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What is Robatayaki? Discover Japan’s Ultimate Grilling Experience

Robatayaki is a Japanese cooking method where ingredients are grilled in front of restaurant guests. Translated directly as “fireside-cooking,” robatayaki is said to have originated in Sendai City in the Tohoku region.

Once it reached Kushiro City in eastern Hokkaido, a region rich in seafood, it spread throughout Japan.

Here, we look at the long-established robatayaki restaurant, Robata, in Kushiro City to explore the history of robatayaki and how it is served.

What is “Robatayaki” ?

The Robatayaki grill has counter seating that surrounds an Irori (a traditional Japanese hearth).

Robatayaki is a Japanese cuisine in which seafood and vegetables are grilled on an Irori (a traditional Japanese hearth) surrounded by the guests. Also called a Ro (furnace), an Irori is where the cooking staff grills up ingredients and warms up sake on a charcoal barbecue.

The name “Robata” (炉端) comes from being on the edge (“Taba”; 端) of the furnace (“Ro”; 炉). So, the style of eating at the edge of a hearth became known as “Robata.” That then led to “yaki” (grilled) items by the hearth, and with it, the name Robatayaki.

Buildings and interiors of Robatayaki establishments are often built in a traditional Japanese style.

The cook who grills at the Irori is called the “Yakite” (grill hand). Shizuko Nakajima, who will be 86 in2022, has been the Yakite at Robata for many years.

However, different restaurants use different styles. Some grill the food surrounded by guests and even heat up sake in the Irori. Others grill it in the kitchen, while others allow the guests to grill the food themselves.

If only sake is being heated, it is sometimes referred to as just “Robata,” and if the guests are grilling for themselves, it is sometimes called a “kaisen barbecue” (seafood barbecue).

How Robatayaki made a name for itself in Kushiro

An Irori, an essential part of Robatayaki (Image: Pixta)

There are various stories about the origins of Robatayaki. Some say it originated in Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture, while others point to Kushiro City, Hokkaido, as its origin.

Shizuko Nakajima and her staff at “Robata”. It was Shizuko Nakajima’s aunt who founded the restaurant.

According to everyone at Robata, the restaurant opened in around 1953. It was a time when Kushiro City was booming as a fishing town. The founder of Robata was inspired by a story of a quirky restaurant in Sendai City that warmed up sake in an Irori and served local cuisine prepared in the back.

Wanting to serve freshly grilled fish from Kushiro, the founder decided to serve the food in a style surrounded by Irori where you can see the food being grilled right in front of you.

70 years of charcoal and fish grilling have painted the walls and ceilings a deep black.

When Robata opened in Kushiro, it was mainly used as an entertainment venue for local celebrities. Such highly esteemed customers came from Hokkaido and beyond to taste the high-quality Kushiro seafood so readily available to Robata.

It is thought that so many competi…

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