Ordering food (and knowing how to eat it) can be tough when you can’t speak much more Japanese than a quick kon’nichiwa or arigato. But most places are very helpful and it’s worth persevering to try some of the tastiest Asian food.
Here are the top 10 tips you need to know for eating in Japan:
1. Plastic food can be your friend
Weird though it looks, if there’s no English menu outside (and most likely, there won’t be) you can see at a glance what the restaurant is likely to serve. If there’s no English menu inside, you can always go and point at what you’d like to order. Failing that, pointing at other people’s food usually works!
2. Take off your shoes
If you’re eating in a traditional Japanese restaurant which has a tatami floor, you’ll be leaving your shoes by the door and sitting at a very low table. If you’re wearing sandals, always carry a spare pair of socks – it’s considered offensive to show the soles of your feet.
3. Wear your slippers on a night out
You might be given Japanese slippers to wear on the tatami mats. Never wear these slippers to the bathroom (there will be a special pair of toilet slippers to change into).
4. Bag boxes
There will be a box underneath your table (or in more casual places, a stack of boxes for you to collect by the door) to place your bag in whilst you eat. This stops your bag getting dirty. Loved this idea!
5. Face cloths are not for your face
You’ll be given a hot, damp rolled face cloth to clean your hands with when you sit down to eat. It’s not to wipe your face with! Even fast food places and supermarkets will give you a plastic packed cloth when you buy food to take away.
6. Don’t always take yes for an answer
We had a few funny occasions where if we asked if a restaurant had something, the waiter or waitress would nod their head, but then we would find out they didn’t actually have what we’d asked for. Japanese people, like many Asian cultures, like to save face and avoid saying no. Keep this in mind when framing questions.
7. Go easy on the soy sauce
Less is more when it comes to soy sauce; it’s considered very unusual to pour soy sauce directly onto food, and when using dipping dishes, pour soy sauce sparingly.
8. Order dishes to share
Sharing dishes is common and it’s a great way to try different foods: gyozas (steamed or fried pork, garlic and spring onion dumplings), sticky rice, cabbage and sesame seeds, chicken yakitori.
Just remember to use different chopsticks for picking up food than the ones you are using to eat with, as well as the usual chopstick etiquette (don’t spear food, place the chopsticks on top of the bowl rather than in the bowl whenever you take a rest).
9. Keep your change
There is no tipping in Japan, and if you forget your change, they will likely chase after you and hand you it back! Change is left in trays rather than being handed back to you. Even in supermarkets you pay by putting your money onto a tray rather than into the cashier’s hand.
10. So much street food, so little street eating
There are thousands of take away options in Japan, from vending machines on every corner to sweet pancakes and tomoyaki (fried octopus balls), but you won’t catch Japanese people eating in the street. It’s not considered polite.
As a result, there are hardly any bins about, either. It’s fine to open your bento box on the Shinkansen, though.
When you buy food from a food hall at the station, they’ll always include a wrapped wet cloth and often a mini ice block to keep everything cool – very thoughtful!