Ah, the humble izakaya, a foundational element of Japanese social life. A place to drink, eat, catch up with friends, and make new ones. It’s a place where low-key dinners can quickly and seamlessly transform into a night of wild debauchery. It’s also one of my favorite things about Japan.
In Spain, they have tapas bars, and in the US they have all-night diners, and the izakaya is something that sits in the middle of these two. It’s a place you can start the night sharing small dishes and pouring booze down your gullet. But it’s also a refuge, a place to bunker down after a long night out and waiting for the first train to start again.
I wondered though, what kind of folks visit an izakaya first thing in the morning, or perhaps even stranger, mid-morning? My previous three years of izakaya frequenting experience have been relegated to the hours of around 7pm – 12 midnight at the latest. But what does it look like outside of those hours? I guess the only way to find out was to go to one of Tokyo’s 24-hour izakayas, stay there all day and all night, and see for myself—thanks to a challenge from Tokyo Survival Channel (TSC).
The venue – Isomaru Suisan
Isomaru Suisan is an izakaya chain. You’ll find these eye-catching, seafood centric, retro-style restaurants scattered throughout the city.
I selected Isomaru Shinjuku as my new home for the next 24 hours for several reasons. First, it’s cheap, cheerful, and accessible. Also, I’d never visited one previously, so why not? Second, it’s one of the few central izakayas that are open 24 hours. Surprisingly, central Tokyo has very few larger izakayas that stay open all day and night.
There were other options on the drawing board—a handful of ramen places, soba joints, and rather infamous Chinese restaurants in Roppongi (Tokyo local points if you can guess). But none promised the potential for madness like a booze-soaked corner just a stone’s throw from the city’s most vibrant nightlife districts.
Also, getting permission from establishments for this experiment proved too bureaucratic, so I took the ‘ask for forgiveness, not permission’ approach and just went for it. The plan was if the staff became suspicious or asked me to leave, I could hop in a taxi and hightail it to the other 24-hour Isomaru in Shibuya.
3pm – The beginning of the journey in rainy Shinjuku
3pm seems like a strange time to kick off a marathon session like this. Most would plan to start at the crack of dawn, watching the day from its logical beginning. However, time constraints meant this was the earliest I could get there, plus it’s probably the perfect time to start drinking without risking passing out at midnight. 6am beers are not off the cards entirely, but I’d much rather deal with that one after I’ve earned my stripes pulling an all-nighter.
So, I headed down on this soggy autumn afternoon, pretty damn nervous to be honest. What about? I don’t quite know, the potential lack of sleep, potential humiliation of getting kicked out too perhaps, but the biggest fear was that nothing of note would happen in the 24 hours I was there. Luckily my latter worry wasn’t the case. Otherwise, this is where the story would end.
It was the late lunchtime crowd, and Isomaru were serving the lunchtime menu. The first order was beer and oyakodon. One major takeaway I learned from this hour was oyakodon means “parent-child bowl” in Japanese. It’s named as such because the meat of the parent (in this case adult fish) is served with its ‘child’ (fish eggs). When you think about it, it’s a rather messed up title. The non-seafood incarnation of this dish is chicken and egg.
The lunchtime crowd was pretty laid back. If I ever worked in an izakaya, it looks like this shift is the one I’d want. The clientele are sober-enough; all dining in small groups and the staff don’t have a lot to do, apart from laugh at one of the waitresses who nearly stacks it trying to lean over the counter and chat with the chef.
5pm – Visits by friends
After two hours, not a lot has changed. Being a Wednesday evening and right in central Shinjuku, one of the more tourist trodden corners, there aren’t a lot of post-work hangouts happening here. It’s mainly tourists having a bite or lingering after a long lunch. My friend Hayato turns up, he’s a Yokohama local, but moved to Canada two weeks prior to this visit. Before moving he worked in a British pub in Yokohama, and with the Rugby World Cup in full swing, the boss of the pub flew him back for the month to help out while it gets a bit crazy. As you can tell from the photo, from all his time working in a pub he’s learned how to polish off a drink or two in record time.
