In Scenes from a Japanese Restaurant in Japan, you are greeted by the throaty shout: Irasshaimase (welcome)! and guided to your seat, where chopsticks and drinking water are waiting for you. But then what? When you travel to the other side of the world, certain things will have you wondering if it’s “Opposite Day”… especially in the realm of table manners. Here are some helpful tips for eating at a Japanese restaurant in Japan.
1. Indicate Menu Items With Your Outstretched Hand. The vast majority of menus in Japanese restaurants are written in Japanese, but tourist-savvy restaurant owners will often have photos of the food next to the name. Pointing with your index finger is considered rude in Japan, so gesture to the item you’d like with your outstretched hand instead.
2. Eat Your Soup With Chopsticks. No, we’re not kidding. In Japan, soup is eaten with chopsticks, not a spoon. And just how on earth do people manage this? They pick the solid ingredients out of the bowl with chopsticks, and drink the rest of the broth, using the bowl as a cup. Try it! It’s easier than it sounds, and drinking the broth makes it all the tastier.
3. Eat Your Curry With a Spoon. We’re still not kidding! You eat slippery rice and soup with chopsticks, but your curry with a spoon? Yep. Curry rice is perhaps the only Japanese food that is eaten with a spoon – apart from desserts. Make the most of it!
4. Take Off Your Shoes. Certain restaurants will require you to take off your shoes in the tatami mat area, so come prepared: wear clean, matching socks.
5. Flip Your Sushi Upside-down to Dip it in Soy Sauce. It’s the fish that needs the flavor, not the rice. Engineer your sushi bite so that it’s the flesh gets the dunking.
6. Put Just a Bit of Soy Sauce in the Soy Sauce Dish. The first time I ate sushi in Japan with a Japanese friend, he could barely hide his surprise as he watched me pour my soy sauce into the soy sauce dish. “That’s a lot of soy sauce,” he said. Use just a bit of soy sauce in your dish; filling it up to the top is considered unseemly. You can always add more later.
7. Slurp Your Soup. In Japan, slurping your soup is not only considered polite, but just plain good sense. Slurping not only helps the noodles get into your mouth; it helps the piping hot broth cool off.
8. Leave Your White Rice Plain. White rice in Japan is white for a reason; it’s meant to combine with the strong flavors of other dishes, so put the soy sauce down!
9. Press the Button For Service. Eating establishments like izakaya (Japanese gastropubs) and curry houses will often have a button on the table, which is meant for you to press when you need service. Although shouting “sumimasen (excuse me)” to your waiter might arguably be more fun.
10. Watch Where You Put your Chopsticks. If you’re not used to eating with chopsticks, you might try to devise ways to make them more Westerner-friendly, like “cutting” meat with them, or sticking them up in a bowl of rice so that they don’t dirty up the table. Chopsticks – giant ones – are used in Japanese funerals, so if you’re not careful with how you use them, you risk committing a serious faux pas. DON’T: stick chopsticks in a bowl of rice and DON’T use them to pass food; it will inevitably remind other diners of passing their loved ones’ bones to each other with chopsticks during the funerary Bone-Picking Ceremony.
What’s your best tip for eating at a Japanese restaurant in Japan?
All photos by Eva Sandoval