For the 50+ Traveler

To some travelers, Japanese etiquette seems intimidating. Let’s get this out of the way: If you can behave at an American restaurant, you won’t have any trouble dining out in Japan.

On our trip to Tokyo, we spoke with a lovely Canadian couple who’d spent nearly a week in the city. We asked them for food suggestions, and they confessed that they’d only visited a small Italian eatery near their hotel. Why? They were terrified of committing a faux pas and offending a Japanese chef.

In our opinion, that’s downright tragic; Japanese restaurant etiquette isn’t drastically different from Western restaurant etiquette, and Tokyo’s rich culinary culture is one of the major reasons to make the trip. Besides, if you don’t enjoy a few great meals during your vacation, you’re not really vacationing.

With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to eating out in Japan. Take a deep breath -- there’s really not much to it, and as long as you know what to expect, you can relax and enjoy sushi, tonkatsu, ramen, and other Japanese delights without worrying about committing an accidental offense.

Sushi chef at a restaurant in Japan.

1. You’ll Have An Easier Time If You Learn A Few Basic Words

Generally speaking, Japanese restaurant workers don’t know much English, but you don’t need to be fluent to get a good meal. Restaurants that frequently host foreigners will have pictures on their menus along with (roughly translated) English descriptions of ingredients. You can simply point to the food you want, but learning a few words will make your dining experience more comfortable.

Hai means “yes,” and Iie means “no.” This video provides pronunciation for both words. Sumimasen (pronunciation here) means “excuse me,” and you’ll say it quite a bit in Japan. Use it to get a server’s attention or to apologize for any confusion.

Arigato means “thank you,” while domo arigato means “thank you very much.” To be more polite, learn how to say domo arigato gozaimasu (pronunciation here).The word gozaimasu doesn’t really have an exact English equivalent, but basically, you’re demonstrating respect for the server or chef.

If you’ve got your phone and a working internet connection, you can use an app like Google Translate to communicate with your server, but remember: Automated tools aren’t perfect, and you might end up causing confusion if you attempt a complex sentence.

Keep it simple, and don’t worry too much -- none of the travelers in our group knew more than a few words of Japanese, and we never felt uncomfortable in Tokyo restaurants.

2. Japanese Etiquette Varies In Some Surprising Ways

If you’re eating noodles, feel free to slurp away. Slurping food isn’t considered rude in Japan. However, try to avoid munching on your food loudly, and never blow your nose while sitting at the table. In fact, some Japanese will try to avoid sneezing in public, although the country’s attitude towards sneezing in public has changed somewhat in recent years.

When you enter a restaurant, you can bow to your server to show respect. The lower the bow, the greater the respect you’re showing, but a deep bow will seem out of place when you’re dining out. Give a quick, short bow, then follow the server to your table.

It’s considered polite to finish every last grain of rice on your dish, as this shows respect to the people who farmed it. You should aim to clean your plate, so try not to order too much food (Japanese portions are small relative to Western portions, so you probably won’t have an issue).

Expect prices to be slightly higher than what you’d see in the States, but not egregiously so; on our trip, most of our meals cost between $10 and $30 USD per person.

A typical meal at a Japanese restaurant.

3. You’ll Probably Receive A Few Items You Didn’t Ask For

Many restaurants will serve you green tea before your meal, regardless of whether or not you ask for it. Some will give you a second cup at the end of the meal. This tea is typically complimentary, and you don’t have to drink it if you don’t like green tea.

Some restaurants will give you a damp towel (oshibori) prior to your meal. The towel will be hot or cold, depending on the season. Use it to clean your hands. You can also dab your mouth with it, but don’t use it for anything else (for instance, it’s not for cleaning your neck or arms -- you’re dining out, not bathing yourself!).

Higher-end restaurants may give you a piece of charcoal or a stone with your meal. Don’t worry, you’re not supposed to eat it! They’re intended as a rest for your chopsticks. You might also see other types of chopstick rests (hashioki), and you should always use them. Speaking of which...

