Japanese restaurants: what to expect?

Japanese restaurant etiquette isn’t drastically different from Western restaurant etiquette, and Tokyo’s rich culinary culture is one of the major reasons to make the trip. Below, here’s a quick guide to eating out in Japan.

  1. Learn A Few Basic Words

Japanese restaurant workers don’t know much English, but restaurants that frequently host foreigners will have pictures on their menus along with English descriptions of ingredients. You can just point to the food you want, but learning a few words will make your dining experience more comfortable.

Hai means “yes,” and Iie means “no.” Sumimasen means “excuse me,” and you’ll say it quite a bit in Japan. Use it to get a server’s attention or to apologize for any confusion.

Arigato means “thank you,” while domo arigato means “thank you very much.”

  1. Japanese Etiquette Varies In Some Surprising Ways

If you’re eating noodles, feel free to slurp away. Slurping food isn’t considered rude in Japan. However, try to avoid munching on your food loudly, and never blow your nose while sitting at the table.

It’s considered polite to finish every last grain of rice on your dish, as this shows respect to the people who farmed it. You should aim to clean your plate, so try not to order too much food.

  1. You’ll Be Given A Few Items You Didn’t Ask For

Some restaurants will serve you green tea before your meal, regardless of whether or not you ask for it. And some will give you a second cup at the end of the meal. This tea is typically complimentary, and you don’t have to drink it if you don’t like green tea.

Some restaurants will give you a damp towel (oshibori) prior to your meal. The towel will be hot or cold, depending on the season. Use it to clean your hands. You can also dab your mouth with it.

  1. What To Do (And Not To Do) With Your Chopsticks

Some general tips: Don’t use your hand to catch food, and try to eat all of the food at the end of your chopsticks in one bite. Never raise your food above your mouth. If you’re eating soup, you can bring the bowl up to your mouth along with your chopsticks.

When you’re not eating, rest your chopsticks on the supplied chopstick rest or on the side of your plate. Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of your rice, as this resembles a Japanese funeral offering.

  1. If You Have Any Dietary Restrictions, Prepare In Advance

If you’ve got dietary restrictions, a better approach would be to print off a “chef card,” which explains in proper Japanese what you can’t eat.

Don’t be shy about using your chef’s card — Japanese restaurant workers take great pride in their craft, and they won’t be offended by your restrictions or dietary preferences. They’ll also check ingredients meticulously, so you can enjoy your meal with complete peace of mind.

  1. If There’s No English On The Outdoor Signage, Steer Clear

Some restaurants don’t want foreign visitors, and we can’t blame them — anyone who has worked in the service industry knows that food preparation is a fast-paced business, and those who don’t speak Japanese can certainly slow things down.

Stick to restaurants that have English signage. This won’t reduce your options significantly as the vast majority of Tokyo restaurants cater to foreigners.

  1. You’ll Pay For Your Meal In Cash

Japanese people don’t really use credit cards. You’ll want to bring plenty of yen with you on your trip. Don’t leave a tip. Tipping is not customary in Japan, and it can be seen as odd or insulting.

This is also true at Japanese bars, although you can tip in smaller bars that frequently serve foreigners if you’ve received exceptionally good service. If a bartender refuses your tip, thank them and take your money back.


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