• Eating and Drinking in Japan

    January 27, 2014 by Stuart | Category: Travel Etiquette by Country

    Drinking Etiquette

    You must be 20 or over to legally drink in Japan.

    Do not start drinking until everybody at the table is served. Drinking usually commences by raising your glasses to a toast of "Kam-pai", the Japanese equivalent for "Cheers!"

    A lot of drinking in Japan happens at the local "izakaya", a casual place for after-work eating and drinking. They generally serve a wide range of menu items to accompany the drinking. Food is shared with everyone at the table and is ordered over the course of the evening.

    Getting drunk at your local "izakaya" is somewhat of a national pastime for the Japanese. The night will usually start with a beer, whilst you get settled and review the menu. At some "izakaya" they serve a small appetizer when you arrive, this is usually added to the bill as a sort of entry fee.

    Serving others is important in Japan and following the correct etiquette when drinking will impress your hosts. When in a group do not pour your own drink. When someone is pouring for you hold your glass forward using both hands. Ensure you reciprocate by pouring other peoples drinks. The general rule is once a glass is half empty, top it up. If the person pouring your drink says "Doozo" (please take it) you should respond back "Doomo" (thank you). Once they have filled your glass take the bottle from the pourer and say "Doozo", they will respond "Doomo", and then fill their glass.

    If you have had enough to drink leave your glass full and just take tiny sips to indicate you've had enough.

    Using Chopsticks

    The proper use of chopsticks is an important element of Japanese table manners. However if you have no experience or coordination with chopsticks the Japanese will not be affronted if you ask for a fork.

    If you can't use chopsticks there are plenty of videos online showing you how. Give it a go, it's not that difficult to get the basics right. Remember to hold your chopsticks about a third of the way from the back, not in the middle or towards the tips.

    Never pass food from your chopsticks to someone else's chopsticks, bowl or plate.

    Use the opposite ends of your chopsticks to take food from a shared plate.

    Do not wave your chopsticks around, point with them or use them to move plates or bowls around.

    It is perfectly acceptable to lift the bowl close to your mouth when eating rice.

    Whilst temping, it is considered extremely rude to stab your food with your chopsticks. This can be seen as an insult to the chef or cook who prepared the meal. If you cannot separate larger pieces of food then it is perfectly acceptable to pick up the entire piece and just take a bite.

    When not using your chopsticks or if you've finished eating lay them to the side of your dish on the left or on the chopstick stand if supplied. Do not cross your chopsticks.

    Don't stick your chopsticks upright in your food as this relates to funeral ceremonies and is considered extremely bad form.

    Restaurant Etiquette

    Upon entering a restaurant you might be greeted with the expression "irasshaimase" meaning "welcome and please come in". "irasshaimase" requires no response, a polite nod or smile is sufficient.

    Many restaurants in Japan provide both western style seating and along with the traditional low tables where you sit on floor cushions. If dining "zashiki" style you normally remove your shoes at the entrance or before entering the area. The formal way of sitting if dining "zashiki" style is kneeling, however if you are not used to it this becomes uncomfortable very quickly. In casual situations men can sit cross legged and women with both legs to one side, however these sitting position are exclusively male or female.

    Smoking laws have recently become stricter in Japan. In the past you could smoke just about anywhere. Whether you're a smoker or non-smoker, it's now advisable to take more notice of your surroundings. Smoking is still permitted in a lot of restaurants in Japan and they will usually provide both smoking "kitsuen" and non-smoking "kinen" areas. However many bars/cafes "izakaya" are fully smoking, so be careful before lighting up or complaining about someone smoking. Best to ask rather than offend or look a fool.

    Before eating it is common to say "itadakimasu" ("I gratefully receive"). This is an expression of thanks to whoever prepared the meal. A formal "itadakimasu" is said with clasped hands and a slight bow. It is also considered a thank you to the plants and animals that gave their lives for your meal.

    After you have finished your meal it is common to say "gochisosama deshita," which translates to "it was quite a feast."

    Paying the Bill

    The bill is usually paid by the host or whoever offered the invitation to dinner. It is considered bad manners to split checks.

    The bill will be presented upside down after you receive or finish the meal. It is not common to pay at the bill at the table. Usually you bring your bill to the cashier when exiting.

    It is not customary to tip in Japan. However if you had an exceptional meal, put the tip in an envelope and discreetly offer it. Expect it to be refused a number of times. If it is refused more than three times then they honestly don't want it.

    Additional points of Etiquette

    It is considered extremely bad manners to blow your nose or burp in public, especially at the table. If you have to, excuse yourself from the table or do discreetly.

    It is considered good manners to completely empty your dish.

    Once you have finished your meal move all your dishes back to the same position they were at the start.

    When drinking Miso Soup use the bowl as if it were a cup. Then use your chopsticks to eat any solid pieces.

    Contrary to western etiquette slurping your noodles is actually a compliment to the cook and means you are enjoying your meal. If a spoon is provided use it to drink the soup. If there is no spoon then lift the bowl to your mouth like a cup.