive exactly because of the transit-based lifestyle. Salarymen work late, but need a quick drink and bite prior to boarding the train home (which will take another hour or two). Also common are the “ladder drink” – “hashigo sake” – the drinking crawl towards the train station on a Friday evening after a payday. We just don’t have this kind of “infrastructure” to support a true izakaya experience. The experience here is (IMO) driven by the younger Japanese ESL student set resulting in a caricaturization of scene.

    Your are bang-on in the description that the izakaya here are food-forward establishments. However, I do note that you can do a pseudo-hashigosake here…something you can’t do in most other cities in North America (save perhaps the East Village in NYC near St Marks Square). I know when I do a crawl, it is a drinks-forward affair.

    The Robson and Denman izakaya (and Korean) scene is definitely a unique “Vancouver” experience that typically blows the mind of visiting out-of-towners. (The words “Blade Runnerish” is often used as a descriptor to me).

    There is one thing superior to the izakaya in Vancouver compared to Japan – they are cigarette smoke free. I don’t know if this has changed over there, but I was often downright uncomfortable eating at some of these (literally) underground establishments with poor ventilation.

    • Hey there Gastro,

      Sorry I’m coming to your comment so late, completely missed it in the queue. Wonderful to get your perspective and thoughts from your own experiences in Japan’s izakaya. Thanks for sharing!

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