From grilled chicken skewers consumed standing in a smoky bar to the finest haute cuisine served course by course by a server clad in a traditional kimono, Japan offers an extensive range of food and dining experiences to fit any budget. However, Japanese restaurant etiquette can vary greatly from the customs of other countries. Here are some essential points to watch out for to ensure that you enjoy the best meal possible.
Reservations are greatly appreciated in busy Japanese restaurants, and there are many online resources to help English speakers secure a table throughout Japan. Websites like Savor Japan, Gurunavi, and Hot Pepper can help you narrow down your choices by location or cuisine and even make a reservation on your behalf.
Japanese restaurants typically have a menu or a display containing replicas of their dishes located at the restaurant entrance to entice customers. If you do not carrying cash, check that E-money or a credit card is accepted.
At restaurants with traditional tatami flooring, you will usually be asked to remove your shoes and place them in a shoe box by the entrance. Indoor slippers are usually provided for walking around inside the restaurant, and special bathroom slippers are provided inside the restroom. Take care not to walk out of the restroom still wearing them!
Japanese restaurants, especially izakaya or restaurants serving Japanese cuisine, will have tatami seating, in which customers sit on cushions (zabuton) on the floor. Make sure you take off your shoes before sitting (as a rule it is best to not wear socks with holes as you will frequently take off your shoes in public), and use the slippers customarily provided to make your way to the bathroom, should you need to.
Horigotatsu is another seating style unique to Japan. Like the aforementioned, it also happens on a tatami mat, but this style has a recessed floor underneath the table, making it feel more like a backless chair than a reed mat.
Ordering in Japan depends largely on the type and quality of the food you eat.
Fast-food restaurants, especially beef bowls, ramen shops or soba stands, rely largely on a ticket-based system. You decide what you want, buy the correlating ticket at the machine (such as below), and bring it to the cook or waiter, minimizing miscommunication in loud, often crowded restaurants.
Family restaurants like Royal Host or Gusto have small buttons on the table — press it, and the waiter will come to take your order down.
In some izakayas, tablets are provided at the table from which you can order. If there is no call-button or tablet on the table, you may also call the waiter by saying 'sumimasen'. This may not be a common sight in the West however, in Japan, you may call out for the waiter (of course, you do not have to shout loudly in upscale restaurants).
In upscale restaurants, they will come to take your order when you have closed the menu. Eye contact and small hand gestures will be understood when necessary.
In Japan, it is perfectly acceptable to lift the bowl to taste soup or eat rice. Conversely, eating rice or miso soup without picking up the bowl and leaving it on the table is considered bad manners. Other small plates and bowls are also easier to eat if you lift them.
What should not be lifted are plates of grilled fish or tempura, large bowls, and plates that are too large to lift and eat.
There are enough rules surrounding chopstick etiquette in Japan to warrant a separate guide of its own. Besides the obvious point that chopsticks are not toys and should not be used to drum upon the table, there are some less obvious customs to watch out for.
First, at a nice restaurant, it is considered rude to rub or scrape your chopsticks together as this implies that you think their chopsticks are cheap or poor quality. When not using your chopsticks, you should lay them on the “hashi-oki” or chopstick rest. If one is not provided, then you can lay them across the edge of your rice bowl. However, at all costs, do not stick your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl as this gesture is tied to traditional Buddhist funeral rites.
Learn More: Chopstick Etiquette in Japan : DOs and DON'Ts
It is polite to wait until everyone has their drink before the first “Kanpai!” or “Cheers!” If someone’s glass is empty, it is common practice to pour for others. In return, they will typically offer to pour for you as well.
When pouring, it is polite to hold the glass bottle with both hands, label pointing up, so that the receiver of the drink can see what you are offering. As you pour, be sure not to touch the bottle to the rim of the glass.
If you find yourself more inebriated than you would like but are having difficulty refusing another pour, the easiest way to signal you are done is simply to leave your glass half full as etiquette usually suggests only pouring more for someone once the glass is empty.
The hand towels you receive from your server, called “oshibori,” are not a face wipe or meant for wiping down the table. Use it to cleanse your hands before eating and to keep your fingers clean during the meal.
Many restaurants and izakaya attract customers by offering all-you-can-eat courses that can be for food (known as “tabehoudai”) or drinks alone (known as “nomihoudai”). These courses typically last for 2–3 hours and come with a limited menu of dishes and drinks that you can order as often as you like. The waiter or bartender will announce a last call, and it is important to strictly adhere to the time limit.
