Like all cultures, Japan has its own customs and unspoken rules when it comes to eating and drinking. Before you sit down to your first piping hot bowl of ramen or a fresh piece of nigiri sushi, there are some things you ought to know about Japanese table manners and dining etiquette. No need to feel intimidated, let us give you a handy few tips to help you on your gastronomic adventure. This is your 101 guide to dining faux-pas-free in Japan.
It's always polite to learn a few useful phrases for restaurant scenarios. Read Basic Phrases for Dining Out for some must-know Japanese!
This guide will cover the following topics:
Generally speaking, there are lots of useful things to know about Japanese table manners. If you are dining in a room with a tatami floor, remove your shoes before stepping into the room. Hand towels or "oshibori" are invariably offered, and as the name suggests, it’s a towel for your hands. Sometimes disposable or sometimes a warm cloth handed to you by the staff, an oshibori is not for wiping your face and neck. Rather, use it to wipe your hands clean before a meal, and then to keep your fingers clean throughout.
Once you’ve ordered, it is good manners to wait for everyone’s meals to arrive at the table and then begin eating together. Before you start the meal, put your hands together and say "itadakimasu," meaning "I gratefully receive." While eating, it is no problem to pick up small dishes with your hands and bring them closer to your mouth. The same goes for your bowl of rice; you can hold it up to your mouth in one hand and use your chopsticks in the other. Similarly, you can drink miso soup directly from the bowl, but in this case, use your chopsticks to fish out anything like kombu seaweed or tofu that’s in the soup.
When it comes to ramen or any type of noodles, it’s no problem to slurp away with gusto, as this is meant to show appreciation for the meal and, supposedly, to enhance the flavor. You can also enthusiastically slurp soups, but on the other hand, eating noises such as burping and munching loudly are unwelcome, as is blowing your nose at the table. It’s fine to sniff to avoid the need to blow your nose, but otherwise, just excuse yourself and pop to the bathroom to sort that out. Leaving the chopsticks on the chopstick rest, or "hashioki," indicates you are not yet done. If you are, place them sideways across your bowl to signify that you have finished eating.
Once you have finished your meal, it’s considered polite to put all the dishes back to their original positions, which includes placing any lids back on to wherever they came from. Finish off by saying "gochisousama deshita," meaning "thank you for the meal." It is considered polite to eat everything, right down to the last grain of rice, however, if there is something you don’t like, just leave it as it is.
For those not used to using them, getting the hang of how to handle chopsticks, or "hashi," might be your greatest hurdle when it comes to Japanese food. If you can, find yourself some time to learn how to use chopsticks properly before you come to Japan, because while there is no shame in asking to use a spoon or a fork (surprise, yes, they exist in Japan), using hashi cannot be avoided. The main thing to know about chopsticks is that the bottom stick should rest steadily in your hand, while the top stick does all of the movement for picking things up. Chopsticks are literally so handy, and are used by millions of people over the world, so here are some useful dos and don’ts when it comes to using hashi in Japan.
As opposed to the Chinese style of laying them vertically to the side, the Japanese way is to lay the hashi horizontally in front of the diner. If they are in a paper sheath ("hashibukuro"), remove them, and you can fold this paper into a "hashioki" chopstick rest if there isn’t one provided. If the hashi are disposable you should split them horizontally, and avoid rubbing them together. Rubbing chopsticks together is done to get rid of splinters from low-quality wood, but there should be no need for it these days. If you rub them together, it is seen as rude, as you are showing that the hashi are of bad quality.
Different from a fork or a spoon, hashi are used to pass food from the dish to the mouth, so you should avoid licking or sucking the end of the chopsticks. It is rude and unhygienic to serve food using your personal set of chopsticks, but in the case it is unavoidable, turn them around and serve with the blunt end (but of course it would be better to have a separate set of serving chopsticks). Do not stab your food, and especially do not leave your chopsticks in your rice bowl, sticking up vertically, as this is evocative of a Japanese funeral ritual offering. For the same reason, never pass food with chopsticks to someone else’s set of chopsticks, as this is also done at funeral ceremonies, to pass the bones of the deceased between family members.
Don’t point your chopsticks at other people, or pick up something with your chopsticks and put it back again. Another thing to remember is not to cut your food using chopsticks, but rather if it is a big piece of food, just take a bite and then place the other part back onto your plate. Of course, it almost goes without saying, there is no need for that sick chopstick drum solo, either.
When it comes to wasabi and soy sauce, it's best not to overdo it because this is seen as disrespectful to the intended flavor of the food. Pour the soy sauce into the smaller bowl provided, but use it sparingly, as not to waste either the condiments or overpower the flavor of the dish. It is also generally looked down upon if you mix soy sauce and wasabi together, and pour it over your meal. Whenever you are eating sushi, you should spread wasabi on the top and dip just the fish side into the soy sauce. If you dip in the rice side, it will most likely absorb too much soy sauce and overpower the flavor of the sushi, and also cause it to break apart (not a good look). Also, definitely do not pour soy sauce over steamed white rice!
Be mindful of drinking etiquette in Japan, as Japanese drinking culture comes with its own customs too. Firstly, don’t be too hasty to down your drink the moment it arrives at your izakaya table, and never drink before everyone has a drink in their hand, whether it be alcoholic or something soft. It is customary in Japan to wait and begin drinking together after saying "cheers," or "kanpai!"
It’s also bad form to pour a drink for yourself, as this is considered to be rude. It is more polite to pour drinks for your dining partners, and they will reciprocate for you too. Keep an eye out on the glasses of your friends or colleagues and refill them when they become empty. When someone else offers to pour for you, finish up whatever is in your glass before your offer it towards them. With a culturally ingrained hierarchy, it’s customary in Japan to pour for your seniors as well. It is also useful to remember that sake is actually pronounced "sah-kay, "not "sah-kee."
One last pro tip is that there is no need to tip in Japan (woohoo!), as the price is fixed and that’s it. But bear in mind, some places add on the tax at the end. Leaving a tip can cause some confusion in Japanese restaurants, with the possibility of the staff coming after you to rectify this "mistake." But, when it might be more expensive than you’d initially thought, be mindful of cover charges common in many restaurants and izakayas. Usually, you will get a small appetizer called an "otooshi" for this, and comes included in the already fair and squarely set price, though sometimes it is not written clearly on the bill. While there are plenty of things to remember when it comes to dining etiquette in Japan, tipping, thankfully, is not one of them.