The ground floor of Isomaru is where the main kitchen is. Here, the chefs are in mid-transition between lazy afternoon shift and the impending dinner-time rush.
6pm – Time for dinner
Three hours deep and we’ve already touched on two of the main meals of the day. To be fair, this place is a lot tamer than anticipated. The folks rolling in were mainly couples or groups of four. Food is clearly the main priority. There’s very little smoking, and the alcohol is flowing at a very sluggish pace.
Around this time, striking up a conversation with anyone feels like it’d be more of an intrusion than anything. And from the body language of the customers, they’d much rather focus on eating than talking, even between themselves! There was even one guy who came with someone but ate his entire meal with his airpods in. It’s a unique and brave move.
I’d put the call out to friends, and my friends had put the call out to theirs about this little experiment happening. At around 7pm, some of our extended friends popped in to see how it was all coming along. Basically, it was business as usual, so time to order a few more drinks, have a chat and hope something or someone interesting emerges from the woodwork.
We notice a slightly rowdier crew seated next to us. Two guys and two girls, they’re pretty buzzed, or at least more buzzed than the rest of the place. The atmosphere between the foursome was a little off. You could tell they weren’t officially two couples, the conversation too awkward and nervous, and loud.
They all start playing a game of group finger wrestling. It’s pretty likely this is a ‘nanpa’ (ナンパ). A nanpa is when guys pick-up girls and convince them to go for drinks, dinner, or to hang out. It’s a little awkward to watch but it looks like they’re all having fun, and you’ve gotta’ admire the confidence it takes for the guys to pull one of these moves off, so good on them I guess…! Sadly they managed to evade the curious eye of my camera lens, but I don’t want to impose too much on people’s privacy.
The TV is playing some pretty impressive waterboys displays; it’s more entertaining than the patrons for a little while there. How do they get so in sync??
8pm – Wine in a mug
While the rest of the customers are enjoying their wholesome seafood meals, my friend Alanah arrives with some others. She’s a fiend for red wine on a night out, and as you can see she’s pretty happy that Isomaru serves the stuff in beer mugs. Will this be our shining light that keeps the evening going, or will it be our Great Downfall? The night is young. We’ll have to wait and see.
Your intrepid reporter is captured here trying to fit in a few last-minute email replies before the brain goes haywire. Setting the “out of office” auto-reply.
10 – 11pm – …And action! Maybe?
It seems like the booze is kicking in, but also it’s time for some friends to leave. They pay their portion of the bill and head out. In the meantime, we start to scope for friendly-looking faces, people who might be willing to chat with us.
Shiori, Naoki Junki
We saddle up to a corner booth with three customers, Shiori, Naoki, and Junki, to see if they’d be down to chat. Luckily they are. In fact, they’re so happy to chat they order two beers for us on their tab.
It turns out the trio used to work together and it’s their first time catching up in a long time. Shiori (with the purple hair) works at a tapioca store, while Naoki is a nurse and Junki works in the wedding industry.
They just came for a bite after spending the evening at an S and M club. Shiori and Naoki are both experienced in the world of shibari—an erotic form of Japanese rope bondage.
Junki is new to the world of bondage, but he did enjoy his time there. The girls show us some photos of themselves tied up—it’s pretty impressive stuff! We asked them personally about what the appeal of being suspended in limb-restricting ropes was, and they both agreed that it feels comforting, it’s like a cozy “hug” was the best way they could put it.
Conversation with the trio turns to the slightly more tame topic of work. I wanted to know about the strangest things they’d seen in the proverbial offices.
Shiori said in the world of tapioca she hadn’t experienced anything too outrageous. But she does have one regular customer, an older woman, who stops by the store every day to order Calpis tapioca without the tapioca—which is by deduction… just Calpis. Given the price of bubble tea, it doesn’t make much sense. You can buy Calpis from any convenience store for about a quarter of the price of bubble tea, but we all like what we like, I guess.
