Hungry For Knowledge: How to Read a Menu at a Restaurant in Japan

By The byFood Team
Updated: April 26, 2024

Even if you've managed to book a Japanese restaurant without using any Japanese, once you're there, sitting at the table, menu in hand, you might feel a sudden wave of nervousness. Where to start?

Although you may find restaurants with English menus in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya, learning a little Japanese will grant you access to an even higher caliber of tasty, authentic Japanese food. 

That’s why our Japan restaurant phrases guide exists, after all, but we’re also going to share our knowledge on Japanese menus and what you can expect to find. 

The more you can read, the more you can eat! 

Common Japanese menu sections

A hard-to-read Japanese menu showing handwritten kanji and red scrawls.

To read a menu in Japanese, you need to know your way around the different sections that might pop up. Let’s get into it: 

Food: 食べ物 (tabemono) or フード (food)

Drinks: 飲み物 (nomimono) or ドリンク (drink)

Alcohol: お酒 (osake)

Small dishes: おつまみ (otsumami) – Similar to tapas, to order with your drink. This typically includes salty foods that go well with alcohol, such as salted edamame

Recommendations: おすすめ (osusume) – Recommended items or seasonal dishes (an excellent place to start if you don’t know what to order!)

Closing dish: しめ (shime) – A closing dish, usually savory. Pro tip: Look for the 〆 symbol!  

Desserts: デザート (dezato)

Common Japanese food categories

Ramen, gyoza, and karaage set on a table.

But the categorization of food in Japanese menus goes a little further than this. 

Most menus will have subcategories within their main menu that will group dishes of a certain kind together so that diners can quickly find what they're looking for.

Brush up on these and you’ll be whizzing through the menu like a pro:

Osashimi (お刺身): sashimi or fresh seafood platters

Kushimono (串物): food that comes on a skewer, such as yakitori, kushikatsu, and grilled vegetables

Himono (干物): dried food, especially dried fish that you can eat with a dip

Nimono (煮物): braised comfort foods, such as pork belly, kabocha, and fish like tilapia

Salad (サラダ): salads made with fresh, seasonal vegetables

Yakimono (焼き物): fried or grilled foods such as tamagoyaki (rolled omelet) or yakisoba

Agemono (揚げ物): deep-fried foods like karaage, tonkatsu, and korokke

Gohanmono (ご飯物): rice dishes, typically consumed at the end of the meal

Donburi (丼ぶり): foods that come in a bowl, such as kaisendon (seafood bowl) or oyakodon (chicken and egg), are served over rice

Meshi (飯): rice dishes, typically ones that come in their own pot

Yaki (焼き): fried or grilled foods

Awase (合わせ): assorted or mixed dishes

Maki (巻き): rolled sushi

Temaki (手巻き): hand-rolled sushi that comes in a cone shape

Nigiri (握り): sushi without the seaweed; just one bite’s worth of rice topped with a fish slice

Higawari (日替わり): a restaurant’s daily special

More food-related Japanese that’s good to know

Looking in at a warmly lit izakaya where a chef is cooking while two friends catch up at the counter.

Otoshi (お通し): a small dish that’s served at many spots in place of a seating charge

Tabehodai (食べ放題): all-you-can-eat — this normally comes with a time limit and specific menus you can order from

Nomihodai (飲み放題): all-you-can-drink — this also has a set time limit and specific menus you can order from, with prices changing based on the types of drinks you’d like to include

Ippin ryori (一品料理): à la carte — this one isn’t as common, but simply refers to ordering individually items from a menu

Yakiniku (焼肉): grilled meat, normally served on skewers and grilled by yourself

Yakitori (焼き鳥): grilled chicken

Tonkatsu (トンカツ): breaded pork cutlet

Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き): an Osaka specialty, mixing batter, shredded cabbage, and your choice of ingredients into a filling, savory pancake

Unagi (鰻): freshwater eel, often served on top of rice

Soba (そば): buckwheat noodles, served hot or cold in a variety of dishes and broths

Udon (うどん): thick, chewy wheat noodles, served hot or cold

Teishoku (定食): a “set meal,” often made up of traditional Japanese ingredients, featuring a main dish, a side of rice, miso soup, and a selection of vegetables or tsukemono (pickled foods)

Common allergens on Japanese ingredients

A table covered in common allergens, including wheat bread, cheese, nuts, eggs, and milk.

