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Manners and Etiquette for Eating and Drinking in Japan

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When it comes to eating and drinking in Japan, understanding the subtleties of dining etiquette plays a significant role. Japanese dining etiquette goes beyond merely enjoying the food; it involves a cultural tapestry of practices and manners deeply ingrained in everyday life. From how to order and pay to the way food is consumed and toasts are made, dining in Japan encompasses various customs that reflect the country’s rich traditions and values. Understanding these nuances is crucial for anyone seeking an authentic and respectful dining experience in Japan.

What to expect when dining in Japan?

Eating in Japan is an amazing adventure that lets you explore a wide range of dishes and special foods from different areas. Japanese food is all about rice, noodles, seafood, veggies, and various ingredients prepared in diverse styles—grilled, fried, simmered, or even served raw. You’ll get to savor classic Japanese dishes like sushi, tempura, ramen, and wagashi. But there are also Japanese versions of foreign foods like curry, hamburgers, and taco rice. Japan’s food scene is vibrant with seasonal ingredients, unique local flavors, and specific manners and customs when eating.

Japan Food Sushi
Japanese Food - Sushi

Entering a Restaurant and Seating Arrangement

In Japan, many restaurants showcase lifelike models of their dishes near the entrance using either plastic or wax. These replicas help customers by showing what’s on the menu and give a good idea of the meals available inside, including their style and prices.

Upon entering a restaurant, guests are welcomed with “irasshaimase,” meaning “welcome, please come in.” The staff will ask how many people are in your group and then show you to your table; it’s uncommon for customers to seat themselves.

Most restaurants in Japan offer both Western-style tables and chairs, and traditional low tables known as zashiki with floor cushions. Sometimes restaurants have both options available, and they might ask your preference. If you opt for zashiki-style seating, it’s customary to remove your shoes at the restaurant entrance or before entering that sitting area.

Seating arrangements hold significance in Japanese culture: The guest-of-honor sits at the “kamiza,” the seat farthest from the entrance. The middle of the table is the most respected position, with the second most important person sitting next to it. When there’s a tokonoma (alcove), the guest-of-honor sits in front of it. The host or the least important guest is seated closest to the shimoza (entrance).

During the meal, it starts with everyone saying “itadakimasu” (I gratefully receive), then following the host’s lead, eating and drinking only after they have begun. Sometimes, you might sit in a seiza position (on your heels), which can be uncomfortable. However, sitting cross-legged (if male) or with legs tucked to one side (if female) can be more relaxed, but only if the host suggests making yourself more comfortable. It’s essential not to stretch your legs out in front of you and to keep both hands on your corresponding thighs.

Japan Restaurant

How to have a good dining etiquette in Japan

Maintaining proper dining manners in Japan is crucial for enjoying your meal and showing respect for the culture. Here are some essential guidelines to follow:

  • Begin your meal by saying “Itadakimasu” (いただきます), meaning “I humbly receive.” This expresses gratitude for the food and those who prepared it. Once you’re finished, say “Gochisousama deshita” (ごちそうさまでした), signifying “Thank you for the delicious meal,” to show appreciation for the food and the people who served it.
  • Before eating, use a wet towel (oshibori) to clean your hands. Remember not to wipe your face or neck with it and fold it neatly after use.
  • Handle your chopsticks properly; avoid pointing, waving, or rubbing them together. Also, refrain from stabbing, sucking, or licking them, passing food with chopsticks, or sticking them vertically into a bowl of rice, as these actions are considered impolite or unlucky.
  • Maintain good posture while sitting, and refrain from leaning on the table or crossing your arms or legs. If seated on a tatami mat, use a cushion (zabuton) and sit with legs folded under you (seiza) or crossed in front (agura). Don’t step on the tatami with your shoes or slippers.
  • When eating noodles like ramen, soba, or udon, slurping is acceptable and even shows you’re enjoying the food while helping cool down the hot noodles. You can also sip the soup directly from the bowl.
  • While eating, lift the rice bowl or small dish to your mouth rather than leaning down to it to prevent spills. Using a spoon for dishes like curry rice can also be appropriate.
  • Finish what’s on your plate or bowl to demonstrate respect for the food and those who provided it. If there are items you can’t eat or don’t like, inform the staff or host in advance to avoid leaving any uneaten food.
Japanese Itadakimasu
Begin your meal by saying “Itadakimasu”

