If America is indeed a melting pot, as the old metaphor goes, then Hawaii floats in the section of the pot where the kimchee, sushi, and dim-sum simmer together, creating the feeling that jumping between the different bars/restaurants on Oahu is like skipping all over the continent of Asia. Of all the styles and genres of places to go, perhaps none strike a patron with the same felling of Japanese authenticity as an izakaya–a traditional Japanese bar and restaurant, similar to a western pub, where, along with an eclectic array of sakes and beers, a variety of appetizers fill the menu.
The significance of izakayas in Japanese culture cannot be overstated; they are as central to Japanese cuisine as fish, and as important to the relationship between a boss and his subordinate as the chain of command. In a nutshell, if izkayas suddenly ceased to exist, so would the transition from day to night for most Japanese “salary-men” and teenagers.
To illustrate how influential izakayas are to Japanese society, let’s first look at their culture. In a whilrlwind of advanced technology, fast cars, flashing lights and progressive fashion, there remains this truth: Japan is still a very strict culture. This demand to be constantly perfect by the entity that is society, and work days that would send the average American working stuff’s head spinning, create the need for a place and time to let loose and release the stress of the day. The izkayas are a result, a physical manifestation of the mental need for a place where the Japanese may bring to fruition the commonly accepted idea that anything you do when you are drunk is forgiven.
To break it down, “I” is from iru: to be, to stay; ‘zakaya’ is taken from sakeya: sake shop. As sake shops developed into places where people were allowed to stay and drink , this meshed with the humility and hospitality typical of Japanese business and developed into the sake shops where people could stay, drink, and eat.
The idea for a place to transition from work to the home or from home out to a night of drinking and dancing is, of course, not unique to Japan, but the way in which they do it is not only unique but provides a one-stop dinner/drinking session/hang-out time for those caught up in the rush of such a densely populated country.
One would expect, and be absolutely correct, that with such a high population of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, as well as an influx of tourists from Japan over the last decade, that izakayas would abound in Hawaii. Though they are all quite good, here is a quick rundown of three to check out if you are trying to get a good grasp on just what an izakaya is, and at the same time experience an array of different types of Japanese cuisine.
Located just a few blocks before McCully Street, on Beretania Street, Shinn is not for the faint of heart (or wallet). Shinn is hands-down one of the best sushi izakayas on Oahu, and serves up all types of sushi, as well as grilled delicacies. Some izakaya staples: yakitori (grilled chicken), asparagus wrapped in bacon, and beef tongue. Bring about $100 for two people, which will get you drinks, a healthy sampling of sushi ($4-6 per piece) and a variety of food from the robata (grill). Score some nigiri and King Salmon Carpaccio and dig in! Itadakimasu!
Kohnotori remains one of the most popular and most traditional izakayas on the island. You won’t find any of the clichés here (i.e. no sushi), but you will find some of the best grilled foods around: tomato or quail eggs wrapped in bacon, chicken and beef skewers, and a few veggies to help you feel like you are not completely loaded down with meat. If you plan on grabbing a few beers and a hearty amount of food without splurging on bottles, bring about $70 for two people. It has a more laid-back, raucous atmosphere than Shinn, and feels a bit more like a bar. Feel free to enjoy yourself.