4. Understand What To Do (And Not To Do) With Your Chopsticks

You might want to practice using chopsticks before traveling to Japan since you won’t have access to forks or knives at many restaurants. Some general tips: Don’t use your hand to catch food, and try to eat all of the food at the end of your chopsticks in one bite. Never raise your food above your mouth. If you’re eating soup, you can bring the bowl up to your mouth along with your chopsticks. Again, feel free to slurp.

When you’re not eating, rest your chopsticks on the supplied chopstick rest or on the side of your plate. Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of your rice, as this resembles a Japanese funeral offering. While it’s not exactly rude, this faux paux may make some people uncomfortable.

When eating from a communal plate, don’t touch food without taking it, and never use the opposite end of your chopsticks to grab food. At yakiniku (Japanese barbecue) restaurants, you’ll grill some foods yourself, but use the supplied tongs to flip foods, not your chopsticks.

A sushi chef in Japan.

5. If You Have Any Dietary Restrictions, Prepare In Advance

Shortly before we traveled to Japan, a person in our group learned that he’s allergic to shellfish. He learned how to say, “I cannot eat shrimp,” but when he visited a sushi-ya (a sushi bar), he forgot most of the sentence.

He told the server the word for “shrimp,” then gestured “no” to show that he couldn’t eat it -- or so he thought. He was actually repeating the word for “eat,” which caused quite a bit of confusion. From the perspective of the server, this strange American walked into the restaurant and loudly told everyone that he wouldn’t be eating there.

If you’ve got dietary restrictions, a better approach would be to print off a “chef card,” which explains in proper Japanese what you can’t eat. Food allergy resource FARE offers a free, printable card here.

Don’t be shy about using your chef’s card -- Japanese restaurant workers take great pride in their craft, and they won’t be offended by your restrictions or dietary preferences. They’ll also check ingredients meticulously, so you can enjoy your meal with complete peace of mind.

6. At A Sushi-Ya, Your Best Bet Is To Order “Omakase”

Omakase shimasu roughly means “I’ll leave it up to you,” and if you’re looking for a truly sublime sushi experience, it’s definitely the way to go. You’ll have to sit at the sushi bar to order omakase, and some chefs will ask for your taste preferences, dietary restrictions, and budget before they start serving.

Many restaurants offer three levels of omakase: nami (the standard, and the least expensive), jo (higher quality, but more expensive) and toku-jo (the most expensive and highest quality). Usually, you’ll get a good variety of food, including sushi (maki and uramaki rolls) and nigiri (thin slices of raw fish over a ball of sushi rice).

You’re putting a lot of trust in the chef, so be sure to eat respectfully. Don’t use much wasabi or soy sauce -- trust that the chef has seasoned the sushi properly. Also, never mix your wasabi with your soy sauce.

When eating nigiri, lightly dip the fish into the soy sauce, but not the rice. Use chopsticks to eat sushi, but feel free to eat nigiri with your hands.

A street of restaurants in Japan.

7. If There’s No English On The Outdoor Signage, Steer Clear

Some restaurants don’t want foreign visitors, and we can’t blame them -- anyone who has worked in the service industry knows that food preparation is a fast-paced business, and those who don’t speak Japanese can certainly slow things down.

Stick to restaurants that have English signage. This won’t reduce your options significantly as the vast majority of Tokyo restaurants cater to foreigners. If you’re traveling outside of Japan’s major cities, check online to find restaurant recommendations from other English-speaking travelers.

8. Generally, You’ll Pay For Your Meal In Cash

Regardless of where they’re dining or making purchases, Japanese people don’t really use credit cards. You’ll want to bring plenty of yen with you on your trip. Don’t leave a tip. Tipping is not customary in Japan, and it can be seen as odd or insulting.

This is also true at Japanese bars, although you can tip in smaller bars that frequently serve foreigners if you’ve received exceptionally good service. If a bartender refuses your tip, thank them and take your money back. Don’t try to press the issue, as it can make your server feel awkward.

That’s it! If you follow these tips, you’ll enjoy dining in Japan while staying respectful of Japanese etiquette. Once you’ve gotten your first dining experience out of the way, you’ll look forward to each meal on your trip -- and you’ll wonder why you felt anxious in the first place.

Photo Credit: f11photo / Shutterstock, VICUSCHKA / Shutterstock