How to have a good drinking etiquette in Japan

In Japan, drinking plays a vital role in social interactions. To have a positive experience, it’s essential to adhere to some key drinking customs:

  • Begin by saying “Kanpai” (かんぱい) or “Cheers” as a common toast to celebrate the occasion. You can also express gratitude with “Otsukaresama desu” (お疲れ様です), especially when drinking with colleagues or superiors.
  • Never pour your own drink. It’s seen as impolite. Instead, pour for others, especially those older or of higher rank. Maintain awareness of others’ glass levels and refill when less than half full. When someone offers to pour for you, finish your drink, holding your glass with both hands.
  • Align your first-round drink with the group’s choice to show camaraderie. Typically it starts with beer but is adaptable to the situation. Following the initial round, feel free to order your preferred drink.
  • When drinking sake or shochu, slurping demonstrates appreciation for the flavor. It’s acceptable to sip directly from the small cup (ochoko) or flask (tokkuri).
  • Avoid drinking directly from the bottle as it’s considered impolite and unhygienic. Always use a glass or cup for beer and bottled drinks.
  • Demonstrate respect by waiting for everyone to be served and for the toast “Kanpai” before taking your first sip.
  • Be ready for subsequent rounds after the meal, known as “Nijikai” (second meeting) and potentially beyond, such as “Sanjikai” (third meeting) at bars or karaoke.
  • Politely decline more drinks if you’ve had enough. Leave your glass full, cover it, or say “Mou kekkou desu” (I’m fine, thank you). Opt for non-alcoholic options like tea or water instead.

How to Order and Pay in Japan

When ordering and settling payments in Japan, consider the following:

  • Carry Cash: Japan predominantly operates on cash, especially in rural and traditional areas. Ensure you have yen notes and coins on hand. Foreign currency exchange is available at airports, banks, post offices, and convenience stores.
  • Check Payment Options: Before ordering, confirm if the place accepts credit or debit cards. Commonly accepted card brands in Japan include Visa, MasterCard, JCB, and American Express. You can also use prepaid or IC cards for certain transactions.
  • Placing Orders: To order food, simply state the item’s name followed by “お願いします” (please). For instance, “ビールお願いします” (beer please) or “お茶お願いします” (tea please). You can also use numbers to indicate quantity, like “二つ” (two) or “三つ” (three).
  • Special Requests: Use “できれば” (if possible) to politely make special requests or convey dietary restrictions. For example, “できれば辛くないものをください” (if possible, please give me something not spicy) or “できればベジタリアンのメニューがありますか” (if possible, do you have a vegetarian menu).
  • Getting Attention and Settling the Bill: To attract the staff’s attention, say “すみません” (excuse me) or raise your hand. When asking for the bill, use “お会計お願いします” (check please) or “お勘定お願いします” (bill please). Payment can be made by cash or card at the cashier or at your table, depending on the establishment.
  • Ask for the bill: To request the bill, you can say either “okaikei onegaishimasu” (check please) or “okanjō onegaishimasu” (bill please)
  • In fast food or casual eateries, it’s typical to place your order and settle the bill at the counter before receiving your food.
  • At sit-down restaurants, you usually order from a menu handed to you by the staff or displayed on the table.
  • In traditional restaurants like sushi bars, tempura shops, or kaiseki dining places, ordering often involves set menus or omakase courses. The chef decides what to serve based on seasonal availability. Payment is made after the meal, either at the cashier or at your table, depending on the establishment.

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