Japan’s restaurants have some unspoken rules and manners that are common for the Japanese but not necessarily known to tourists from other countries. Knowing some of these customs can help reduce chances of restaurant faux pas and make your dining experience more pleasant. This article lists 9 things tourists should know when dining out in Japan.
Honour your reservation
Punctuality is highly valued in Japan. If you have a table reservation, make sure to arrive on time and call ahead to inform the restaurant if you are running late (or else they might give your table away!). Always read the cancellation policy when making a reservation. Never cancel your booking at the last minute or not showing at all, which is considered a serious faux pas. Note that some restaurants may charge you a cancellation fee for doing so, so as to make up for the losses incurred from giving up other customers for your sake.
Free glass of water
Ohiya お冷 refers to free glasses of water served to customers as soon as they get seated. Oftentimes iced water is served, but some restaurants may even provide green tea or mugicha (barley tea) rather than just water. You can ask the staff for refill if you need more, though it may sometimes come as a jug of water brought to your table so that you can help yourself, or it may be placed on the counter for self-service. As such, it is okay not to order drinks at most restaurants in Japan (except for izakaya which are bars for drinking after all).
Towel to clean your hands
Oshibori おしぼり are wet hand towels offered to customers to wipe their hands once they have been seated. It may come hot or cold depending on the season, or in the form of individually-wrapped disposable paper napkins instead of towels. Use it to clean your hands as soon as you receive it, after which you fold neatly and put on the side so that you can reuse it after the meal. You can also use it to clean your fingers and around the mouth, but don’t use it to wipe off the sweat on your face and neck! At the end of the meal, place the towel back on its plate or on top of the wrapping it came in.
Customisation not common
Changing a menu item like substituting fish for chicken or replacing an item in a set meal with something else is uncommon for many restaurants in Japan, and such requests may get rejected. This is especially the case for fast food chains, specialty restaurants and busy eateries, where the orders are often pre-determined, pre-arranged or even pre-prepared and so may not be able to cater to many special requests. If you have dietary restrictions, let the staff know when ordering or better yet, when making a reservation so that possible arrangements or recommendations can be made based on needs.
Fork and spoon
You don’t have to stress yourself about mastering chopsticks in order to enjoy meals at Japan’s restaurants. If you are not familiar with chopsticks, it is perfectly okay to ask for a fork, spoon, and/or knife, whichever you find easy to use to eat. After all, it is more important to be able to enjoy the food comfortably rather than struggling with it, right?
By the way, there is no offence if you can’t use chopsticks properly either. Feel free to try to eat with chopsticks even though you are not that good at it, it will certainly provide a more authentic dining experience!
Sharing your food
Sharing food is very common in Japan but there are a few caveats tourists should take note of. The common rule is that each person is expected to order something, whether it is a main or a side dish, the bottom line is order enough for the party. For example, if two set meals are too much for two people, you can order a set meal plus an appetizer and share the meal. It is considered bad manners to occupy a seat without getting anything, or order only one item and share it.
Nevertheless, it is also depending on the restaurant and the type of food you have. For example, nabe hotpot is meant for sharing, but for fast food like Yoshinoya’s beef bowl or Ichiran’s ramen, it is customary to order one bowl each. At izakaya where the food comes in small portions, the party should order enough small dishes to go around, and each person should order at least one drink.
Enjoying your ramen
Not used to slurping your noodles? No worries! While it is widely known that slurping your noodles isn’t considered rude in Japan, not slurping your noodles isn’t considered rude either. Of course, slurping the noodles shows how much you enjoy the meal and enhances the flavour, so feel free to do it if you can! Same goes to the broth, it is okay to sip the soup directly from the bowl, or you can use a spoon if provided. Don’t worry if you can’t finish all of the soup or noodles (but do try), enjoy the bowl and you are doing it right!
Additional charges on your bill
One of the common charges that non-Japanese tourists find surprising is otoshi お通し or appetizer charge. Otoshi are small dishes served at izakaya and some restaurants while customers are waiting for their orders to arrive. Unlike the abovementioned ohiya and oshibori which are offered to customers without charge, these dishes are given and charged to the bill automatically even if you don’t eat it (usually around 300-500 yen). It is a widely accepted practice in Japan, refusing otoshi is uncommon and rarely done.
On the other hand, high-end bars or restaurants in expensive or touristy areas often have service charge サービス料 and/or table charge テーブルチャージ so to cover their high operating costs. You can ask the staff about these charges before being seated.
It is noteworthy that not all restaurants impose additional charges. Casual eateries with fixed price menus and also the ubiquitous fast food restaurants are considered safe choice if you want to avoid these extra fees.
Concluding your meal
Refrain from lingering and chatting at busy eateries when people are lining up outside waiting for a table. Once you’ve finished eating, pay the bill and exit the restaurant in a timely manner to avoid holding up the line. Be sure to say “gochisousama deshita” (thank you for the meal) to the staff as you leave the place – it is considered good manners and also the best way to express your appreciation for the food and service received (and no, tipping is not required!).