How to Eat in Japan

You may think how can eating be different in Japan, doesn’t everyone eat? (I think “Everyone Eats” is the prequel to the Japanese children’s book “Everyone Poops”). Food is one of the major ways, culture can be expressed in countries around the world. Things like history, religion, and the availability of foodstuffs affect what people eat. Buddhism in Japan led to a 1, 200-year government ban on meat consumption with fish being the major exception. Buddhism believes humans can be reincarnated into animals and shuns the killing of any life. There was also a practical reason for the ban, Japan is a mountainous country and there is very little land available for agriculture. Livestock farming is not only labor-intensive but takes up valuable land space. Fish and rice were a better source of protein. White rice is a major staple of Japanese cuisine, usually accompany a meal. Miso soup is also a common sight at dinner tables. Nowadays, there is a large increase in meat consumption with pork and chicken being the most popular. Bread is also more widely eaten in modern times. But seafood and rice are still a standard part of Japanese cuisine. Religion and cultural factors in Japan not just impacted what people but how people eat. Many modern taboos and customs regarding food can be traced back to Buddhism and the ”the customer is god” attitude in Japan. The Japanese proverb ” The customer is god” is related to the Japanese concept of “Omotenashi”, which means to show good hospitality and look after your guests. You can see “Omotenashi” in the excellent service you will receive at restaurants.

Manners

The Buddhist principles which value the lives of living things can be seen in how people eat. There are set phrases that Japanese will use when eating and after they finish eating to show thankfulness to the lives involved in the making of their meals. In addition, Buddhist funeral practices have created several taboos when it comes to eating etiquette.

What to do before eating

Before eating, Japanese people say “Ittadakimasu” as a way to show gratitude to being the living things being consumed and human labor responsible for preparing it, from the actual plants in a dish to the hardworking farmer that picked them. There is no direct English translation but think of it as a bit similar to saying “Let’s eat” or grace before dinner.

Here is what to do before eating.

First ,put your hands together. Second, say “Ittadakimasu”. Third, bow slightly. Finally, dig in.

What not to do while eating

Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically into bowl of rice. During funerals, rice is offered to dead in this manner. It is taboo to do it in daily life because of it’s association with death.

Don`t do this

Don’t pass food chopstick to chopstick. It resembles the funeral practice of Kotsuage in which the family of a loved loved pick up their deceased relative`s bones with chopsticks from their ashes.

Photo of Kotsuage

Don`t try to catch a fly with chopsticks. There is not cultural religious reason behind this one, I just don`t think Japanese people will get the reference. Karate Kid(Best Kid in Japanese) is not well known in Japan. Also, it seems really hard to do.

Things you should do while eating

If the bowl is small such with rice or miso soup pick it up when you eat from it. If it is a large bowl, you don’t need to pick it up.You can drink your soup directly from a large or small bowl while using your chopstick to eat large pieces of meat and vegetables. You may not be given a spoon in the case of small bowls of soup such as miso.

Here is a picture of someone using chopsticks to eat the clam pieces from their miso soup

When eating noodles dishes, you can slurp as loudly as you want. It is not rude to eat loudly where you eating a noodle dish such as Ramen,Udon, or Soba.Finally, a place where I can eat loudly with out being shamed. The practice originated 400 years ago with the creation of Soba(Buckwheat) noodles to heighten their flavor. Taking in air at the same time as the noodles makes the noodles taste better. It is similar to swirling around wine giving it more air exposure and enhancing the flavor profile. Another reason is to prevent your mouth from being burned by hot noodles. It is the same as when I stupidly put food straight out of oven(Microwave if I’m being honest)directly into my mouth and then have to Hashafashasha to cool it down and prevent third degree burns.

Noodle slurping
photo from David Woo via Flickr

After Eating

When Japanese people finish a meal, they say the phrase “Gochisousama-deshita)which is way of thanking the people who made or served the dish . It is a set phrase along with “Ittadakimasu”. Even when no one is around Japanese people will still say both of these phrases before and after they eat. My set phrase after eating is usually, “Matt, the package said family size, it was just you.This is why you get out of breath going up stairs”.

Mugi after finishing his meal

Eating at a Restaurant

As a tourist, I imagine many of your meals will be eaten inside of a restaurant in Japan. If you are in a large city or eating at a chain restaurant there will likely be English menus available. Even if there are not , you can get by with just a little Japanese. Japanese restaurants are very visual which is perfect for those than can not speak the language. Technology such as google translate is also a useful tool. You will find excellent customer service as part of the concept I mentioned earlier,”Omotenashi”(hospitality). Staff are very accommodating and helpful to foreign tourists.

