Eating out in Japan? Here’s some things you should know
First thing’s first – don’t be fearful about eating out in Japan. Sure – locals have their own ways and customs when it comes to eating in public places, but no one is going to watch you, judging your every bite. That’s right, with a massive 24 million overseas tourists visiting Japan in 2016 alone (that’s the population of Australia), failing to behave like a Japanese resident isn’t the cultural faux pas you might think it is. But, if you do want to get into the spirit of things and give Japanese dining customs your best shot – here’s a few tips to help you on your way.
General table manners
Many rules observed by Japanese diners are second nature, but that doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful. For example, leaving your chopsticks on the table will give the impression you haven’t finished – so, it’s advisable to place them together and sideways across your plate or bowl once you’re done.
And feel free to slurp away. Slurping your ramen or other noodles sends the message you’re really enjoying your meal, but don’t get carried away – any other noises are considered rude just like anywhere else. Feel free to pick up those smaller bowls with your hands too.
It’s also considered polite to return everything to its original position once you’ve finished eating – that includes putting the lids back on dishes where necessary.
The rules around chopsticks
It’s not polite or hygienic to use your own chopsticks for serving however, if you have to, it’s better to use the blunt end of your chopsticks. The best practice is still to ask for a clean pair of serving chopsticks.
If you’ve ever seen anyone rub their chopsticks together, it was probably on TV. Traditionally done to get rid of splinters from poor quality wood, rubbing chopsticks together is no longer necessary nor polite.
Anyone who finds it difficult to use chopsticks shouldn’t be afraid to ask for a knife and fork (yes, they do exist in Japan). This is because people won’t judge you for using a knife and fork, but if you’re seen stabbing food with a pair of chopsticks, it could come across as immature.
Unlike a fork, you’re not supposed to put chopsticks in your mouth, but rather, use them to pass food to your mouth. That means you should also avoid sucking or licking chopsticks in the way you might with a spoon or fork. You should never use chopsticks to pass food to someone else’s waiting chopsticks.
Don’t leave chopsticks standing vertically in a bowl. This might seem like an innocent gesture to help with clearing the table, but this actually bears resemblance to an offering made at Japanese funerals.
What’s a hand towel really for?
Let’s clear this one up once and for all. Many overseas tourists think hand towels are for face washing, but the clue is really in the name here. Rather than smearing the towel across your forehead before the meal begins, use it to wipe your hands at the start and keep your fingers clean throughout the meal. Then, simply put it back on the plate or on top of the wrapping.
Handle your wasabi and soy sauce the right way
If you’re one for pooling soy sauce on your plate, now’s the time to kick the habit. Soy sauce should be used sparingly, otherwise it’ll be considered an insult to the flavour of your food while anything left at the end is a notable waste. Similarly, mixing your wasabi with soy sauce also shows a lack of respect for the delicate flavours of the dish.
Instead, dip your sushi fish side down in the soy sauce and spread the wasabi on the top. Dipping the rice in the soy sauce will absorb too much and will likely cause the rice to break up in the dish. And that’s not a good look.
No matter how eager you are to take that first sip of cold beer, wait for everyone else’s glass to be filled first. Once everyone has a drink, you can say “kampai!” – which is “cheers” in Japanese. And if you really want to impress, it’s considered good manners to pour someone else’s drink before your own which will often result in them reciprocating the gesture.
Unlike other cultures in the world, tipping in Japan is not considered good etiquette. In fact, leaving a tip could cause the restaurateur to follow you out of the venue brandishing the cash you left by “mistake”. In Japan, prices set on any menu are considered fair and reasonable – period. That’s why anything left in addition could come across as insulting, if not entirely unnecessary and confusing.