Food culture is huge in Japan, and particularly in Tokyo. The city hosts more than 100,000 restaurants and Japanese food or “washoku” has been registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, making tasting Japanese dishes a must for the discerning visitor.
However, Japan being a country renowned for its etiquette traditions, it is important that you know how to behave properly when eating. Here, you will find a few customs that will help you show respect for these traditions.
Local restaurant rules
Reservations are important in Japan, where restaurants are usually small. Some trendy places, such as Den and Florilege require booking at least a month in advance. However, for most eateries, you can consider one or two days in advance for booking. If you have to cancel, do it as soon as possible. Be aware that in some restaurants, you may be charged the full price of the tasting menu upon cancellation. Punctuality is a valued characteristic in Japanese culture. Late arrival may result in you losing your table. So, if you cannot make it on time, call the restaurant to let them know.
Many restaurants are closed on Sundays and Mondays. Lunch is usually served from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Taverns or izakayas usually stay open untill later. For other food and drink options, you can find coffee and noodle shops. Find out in advance if the restaurant specializes in a specific dish, as this can be a problem if you have food allergies or dietary restrictions.
Additionally, make sure that when invited to a meal, you bring a gift for the host to express your gratitude.
How to behave upon arrival
There are a few customs to consider upon arrival at the restaurant. If you are offered a hot towel, know that it is meant to clean your hands. Using it to wipe your face can be considered disrespectful.
Once you are at your table, respect the sitting arrangements. The most senior person deserves the seat of honour, which is the farthest from the entrance. This is particularly important if you are having a business meal.
What to order if you want to taste real Japanese food
Food is big in Japan. So big in fact, that a recent survey conducted placed it above all other considerations when people were quizzed about the Japanese capital. Traditional Japanese cuisine is based on the “rules of five”, which ensure the balance between the aesthetic, quality, and taste. These rules consider the use of five colours (black, white, red, yellow, and green), five ways or cooking techniques (raw food, grilling, steaming, boiling, and frying), and five different flavors (sweet, spicy, salty, sour, and bitter).
Some of the most famous Japanese dishes were based on these rules. For example, Sushi, the most famous one, is prepared with a combination of rice and fish. Sashimi consists of thinly sliced raw food, and it is one of the most ancient Japanese dishes. And, Tempura is prepared with battered and dry fish accompanied by seafood or vegetables.
How to behave during your meal
Few Japanese restaurants will be able to provide you with a knife and fork. Thus, it is important to know how to use chopsticks properly. Once you have finished your meal, place them on the chopstick stand. Otherwise, chopsticks left on your plate indicate that you are still hungry. Never point at anyone or anything with your chopsticks, and try not to raise them above your mouth.
During your meal, try to keep up with your host’s drink intake. If someone refills your glass, return the gesture later on. When pouring, do it with the bottle pointing forwards. Do not be afraid to drink the soup from the bowl. Japanese consider this gesture as a demonstration that you are enjoying your meal. Do your best to finish your meal. It is common to order a rice dish at the end, so be ready for the extra food.
The person that extended the invitation pays the bill. Payment is usually placed on a tray. There is no need to leave a tip, as the bill usually includes a service fee. Leave the table in the same state that you found it in on your arrival. And, before leaving the restaurant, remember to thank the chef for the delicious food.
Some local customs
Besides these customs, there are some few points worth mentioning. For example, slurping your noodles is seen as a sign that you are enjoying your food. Also, if need be, do not be afraid to use your fingers.
Use your soy sauce from the provided dish and never pour it directly onto your food. And, do not ask for extra soy sauce. It is considered bad manners, as it is assumed that the chef has already seasoned the food properly. Also, do not hover your chopsticks back and forth over side dishes when trying to choose your food. Japanese people see it badly and call it mayoi bashi or hesitating chopsticks.
As a final note, if you found yourself a little hungry on your way home, it is generally recommended to avoid eating and walking and the same practice should be avoided on public transportation.