Junki has had his fair share of strange requests in his job, too. One couple who he was working with loved tomatoes so much that they requested tomatoes as cake decorations. Another couple loved meat so much that instead of a regular cake, they asked for a meat cake. The best request, however, had to be the couple (both Japanese) who hired a random, unknown American to skype in during the celebrations and congratulate the parties on their big day. If anyone has ins on this gig, let me know – I feel like it could be a very easy, very lucrative job!
12am – Time for a shoey
Nine hours in and the madness starts to hit. The rest of the place is beginning to thin out, so it’s time to share a favorite Australian pastime, the shoey. Not so common in Japan, the shoey is just drinking a beer out of a shoe. If you lose the guessing game, you have to drink a beer out of a shoe. It’s a pretty simple premise.
The worst part isn’t the drinking of the shoe, but rather having to wear the beer-soaked shoe for the rest of the evening. As you can see below, Yoichiro, our native Japanese buddy, is very much enjoying the show that Rack (another Australian) is putting on.
1am – New friends
By now there aren’t that many people left hanging around, so it’s time to start chatting with some of the other night owls. This crew is comprised of Shingi (the guy on the left), Aimi (white shirt at the front right), Mio (blue shirt) and one unnamed. They are from all over Japan—Kanazawa, Wakayama, and Osaka, but they used to work together in the same advertising company.
Half of them have left the ad-game, as they didn’t enjoy the pressures the job brought with it. They were kicking on after a long 3,000 yen all-you-can-drink session at another shop down the road. Aimi said she usually likes to drink in more local areas like Koenji, but this was a convenient place for them all to get together.
Aimi is the Osaka loca. We quizzed her about the biggest difference she finds between Tokyo and Osaka folk, and she reckons as a general rule Osaka people are warmer and friendlier, while Tokyoites can be a little cold. They’ve all lived in Japan for the entirety of their adult lives, but Mio went to school in the US for a while, saying the biggest culture shock was how big American textbooks are. Are they really that big, or are Japanese textbooks just tiny? We need clarification on this! Please get in touch if you know.
2am – Deadtime
While the lights are still shining bright, it looks like at 2am on a Thursday morning most of Shinjuku is in bed. It’s surprising, to be honest. The staff takes this time to pack up all the stools downstairs and give the place a run-though clean. We’re on the second floor and they don’t seem to bother up here. It looks from the outside like the place is shut. Maybe this is a clever ploy to trick and stem the less than desirable post-midnight drunk stragglers.
3am – Last ones standing
Apart from our small collection of late-night visitors, the place is well and truly a ghost town. We have the entire establishment to ourselves. It’s a pretty novel experience in one of the most jam-packed neighborhoods of one of the world’s most populated cities.
The following images are just a snapshot of myself and my comrade and translator Yoichiro starting to lose our minds in the wee hours of the morning. In the background, you can see our other friends coming to visit after playing a late-night jazz gig.
4am – Time to step out
By now it’s been a good two hours since we’ve seen any other patrons enter the premises. It seems like as good a time as any to pay the bill. I don’t want to raise any suspicions so have decided to close the tab, and pay up (at this point it’s a little over 45,000 yen). If you’ve ever wondered how long a 45,000 yen bill is, now you’ve seen it.
I step outside to take some photos of Isomaru in the glow of the inky 4am sky. It’s a pretty photogenic sight! Everyone who has come to visit has officially gone home, and I’m left to fend for myself.
5am – Joe and Tom arrive
At 5am I get a call from my intoxicated friend Joe, he heard about what I was doing, and he and my other friend Tom decide to pay a visit. They’ve been out all night drinking with an acquaintance of Joe’s who insisted on taking the pair out for dinner. From what I can tell, it was a pretty lavish affair.
Joe’s friend has a rather lucrative business that, maybe for legal purposes, is best left ambiguous. Let’s just say he lends money and collects debts.
