We went to Japan on a food pilgrimage. After learning about the symbolic importance of food and the new year, we traded in our champagne bottles for soba noodles. While eating our way through Tokyo and Osaka we learned a few things about dining that you may want read about before your next trip to Japan!
Living in San Francisco, we have a plethora of authentic Japanese restaurants, so we were familiar with the food before going abroad. If your knowledge of Japanese cuisine is more limited, don’t worry. The first thing to know is that Japanese food is much more than sushi. Some restaurants will specialize in udon, ramen, or curry, while other places serve shabu shabu (hot pot) or Japanese hamburger rice! Wherever you dine, here are some etiquette basics to start with.
At the start of every meal you will be offered a wet towel known as an oshibori. Even the Starbucks in Japan will give you a small pre-wrapped moist toilette. This wet towel is meant for you to gently cleanse your hands before eating. Oshibori service is a long-held tradition in hospitality, but in modern-day Japan it is especially useful to wipe your hands after using public transportation or greeting others with handshakes.
Just like any other dining utensil, these are not to be played with, rubbed together or used to point at people. We found that tables in many restaurants were not pre-set the way western restaurants are. Instead, chopsticks are stored in a small wooden box on the edge of the table. When your food is served, simply open the box and grab a pair to use!
If food is being served family style, do not use the thin sides of the chopsticks to grab food from serving bowls. Instead, flip the chopsticks around in your hand and use the thick side (that doesn’t go in your mouth) to serve yourself.
Do not pour soy sauce directly onto your food. A small saucer will be provided and you can dip your food into the separate soy sauce dish. There is no need to fill the saucer completely as waste is considered very rude. Instead, just add more as needed throughout your meal.
If food is served in small bowls (like for miso) you can lift it to your mouth and drink from it directly. Don’t be afraid to slurp up noodles in your udon or ramen, it is a sign you are enjoying the meal!
Once you are finished, put everything back to where it was originally placed on the table. There is no need to stack dishes. When you are ready to pay, your server will either give you a tray with your total receipt or motion you to the cashier. When paying, put cash directly into the tray your receipt was presented on, don’t hand it to the person directly. If the restaurant accepts credit, hand over your card using both hands, (as this is the most respectful way to handle anything with your name on it.) After the transaction is finished give a big smile and slight bow. Tipping is not expected but polite manners are!
Wandering Off the Beaten Path
If you are dining in places that are accustomed to tourists, ordering is quite easy as there are often pictures on the menu and some people will even speak English. However, if you are venturing into more local eateries, fear not, we have more tips!
Often filled with cigarette smoke and boisterous crowds, the izakaya bars are where an otherwise reserved culture comes to let off some steam. When you arrive, hold up your fingers with the number of seats you need and let them lead you to your table. After washing your hands with the oshibori, smile and ask for “nama biru kudasai!” This will get you a pint of draft beer. Similar to pubs in Germany, some izakaya serve only specific brands. For this reason, we found it was best to simply order what is on tap. You will get a confused stare if you ask for a Sapporo when you’re in a Asahi bar.
After bringing your beer, the service staff will not approach the table again. They are not being neglectful, but simply allowing you privacy. As mentioned before, Japanese culture tends to be quiet and reserved. By not approaching the table, the staff is allowing you a free pass to enjoy time with friends uninterrupted. If you do need to summon a waiter, look no further than the edge of the table. We have heard that some chain bars have tablets you can order from, but we tend to end up in very small local establishments. In these tiny bars you may need to ring the bell/button on the edge of the table. This will either make a noise or light up your table number in the servers station. If all else fails, raise your hand and someone will assist you.
Not sure what to order? You can’t go wrong with karaage (juicy fried chicken nuggets), yakatori (chicken or vegetable skewers) or edamame (boiled soybeans). If you are feeling adventurous you can just do what we did and point at random things on the menu. We ended up with some amazing new things to try!
Trying New Things
Don’t be afraid to venture out past your comfort zone while dining. You will find great food in unexpected places such as shopping malls and train stations. One of our favorite meals was a shabu shabu buffet where we chose pre-skewered fish, meats and vegetables to cook at the hot pot built into our table.
Our most memorable experience was when we had dinner on new years eve. On this holiday, it is traditional to eat soba. The elongated noodle symbolizes a long life. At the same time, soba is easy to cut and represents cutting away bad fortune and starting new. To accompany this traditional meal we also ordered sake. We were not expecting the server to place the sake glasses into a small wooden box (a masu) and continue pouring until the sake overflowed from the glass into the box. We learned is that this overflowing pour is a form of good service, showing gratitude to the customer. We were taken aback by this show of generosity and pleased to start our new year on this note. As we dipped our heads down like cranes and sipped from the cup, we knew that was what travel was all about. Trying new things and making new memories. Kanpai!