Entering a Restaurant

One thing you might notice when going to a restaurant in Japan is plastic models of displays of their dishes out front. These displays are usually hand made and can be customize to match the dishes of the restaurant. You can get 3D view of the menu and decide if you want to eat at the restaurant before you even go in. I know they look delicious but do not try to eat the display. Normally, that would go unsaid but after seeing my fellow Americans put and hoard gasoline in ShopRite bags, I don`t know what to think anymore.

When you walk into a restaurant tell them how many people are in your party, you can use your fingers if you can not speak Japanese. The waiter/waitress will either lead you to a table or indicate you can sit where ever you want. Tea and water are usually given to you complimentary. You can order a drink off the menu as well.

There are some restaurants especially noodle shops that have vending machines where you can select what you want at the machine and pay. No, scalding ramen does drop out of a vending machine. Just press the button for the dish you want and put in cash to pay. If there is red character at the bottom, it means it is sold out. You will receive a ticket to hand to a server and then they will place your order. There may not be pictures of the dishes or English translations, in that case either ask for assistance from some one who can speak Japanese or just go for what seems like the most popular dish there(look for the word おすすめ(osusume) meaning recommended or 1位 (ichii)which means first place/most popular dish).

Vending Machine for food
Steven-L-Johnson, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are two ways to get your servers attention. There usually is a bell placed on tables that you can press and server will come over to take your order. If there is not a bell, say “sumisen” meaning excuse me to a member of staff. As restaurants can be loud, you should say it at a decent volume and use a hand gesture if you are having trouble getting their attention. (If you are spoiled rich kid from an 80`s movie, saying “Do you know who my father” may also be an effective way of getting the attention of a server.) Menus in Japan often have pictures that you can point to when you order.Point and say “Kore o kudasai”(I will have this please).

Eating

When eating, you can follow my list of manners. You do not need to say “Ittadakimusu” before you eat but you are more than welcome to give a go. The most important thing is to just be respectful to other customers and staff. Be careful not to speak too loudly and disturb other guests.

Paying

Your server will place your receipt on or at the end of your table, there is usually a holder for it. You do not pay at your table in Japan. Take the receipt to the front to pay at the register.

receipt

Important: In Japan, you do not tip! Tipping is not a custom in Japan and they will get insulted and refuse the money if you try. Also, staff are paid minimum wage or higher so they do not need rely on tips as part of their income. However if you really want to tip while in Japan, you can instead give to my rabbit, Mugi in the form of dried apple or zucchini slices(He goes crazy for them).

Purple means tipping is not done at all and is considered an insult. Blue means no tipping as well but there is a surprised or neutral response if tipped.

At the counter, hand the receipt to cashier and the amount will show up on a screen to pay. Most transactions are still done in cash in Japan so I would pay with cash to be safe. They may not accept foreign credit or debit cards. Neatly place the cash on the tray on the counter. If you want to have separate bills in the case of a large group, you can say the phrase”O-kaikei betsu de”. They will divide it for you and each person can pay individually.

You pay at the register
Richard, enjoy my life!, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When you leave the restaurant, instead of saying thank you(arigatogozaimasu), say “gochisousama-deshita” to the cashier, servers, and chefs if you see them. This is the common way Japanese people say thank you for food both in the home and at restaurants. The staff will appreciate it especially since you are a foreign tourist. People like it when try to learn their culture and customs. Of course, they will understand if you accidently make a mistake. Japanese people are very kind to foreign tourists and are forgiving to accidental faux pas(You would be surprised how many different way I spelt faux pas wrong).

I hope this information will be useful to you if you decide to travel to Japan in the near future!

Useful words for eating in Japan

Ittadakimasu”:A phrase you use before eating a meal to show gratitude

Gochisousama-deshita: A phrase you use after eating a meal. It can said to someone to restaurant staff to mean thanks for the meal.

Oneigaishimasu“: Please

“Arigatogozaimasu”: Thank you very much

Kore o kudasai“: I will have this please(point to an item on the menu)

Okaikei onegaishimasu“- Can I get my bill please?”

O-kaikei betsu de”: Separate checks

Tsumetai”:Cold( food)

Attakai”:Hot (food)

“Ichii”:Number one/Most popular

“Osusume”: Recommendation

Omochikaeri de“: Take out

Tennai de”: Eat in

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