If you’ve never heard of Japan’s aiseki, prepare to be blown away by the concept. They are like blind date lounges where groups of men and women, usually around two to three people, get seated together to have a blind date. And get this, women eat and drink for free. The lounges, often in an izakaya or bar-like setup, encourage guests to meet people in a romantic context. Going to aiseki is a way for people to drink and chat with people of the other gender, without the hassle of organizing a hangout. If you’re interested in hitting one up soon, here’s the run-down on what to expect. 

How It Works 

For women, aiseki registration and entrance is quite easy. The establishment will ask you to either download an app or add the bar on Line, and will usher you into the lounge when a seat is open. Usually from a tablet on the table, women can order drinks and food at no cost. On weekdays, many aiseki even have all-you-can-eat food items for women. During early hours when there aren’t so many men there, it can sometimes be a whole hour before women are seated  alongside men. At the end, unless they ordered an item that requires an additional cost, women can leave with their wallets untouched. 

For men, the system is similar, except it comes with a cost. Often, they’ll be charged per 10 minutes, with prices ranging from ¥400 on weekdays to upwards of ¥1,000 during peak hours. Men must also pay for their own food and drink, so the prices certainly stack up. They can expect to pay around ¥10,000 for a couple of hours, which is essentially the cost of paying for two people.  

The Rules

If the blind date goes well, it’s quite common for people to trade contact information to hang out again, or even hit up another bar that same night. Aiseki also comes with more rules than an izakaya or bar. For example, when seated with men, women can only use the bathroom one person at a time. This is to avoid men feeling like they are not getting enough time to speak with the women they are sitting with.  

If, at any time, either the women or the men don’t feel a connection with who they’re sitting with, they can ask to be switched to a different table via the mobile app or tablet. Depending on the ratio of men to women in the bar, the dates can last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, but if the people you’re sitting with are asked to move not long after you all clinked glasses, it’s possible they didn’t catch a vibe.  

What Are Aiseki Like? 

If you were already aware of aiseki, chances are you’ve already seen the Aisekiya signs. With over 70 stores nationwide, this is the largest aiseki izakaya chain in Japan, but hardly the only one. It’s laid out more like your usual izakaya, with several of the stores having buffet-style dining. Other popular chains, such as Oriental Lounge and Ag, have comfortable couches and artsy decoration to really set up the mood for making romantic connections. Some of the hipper aiseki stores located in areas like Shibuya, only allow people in their 20s and 30s to step in.  

Aiseki are quite heteronormative. As a rule, you can’t enter one with a co-ed group of friends. Since groups of men are seated with groups of women, you also generally can’t expect to make friends of the same gender. Some aiseki are designed to be attended alone, but the most common situation is to go to one with groups of two to three friends.  

Aiseki’s Allure 

The desired outcome is to find a romantic connection with someone. In the end, customers, particularly male customers, go to aiseki instead of a normal izakaya specifically for the purpose of sitting with other singles. A lot of women certainly take advantage of the complimentary all-you-can-drink-and-eat element and consider mingling with men as more of an afterthought. Although some women may be eyeing the free-flowing drinks more than the men at their table, guests get to circulate the store, and often sit with multiple groups of people.  

The attractiveness of aiseki boils down to its convenience. If you’ve been feeling unlucky in love, or just generally haven’t been meeting new people of late, it’s easy to gather a few friends to hit up a store as the concept is built around meeting new people. With the staff asking customers to kanpai when seated with new people, or to alternate seats between men and women, aiseki tries to get rid of the awkwardness that blind dates can lend themselves to. 

Aiseki for Foreigners 

Aiseki is certainly open to foreigners and can be a great way for non-native guests to practice their Japanese. The staff at aiseki will try their best to accommodate non-Japanese speakers. Foreigners can even enjoy a unique experience of going on several blind dates in one evening. However, it is important to note that guests at aiseki are looking to connect with people and may only want to talk to native Japanese speakers.  

Just like at any bar, people may choose to engage with people they have no language barrier with. On the flip side, many Japanese people might be excited about speaking to foreigners, for a cultural exchange of sorts. Who knows, you might meet your favorite language-exchange buddy or even the love of your life. And, if you’re a woman, you’ll even get a free meal out of it.