Restaurant Etiquette in Japan: How to Avoid Serious Faux Pas
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.
Before Entering a Restaurant in Japan
Japanese restaurants typically have a menu or a display containing replicas of their dishes located at the restaurant entrance to entice customers. You should also check whether the restaurants accept credit card or if it is cash only before ordering.
Some casual eateries, like beef bowl and ramen shops, will have a vending machine at the entrance where you pay for your order in advance, then hand your order ticket to the restaurant staff as you take your seat.
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 or geta sandals 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 Food Etiquette
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 — it’s not meant to be eaten grain by grain. In Japanese culture, soy sauce is not poured on white rice as this causes the rice to lose its stickiness and fall apart, making it difficult to pick up with chopsticks.
Sushi can be eaten either by hand or with 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. Casual sushi restaurants will allow you to 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 without adding any extra soy sauce.
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’s typically served over a big helping of rice and is eaten with a spoon.
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!
Japanese Restaurant Etiquette
There are enough rules surrounding chopstick etiquette in Japan that warenting 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 things to watch out for. First, at a nice restaurant, it’s 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: Japanese Funeral Etiquette
Drinking and Pouring
It’s polite to wait until everyone has their drink before the first “Kanpai!” or “Cheers!” If someone’s glass is empty, it’s common practice to pour for others. In return, they will typically offer to pour for you as well.
How to Properly Use Hand Towels
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.
Ending a Meal at a Japanese Restaurant
At the end of your meal, if the check has not already been brought to the table, you can request it by asking “O-kaikei onegaishimasu” or “O-kanjo onegaishimasu.” 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.
It’s common to take the check up to the register at the restaurant’s entrance to pay as you leave. 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. However, at izakaya and other similar eateries, you may have a seating charge known as “otoshi” automatically charged to your bill if you order any alcoholic beverages.
In some Western-style restaurants, you may be asked to pay the check at your table. In such cases, there will be signage clearly displayed in English as this is not a traditional Japanese practice. Such Western-style restaurants may also factor in gratuity or a service fee automatically.
Following This Dining Etiquette Is Sure to Impress
Delicious Japanese cuisine is one of the biggest highlights of the country, but dining in Japan can be very different than dining out in your home country. By following the Japanese restaurant etiquette above, you can enjoy an excellent meal while avoiding any serious faux pas. If you would rather eat restaurant-quality cuisine in the comforts of your home, check out our guide to food delivery and catering in Tokyo.