Prawn: Ebi (海老・えび) — this is one to watch out for as it’s included in a lot of dishes you might not expect

Shellfish: Kairui (貝類) — covering all forms of shellfish that might be included in a dish or its flavoring

Wheat: Mugi (麦) — one for Coeliacs to watch out for, wheat is included in lots of Japanese noodles, chips, baked goods, beer, cereals, pasta, pizza, and so much more!

Meat: Niku (肉) — this is self-explanatory, but worth keeping an eye out for if you’re vegetarian or vegan

Fish: Sakana (魚) — fish finds its way into a lot of Japanese dishes, so don’t be surprised to see this popping up in dishes you never expected!

Bonito fish: Tsuo or fushi (つお・節) — many times, if fish appears, this is the fish they’re talking about, used in a lot of traditional Japanese broths for flavoring

Egg: Tamago (卵) — one to avoid if you’re vegan, of course

Dairy: Nyuuseihin (乳製品) — another important word to watch out for if you’re avoiding all dairy products

Soy: (ソイ) — great as a vegan alternative, but not so great if you’re allergic to soy

Gelatin: Zerachin (ゼラチン) — just like in the West, gelatine can be found in a lot of desserts, including jelly and chewy sweets

Nuts: Nattsu (ナッツ) — watch out for this ingredient if you have any nut allergies; you may be able to ask for any nuts to be removed if they’re only used as a garnish. For guidance, use our Japanese phrases for dining out guide

Different types of restaurants in Japan

Looking down the crowded bar alley of Golden Gai.

Japanese bar: Izakaya (居酒屋) — a traditional Japanese bar, often filled with locals, alcohol, and good conversation

Family restaurant: Famiresu (ファミレス) — called as such because they’re affordable, accessible, and have menus with options for all ages and tastes

Pub: Pabbu (パブ) — Modeled after the traditional British pub, experience a taste of the UK at places like Hub or Hobgoblin

Standing bar: Tachinomi (立ち飲み) — just like it sounds, this is a small bar where you stand while you drink. They’re often quite small, only having room for a few drinkers at a time!

Hot pot: Shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) — restaurants that specialize in hot pot, where you cook meat and vegetables in a variety of different broths

Buffet: Baikingu (バイキング) — an all-you-can-eat buffet, named after Scandinavian Vikings because the original name of smörgåsbord was too hard to say. Intrigued? Find out more.

Conveyor belt sushi: Kaitenzushi (回転寿司) — the classic conveyor belt sushi restaurants that Japan is famous for, bringing delicious sushi to your table

Multi-course Japanese meal: Kaiseki ryori (懐石料理) — the traditional art of many dishes being served, ranging in colors, textures, and flavors to represent the season’s changing ingredients

Teppanyaki: 鉄板焼き — various meats and vegetables grilled on an iron griddle, either cooked by yourself or a designated chef before your very eyes

Ramen: ラーメン — everyone’s favorite bowl of noodles, with unlimited variations between regions!

Ordering your food 

A man speaking to a bartender at a Japanese bar.

If you go to a fast-food chain or conveyor belt sushi restaurant, you might order on a tablet, not with a waiter. Here are a few terms to navigate the ordering process in a digital format:

Modoru (戻る): go back or return to the previous page 

Torikesu (取り消す): erase or remove 

Kakunin (確認): confirm 

Chumon suru (注文する): to order or check out

If you’re dealing with an in-person server, ordering verbally is relatively simple. All you need to do is say the name of the dish followed by “Kudasai,” or “Please.” If you want to specify a certain number, you can say “(name of dish) o hitotsu (one)/futatsu (two)/mitsu (three)/yotsu (four) kudasai.” There are other counters such as “ko” for small things and “mai” for flat things, but you can usually get away with the “tsu” counter (plus, it’s much easier to remember)! 

If all else fails, you can always point to an item on the menu and say “Kore kudasai,” or “This please.” Simple, but effective!

For a more detailed explanation of ordering in a Japanese restaurant, check out our full guide for dining out in Japan, including many more must-know Japanese phrases!

If you’re wondering how to order from a Japanese menu, it sounds like you’re eating out in Japan soon! Get to grips with ordering in Japanese, or let us give you a helping hand with vegan and vegetarian food in Japan with our vegan guides in Tokyo and Kyoto.

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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The byFood Team
Sharing our love of Japanese cuisine and culture, with the mission of spreading happiness through food.
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