Today, I am going to introduce you to 11 useful things that you should know when it comes to having a meal in Japan or having a meal with your Japanese friends. From the moment you set foot in a restaurant until you leave, this article has got you covered!
I have always believed that the ability to speak English is the magic wand that would allow me to communicate with people from any other culture. I thought that those who don’t try to improve their language skills, especially in English, would always struggle making their way out. But that idea of mine has completely changed after I visited Japan for the first time. Japan’s food replicas were one of the reasons why I have abandoned my beliefs in a snap.
Food sample (食品サンプル) is a very popular way of displaying dishes in Japan. These samples are made of plastic by professional artisans to create perfect, mostly handcrafted, plastic replicas of the menu served in restaurants. Restaurants use these replicas for many reasons. One, they help attract customers, especially foreigners, to try the food shown in their street display. Two, they show the quantity, quality, and price to be expected when ordering the dish. If you have health issues or if you are a picky eater, you can have an idea of the ingredients and know what to eat and what to avoid. Last but not least, with these food replicas, you don’t have to speak any Japanese to complete your order! Use gestures to point on the plate(s) you would like to order and the waitress will get it for you. It’s that simple.
There is no surprise that Japan’s vending machines are the most convenient – they are available everywhere and they sell almost anything you might need. Some smaller restaurants (e.g. ramen shops) have vending machines in front of their stores. Those machines are for you to select what you want to order and pay for it there. After payment, the machine will print out a ticket which you can give to the restaurant staff and they will serve it for you. Many of these vending machines are easy to use and often have photos of the food the restaurant offers.
Unless you only dine after booking a reservation, then you probably experience this a lot in Japan. I have noticed that people here queue for good food – a scene I wasn’t familiar with in my homeland so when I saw it for the first time, I thought, “Why would anyone queue for food at a certain restaurant when there are many other places to eat at?”
Perhaps this way of thinking would have worked in my country where most restaurants share the same level of food quality. However, in Japan, the competition is much stronger so people tend to wait in hopes of enjoying a better meal.
Some restaurants may ask you to write your name on the waiting list, other places may give you a number – the system is quite different from restaurants to restaurants. Just remember not to lose your cool if there is a long waiting line!
Taking off your shoes in a restaurant may be something odd for you to hear. But in Japan, it’s customary to take off one’s shoes in many places and that includes restaurants and fitting rooms. Many Japanese-style restaurants have their guests sitting on the floor. Generally, the host will ask you to take off your shoes, but if you didn’t get that, it’s easy to tell if you need to take off your shoes or not by checking the flooring. If you notice a higher step at the entrance or different flooring materials, then it’s likely that you are in one of those places where you need to take your shoes off. Some restaurants would provide slippers, while some would only provide slippers for the bathroom area, so packing a pair of clean socks in your bag may come in handy.
Available in many cafes and restaurants all over Japan, the bag box comes in different shapes and sizes and is usually placed either behind your chair or under the table. They are very handy and big enough to store your stuff in without worrying about them getting in your way during your meal. (If the restaurant you are at does not have a bag box, you can always opt to bring your own bag hangers or hooks for your convenience.)
Oshibori is a wet towel offered at most Japanese restaurants. These wet towels are often served cold to cool the customers during the hot summer months, and warm during the cold winter season. They are usually given before the meal and it’s polite to wipe your hands with them as soon as you receive them. (But skip your face and neck!)
In most restaurants, drinks will be served before the meal so that guests can socialize with each other while waiting for their food to be ready. Just like in most countries, people assemble and hold their drinks before saying a short speech to celebrate the commemoration or it might be just a simple toast (depending on your company). In most occasions, everyone would choose to make it simple and they would ask for the same drink everybody else is having. In Japan, draft beer or nama biru (生ビール) is a very popular drink to start with. Once everyone receives their drink, they will start with “kanpai (乾杯)” which is the Japanese way of saying “cheers” or “bottoms up.”
