While aiseki—the Japanese dining tradition of sitting among strangers at communal tables—is a practice that has been used in Japan as a way of minimizing wait times in restaurants, romance was never a part the equation. But one Japanese chain of izakaya restaurants, Aisekiya, puts a new twist on aiseki seating, giving customers a chance to meet and flirt with the very strangers sitting across from them.
Aisekiya combines gōkon (Japanese group dating) with aiseki to create a unique izakaya experience, where people can mingle, meet strangers, and even fall in love.
Traditionally, gōkon is set up between two groups of friends—one male, the other female—in order to evenly pair off potential love interests. Gōkons are normally held at izakayas, as they’re able to accommodate large groups of people, small portions of food—perfect for sharing, and, most importantly, the frequent all-you-can-drink deals that keep conversations flowing, even when the matches aren’t quite right.
And don’t worry about how to split the bill. Aisekiya takes the izakaya setting of gōkon one step further, as girls pay nothing for their drinks. For men, 30 minutes of all-you-can-drink costs ¥1,500 (plus ¥1,000 table charge fee). Aisekiya serves the typical izakayas fare, including a variety of salty, fried foods, and small plates of Japanese dishes like yakisoba.
The only catch, of course, is that you can’t come alone. And depending of the makeup of your group, you may be sent to separate discrete booths to await your future matches.
A staff member will stay at your table as each group are introduced, so as to help fill in any awkward silences and keep everyone relaxed and having fun. After drinks arrive, said staff member will facilitate a mandatory group “kanpai” (“cheers”), as they demonstrate the ritual with a plastic cup shaped like a glass of foamy beer. After they leave—yes, don’t worry, they do eventually leave—it’s up to you and your cohort to keep the party going.
If the two groups aren’t getting along as well as imagined, don’t be afraid to ask one of the staff to switch you and your partner out. After a short wait and reconfiguration, you’ll be escorted to a new table where you can start a new round of matchmaking.
If you go on a weekend, be prepared to wait. Friday and Saturday nights often require waiting periods of over an hour in their more popular locations like Kabukicho and Shibuya—especially for men.
While Aisekiya is aimed at young Japanese people, don’t feel self-conscious about giving it a try as a foreigner. Whether you and your friends want to meet some new people or have a chance to practice your Japanese, the staff at Aisekiya will do their best to accommodate non-Japanese clients. Same-sex options are also available, so make sure to check with staff if you’re worried about accommodation.
Aisekiya has various locations across Japan. Open until 1am on weekdays, 3am on weekends (so be prepared to chat until sunrise if your group meets their match). www.aiseki-ya.com/