There are few places offering greater opportunities to violate local customs that at the dining table. Nowhere else do such clear rules come in conflict with such a basic need: we are, after all, hungry.
So here are ten tips for gaijin – things to do as well as things not to do – while dining in Japan. Most would not be noticed at a Japanese restaurant in New York or Beijing or Stockholm, but they would be in Kyoto, for better or for worse – and they are easy enough to observe, if you know them.
1. The Japanese say a grace before and after meals: At the start, one says Itadaki-masu, which translates as a “I gratefully receive”; At the end of the meal, the phrase of contentment is Gochi-sousama-deshita. A simple compliment is Oishii (the food is delicious), but if you really like something, the ultimate compliment is Okawari: “More food, please!”
2. If you are given a hot towel (o-shibori) at the beginning of the meal, it is intended for washing your hands, and your hands only; using them to wipe off your face or neck is inappropriate, as good as that hot (or cold) towel may feel. They are not for wiping spills on the table, either.
3. Eating sushi is so common around the world that it’s easy to forget that it is a Japanese tradition, and as such, there are rules, including: Never, ever put wasabi in soy sauce and make a paste to dip sushi in. The proper way is to put a small bit of wasabi on the top of the sushi, and then carefully turn the sushi upside down and dip it in the soy sauce. This way, the wasabi and the soy sauce mix, but stay distinct, and the rice stays white. Related tip: a piece of sushi is one piece – biting it in half is simply not done, and can create quite a mess. But there’s good news: It is fine to eat sushi with your hands.
4. What Westerners call “chopsticks” are hashi in Japanese, and a minor minefield in any language: While using hashi, don’t point with them while eating, hover them over foods you are trying to decide between, suck on the ends to get the last of that delicious sauce, stab pieces of food you want with one end, wave them in the air, or otherwise wield them like weapons. Other rules that may be less obvious: don’t rub disposable hashi together to remove wood threads, don’t leave them sticking up vertically in a bowl, or lay them across the top of your bowl. Above all, never, ever pass food with hashi to someone else’s hashi, which will remind many Japanese of the ritual of passing cremated bones with hashi at funerals. Place the shared food on your friend’s plate instead.
5. As tricky as hashi may be, it is impolite to hold your free hand under your food to catch it if you drop it. While that may seem impractical, imagine your palm holding a wet piece of fish, or a clump of soy-soaked rice. While eating rice, hold the bowl in one’s left hand, close to the mouth and eat with hashi. When picking up a bowl to eat with hashi, pick up the bowl first, then the hashi.
6. Soy sauce is widely used outside Japan, but it is uniquely respected here. Do not pour it over your food, especially white rice; some Americans have compared it to slathering a piece of white bread with catsup – it is simply not done. Instead, put it in the soy saucer and dip your food in it. If you dip rice or sushi in it, do not leave grains of rice floating in it. And don’t take more than you need; it’s considered bad form to leave soy sauce in the dish.
7. If you think rice is difficult, consider noodles, particularly in soup! Noodles are tricky for everyone, so it is perfectly fine to raise your bowl (not your plate!) and use the hashi to guide the noodles into your mouth. And it gets better: Slurping noodles is acceptable, even encouraged. As for the soup itself, you may drink the broth out of the bowl as though it were a cup. But burping is as much a no-no here as anywhere.
8. In a group of people drinking, it is customary to wait until all drinks are poured or served, and then to toast with a warm “kanpai” (cheers!). It is also polite, when sharing sake or other alcoholic beverages, to keep your drinking partners’ drinks topped off: You pour theirs and they pour yours. This is a place where good manners really do lend a wonderful feeling of camaraderie to a meal.
9. Eating every grain of rice in a bowl is considered to be polite; not wasting this most crucial of Japanese foods makes a lot of sense. Japanese strive to eat everything on their plate, in appreciation for what they have been given. In a counter-intuitive cultural quirk, when there is food left on a plate that is shared by a group, it is implied that everybody is hungry but hesitating to take the last piece.
10. Finally, when you’re done eating, it is polite to return all of your dishes and utensils to where they were at the start of the meal, with the hashi on their holders (or back in their disposable envelopes) and the lids back on the bowls. And when dining out, remember that tipping isn’t done in Japan and many other Asian countries – and is often considered downright rude.