Thanks to modern globalization, many people now have Asian restaurants in their home countries making them familiar with chopsticks. The proper etiquette to using chopsticks vary from one country to another. Learning those manners will definitely impress your Japanese friends, but if you are not confident in your chopsticks skills just yet, you don’t really need to stress yourself about it.
This one might take time to adapt to especially if you are coming from a culture where food is separated per person. If you take a look at Western cuisine, you would notice a lot of dishes that emphasize the individuality of the receiver. For example, it’s very common to see two friends walking in the streets eating a hot dog. Both of them are having the same kind of sandwich but they don’t buy one large size and share it in two halves. Another difference is I think it’s more common for Westerners to be picky with their food whether it be for religious, cultural, or personal beliefs. For example, when you go out for dinner, you might have a vegetarian friend, a pescetarian friend, a friend who is on a gluten-free diet, and many other varieties of foodies there. But if we take a look at the Asian cuisine, it’s quite different.
If you have been invited out for a meal with Japanese friends, you probably have noticed how they tend to prefer choosing a lot of dishes and sharing it together over ordering set meals individually. Unlike with a set meal, sharing allows you to taste many dishes at the same time. So let’s say you ordered a tempura set that will contain rice, shrimp tempura, miso soup, and some pickles. With that meal, you only get to try 4 to 5 plates and you might even leave with leftovers or an unsatisfied stomach depending on how much you can eat. On the other hand, let’s say you go out with some of your colleagues for a nomikai (飲み会) which is a drinking event held for groups to socialize with each other. You may order several different dishes to share and everyone would leave with a happy stomach. Generally, people will tend to ask for dishes that everyone can enjoy so if you have any allergies or general concerns regarding your food, it might be a good idea to consider remembering the names of those ingredients in Japanese to save everyone the hassle and for you to enjoy your meal.
So we agree that sharing is very common in Japan, but that is not limited to just dishes but sharing the bill, too.
Generally, there are 3 common methods of sharing the restaurant bill when eating with others in Japan:
- The first one is the “ogori (奢り)” method. “Ogori,” which means “to treat,” is often experienced during big events like celebrating a successful contract signing with a client or celebrating your company’s next huge project. Most of the time, the boss or the person with the highest status would do an act of kindness and say that he is treating everyone to commemorate the day.
- The second payment method is when someone (usually a male) would volunteer to pay for the bill of the day, then another person would pay for it at the next meeting, and so on. This is more common among smaller groups and friends rather than in a business environment but remember to return the favor as soon as possible.
- The last and probably the most popular payment method out of all is simply splitting the bill. When you are in a large group, regardless if you are a big or small eater, splitting the bill equally is just way more practical and less time-consuming than having to compute for what each of you ordered and paying for it individually.
Lately, (thanks to the internet, travelers, and other reliable sources) it became known to many of us that Japan is a no-tipping country. The question here is, “So if I can’t tip in Japan, how can I show my appreciation to the service I received?” There is no general rule for this, but simply saying sincere phrases like “thank you” or “arigatou gozaimasu” and “thank you for the food” or “gochisousama” are already enough to express gratitude.
You can also consider checking the restaurant’s website or page on other travel websites wherein you can write a review and recommendation for the place and their food. Other things that you could do is to visit the same place again whenever you have the chance (if you really enjoyed your experience) or recommend it to your friends. If the place is a restaurant that offers omakase style (“leave it to the chef”) of dining, you can express gratitude by showing that you entrust your meal and your whole dining experience to the chef. Although this type of dining may cost you a little extra.
At the end, dining in Japan is not very different from other countries. Please be respectful to the restaurant’s rules, mind your noise, and don’t insult other customers. If you are dining with your friends or work colleagues, please remember that whatever happens in the restaurant stays in the restaurant. Don’t embarrass yourself and get drunk until you need help to go back home. Also, don’t take advantage of others who are drunk nor take photos of them. They are likely to be very ashamed of their behavior so don’t make it harder on them especially if it is someone of a higher status. Remember to thank everyone, return the favor the earliest (if you have been treated to the feast), and don’t post any photos of that day without asking for the permission of everyone else (not everyone is okay with revealing their daily life details).