“I never ordered it!” is a common refrain heard from foreigners caught unawares by their check. Otōshi, like an Italian coperto, is essentially an appetizer with a catch. Instead of bars or izakaya having a cover charge, they give you an otōshi, a small dish of something light to whet the appetite while your drinks arrive. It is generally not something you can choose — the chef will prepare one type of otōshi, generally cold, that will be placed in front of you as soon as you put your drink order in. Those not wishing to pay the charge are allowed to refuse the otōshi — but if the sign outside says it is required as a stipulation of entering the restaurant, you must abide by those rules.
In Japan, rice is served in its own separate bowl and eaten with chopsticks. Short grain Japanese rice is quite sticky, which allows it to be easily scooped up by chopsticks in clumps.
You can eat sushi either with hand or chopsticks, whichever you feel most comfortable with. The important thing is to consume the sushi in one bite — or two bites maximum — without returning the half-eaten sushi to your plate. Add soy sauce and wasabi to your own liking. At more upscale sushi establishments, each piece is carefully seasoned by the chef and should be eaten as presented or they will tell you the best way to enjoy the sushi piece.
Japanese curry is more similar to a sweet and mildly flavored stew than an Indian curry full of spices or a Southeast Asian curry made with coconut milk. It is typically served over a big helping of rice and is eaten with a spoon; not chopsticks.
Like sushi, tempura should be eaten in as few bites as possible. However, for bigger pieces like fried shrimp, you can take a bite and neatly place the fried shrimp back on your plate. If the tempura is served in a large communal dish, make sure to place your food onto your own individual dish, called a “torizara,” and not back on the communal platter.
Miso soup is a staple of many Japanese meals. The soup will be served in a covered bowl. Remove the lid and lift the bowl with your hand to drink from it like a cup. If the soup contains any tofu, root vegetables, or fish, you can eat them with chopsticks.
For noodle soups such as ramen, use your chopsticks to lift a helping of noodles from the bowl to your mouth and then slurp them down, chewing as you go. In Japanese culture, slurping noodles is perfectly acceptable and helps to cool the hot noodles as you eat them — just take care not to splash your neighbor!
Occupying the space between tempura and thicker tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), kushiage are small skewers loaded up with various goodies, lightly battered, and deep-fried to perfection. This Kansai favorite also always comes with a light, savory soy sauce, generally in a communal pot on the table, for you to dip the entire skewer in — but be careful. Double dipping is a big faux pas, and most kushiage shops will have a sign in several languages telling people not to double dip.
Shabu-shabu has emerged as a typical Japanese dish in an easy and elegant style. Shabu-shabu involves dipping thin slices of raw meat in a delicately seasoned broth. Wait until it is fully cooked in a pot and then eat it with other vegetables and other ingredients. This healthy dish is very popular in Japan. If you are not sure how to cook it, staff will assist you.
At the end of your meal, if the check has not already been brought to your table, you can request it by saying “O-kaikei onegaishimasu” or “O-kanjo onegaishimasu,” which are interchangeable for “Check please.” In more casual eateries like izakaya, you can also cross your fingers to make an “x” symbol, though this should be avoided at nicer restaurants.
An increasing number of shops now allow customers to pay for their purchases while seated at a table.
It is common to take the check up to the register at the restaurant’s entrance to pay as you leave. As mentioned earlier, many small, non-chain restaurants are cash-only so you should check ahead if you plan to pay with a card. Tipping is not practiced in Japan, so you shouldn’t leave any money or change on your table or the counter when you leave — otherwise you may find one of the restaurant staff chasing after you down the street to return your “forgotten” money.
Tipping in Japan: it is not common at a chain-restaurant however, some Japanese also tip when they know the restaurant's owner, at a family owned restaurant, or when they received a special service.
Do doggie bags exist in Japan? While restaurant portion sizes in Western countries have birthed a custom of taking leftovers home for a second meal, this is not the case in Japan. If you are considering asking for a take-home container, the answer, unfortunately, will almost always be no.
Japanese restaurants are reluctant (and indeed, often forbidden) to send food home with customers who may not store it properly or may get sick from it later. The occasional restaurant with a takeout license may be able to send it home with you. While Japanese portion sizes are much smaller than many around the world, not wasting food is a huge part of Japanese restaurant etiquette, so order only what you can eat. Indeed, some all-you-can-eat courses will penalize you with a fee if you fail to eat what is ordered, so it is important to listen to your stomach.
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