The pair (Joe left and Tom right) retell me the tales of their night. They went to a karaoke bar with Joe’s friend, but later in the night, the unnamed friend informed the guys that he’d rented some female acquaintances for the evening. Nothing sexual, just female company to hang out and chat with. They said the girls were nice, and it was fine, but it did feel odd hanging out with people you know are getting paid to be there, so they decided meeting me was a handy escape plan. Then they fed me some of their fries which was kind.
It looks like the harsh reality of being at an izakaya when the sun comes up has well and truly hit Tom.
6am – 7am Post Shinjuku party crew
As the sun arrives, so do the burned-out partiers, and the staff from the nearby bars. It’s a fascinating people-watching experience—seeing folks weary from a long night at work order beers when most people are at home brewing their morning coffee. Two guys set up shop at the window across from me. Sharing an odd word or two between chain-smoking cigarettes, they look like they’re in for the long haul.
A pair of guys who work in Shinjuku’s gay district Ni-chome sit at the table next to me. They flirt with the female bar staff in a platonic way, calling her over by name. I overhear their complaints about having to entertain clients. It sounds like trying to match their hard-drinking clients is really having a toll. I start to muster up the courage to go and chat before one of them starts to cry… ok maybe it’s better to leave them be. In the name of privacy, I hide my camera, order oolong tea, and try to focus all my energy on staying conscious.
8am – Staff clock off
I initiate a short conversation with Deni, one of the kitchen workers who has come upstairs to say goodbye and goodnight to the regulars. I noticed Deni earlier in the night when I was exploring the bottom floor of the izakaya once everyone else had left. He’s been living in Japan for 19 years now, but he’s originally from Bali. He’s always worked the 12am to 7am shift, and he doesn’t seem to mind it. He’s so chill I think he could work 24 hours straight and it wouldn’t faze him in the slightest.
9am – Early morning wraps up
The Ni-chome staff finish their after-work dinner and grab the bill. I think the guy who was in tears earlier is ok. He seems composed. A long night working and drinking can make even the most stoic folk sensitive. At 10am the guys by the window roll out, too. After four hours they leave the ashtrays full of butts, and their bellies full of beer.
11am – Pre-lunch
I’ve watched what I think has to be five shifts of waitstaff come and go throughout the past almost 24 hours. I wonder whether I’ll bump into the same ones I saw the day before. Not yet, though. I did notice however that after about 2am the wait staff job goes from being predominantly women to all men, but by 6am there are girls back on shift. It’s empty again now, so the girls are on duty to clean the tables and set up the lunch menus for the midday service.
1pm- 2pm – Lunchtime, again
Slowly, the lunch crowd starts to trickle in. I wonder if I look like I’ve been here for an entire day? I feel like if they get close enough, they could smell it. Thursday lunch is getting pretty busy, but it’s mainly just younger university types and women enjoying a leisurely midday catch up.
3pm- Done and dusted!
The last hour, as expected, feels like the longest of my life, but staying awake now isn’t too bad—I guess the excitement of being free has the adrenaline pumping. The lunch rush is surprisingly busy, busier than the post 10pm shift. I finish the oolong tea that I’ve been sipping for about two hours now, counting down the seconds, and ask for the bill.
The finale of this experiment was pretty anti-climatic. I think had I visited on the weekend rather than a weekday, maybe the clientele would be a little different. But I think the weekday is a good example of the izakaya at its most ‘regular’ and everyday state. The biggest takeaways I gleaned from this are:
- Turns out staff couldn’t care less if you stay in Isomaru for 24 hours.
- Shinjuku izakayas are way tamer than expected, but if you’re willing to try and strike up a conversation, people are open than happy to chat.
I took the celebratory photos outside the ’24 Hour’ sign and head home. Someone asked me about whether or not I’d do it again. At the time, I answered a wholehearted “no,” but after a 13-hour sleep and looking back over these photos and memories, I wouldn’t rule it out entirely. Maybe another 24-hour mission is on the books somewhere new next time…? If you have suggestions, let me know!