Going to Japan for the first time is a thrilling experience and one that not many people have the chance to take on in their lifetime. Visiting this country means exploring a place where old-world tradition meets the most modern technology, and that often means that it comes with its own set of rules. While much of Japan - especially Tokyo - is highly tolerant of newcomers who may not know their customs, it doesn't mean a traveler gets a free pass.
With a bit of research and consideration, any traveler can follow Japan's unspoken rules and etiquette. When it comes to dining, especially, there are some things that everyone should know, whether or not they've been to Japan or not. Food is the universal unifier, so it's important to have a firm grasp on this before anything else. For those with an eye on Japan for the future, here are the dos and don'ts when dining in this magnificent country.
The Biggest Challenge: Chopstick Etiquette
Some countries rely on forks and knives while others prefer to eat communally with their hands but throughout Asia, chopsticks are the most commonly used utensil. Throughout Japan, there are very specific rules that go along with using them, as well. How one uses chopsticks can be a reflection on themselves, so it's important to make sure the practice of using them is down pat prior to any visit. Of course, most restaurants do have alternative utensils if one only asks - however, if chopsticks are chosen, they need to be used correctly.
- Step 1: Pick up chopsticks by using both hands.
- Step 2: Avoid playing with chopsticks; don't snap them together, avoid moving them around too much, and never point to anything, or anyone, with them.
- Step 3: If taking food from a communal plate, always use the thicker end of the chopsticks (the end that goes between one's fingers).
- Step 4: Never dig down into a bowl vertically with chopsticks, this is reminiscent of funereal practices and considered to be poor etiquette.
- Step 5: Do not stab food with chopsticks to pick it up; rather, it's common practice to hold them slightly horizontal to get a better angle on the food.
- Step 6: When sharing food, never pass it to another diner with the chopsticks - this is another funereal practice that's not done during a social meal.
- Step 7: When using disposable chopsticks, place them back into the bag they came in when the meal is finished. Otherwise, they should be laid sideways on the plate but not pointed at anyone at the dinner table. If one has yet to finish but needs a break, chopsticks should be placed to the side of the plate or bowl to indicate the diner is not finished eating yet.
During The Meal
Now that chopstick etiquette has been addressed, there are some things to know for the rest of the meal, as well. How to properly use chopsticks was only the beginning; there are several other customs that require equal respect from newcomers when dining in Japan, as well.
It's common to enter a Japanese restaurant and find a bottle of soy sauce at the table, and this is a common practice in North America, as well. When taking soy sauce for a meal in Japan, the process of doing so differs slightly. Diners should never pour soy sauce directly over their food; rather, pour it into the accompanying small bowl, and then dip food, instead. This is often seen at Hibachi restaurants throughout North America, so it shouldn't be unfamiliar for those visiting Japan.
The Art Of Slurping
It might not be common practice in other countries - and may even be considered rude or impolite - slurping is actually very commonplace in Japan. It might feel silly at first but rest assured, to slurp is to imply that a meal has been thoroughly enjoyed. When eating a bowl of ramen, for example, it's not uncommon for diners to lift the bowl and slurp the rest of the broth, signifying it was both delicious and filling. To finish a meal in its entirety is also a common practice; diners should never take more food than they intend on eating because to leave even a grain of rice on a plate is considered rude, or signifies that it was not enjoyed.
Common Japanese Phrases To Know
- Itadaki-masu - "I humbly receive"
- Gochisosama-deshita (formal), Gochisosama (informal) - "Thank you for the meal"
- Kanpai! - "Cheers!"
That's right - there's even a proper etiquette for sushi, as well! When eating sushi in Japan, there are some unspoken rules to follow:
- Don't overdo it on the soy sauce - leaving behind a bowl filled with it is considered bad manners, because it's wasteful.
- When dipping sushi such as nigiri, it's common practice to flip it so that the sushi is fish-side-down, thus avoiding leaving any rice behind. To leave rice in a soy sauce bowl is also considered rude and messy.
Etiquette For Drinks With A Meal
Of course, drinks are always part of any good meal! When ordering them, one should never drink alone - this means either waiting until the other diners have come to the table, or avoiding drinking altogether if one is dining by themselves.
It's also common practice for diners to fill the glasses of others, and one should never fill or refill their own glass - try to do this for others.