- 1. Saying いただきます
- 2. Using chopsticks
- 2-1. Chopsticks Do’s and Don’ts
- Chopsticks Don’t #1
- Chopsticks Don’t #2
- Chopsticks Don’t #3
- Chopsticks Don’t #4
- Chopsticks Don’t #5
- Chopsticks Don’t #6
- Chopsticks Don’t #7
- Chopsticks Don’t #8
- 2-2. Useful tricks with chopsticks
- 2-3. Why so many rules?
- 3. Having soup
- 4. Sitting around a table
- 4-1. At formal meals
- 4-2. On a date
- 5. Sitting on tatami mats
- 6. Drinking with others
- 6-1. Before clinking glasses
- At drinking parties with people at work
- 6-2. After clinking glasses
- 7. Paying for meals
- 7-1. If you drink with your peers
- 7-2. If you have lunch with your peers
- 7-3. If you dine out with your boss
- 7-4. If you dine out on a date
- 8. Eating sushi
- 8-1. Try eating with your hand
- 8-2. Eat from top left to bottom right
- 8-3. Don’t dip Gunkan into soy sauce
- 9. Eating sashimi
- 9-1. Eat white fish, then red fish
- 9-2. Don’t mix wasabi into soy sauce
- 10. Eating cooked fish
- 11. Eating natto
- 12. Eating soba and udon
- 12-1. Eating warm soba or udon
- 12-2. Eating cold soba
- 12-3. Eating curry udon
- 13. Eating Tebasaki
- 14. Using a toothpick
- 15. Leave a comment if you need to know more
Japanese cuisine is enjoyed in a variety of settings from very casual to very formal, and each type of meal and food has developed a unique eating culture of its own. Naturally, each type of meal and each type of food acquired a unique set of table manners.
Some table manners are simply for the sake of convention and some are more for aesthetic or half-religious purposes.
You will need to live in Japan for years to make all these table manners explained here second nature, so don’t worry about remembering them for the next time you visit Japan. Even Japanese adults get table manners wrong sometimes and learn from being pointed out (this is usually done discretely so as not to embarass the wrong-doer in front of others).
Japanese people are generally generous about foreigners getting table manners wrong, because, how would they know? To reframe that, Japanese people will be very impressed when they see foreigners do it right.
So I hope this guide will help you to show off your cultural competence to the Japanese when it’s time for you to tackle an unforeseen Japanese dish – just look up the food or occasion you are facing in this page, and you’ll nail the corresponding table manners.
1. Saying いただきます
This is what Japanese people say when they sit around a table and start eating a meal. It’s like saying your prayers before a meal, although it’s just this one phrase that’s said. Some people may swiftly and lightly put their palms together when they say Itadaki masu.
What it means is an expression of gratitude towards all that were involved in bringing the food in front of you – the person who prepared the meal for you, the farmers who worked hard to grow the crops and livestock, the life that was sacrificed to become your food, and mother nature which nurtured all of the above.
It is said that the thousands of gods in Shinto were also whom the Japanese thanked, but nowadays nobody associates the practice of saying Itadaki masu with any religion.
2. Using chopsticks
There are many ways you can hold a pair of sticks in your palm, but there is only one right way to hold chopsticks. It takes weeks or months for Japanese children to get used to using them, but everyone goes through training.
This is because in Japanese cuisine, chopsticks are the only utensil used to eat, as opposed to Chinese cuisuine, in which spoons are also used to help you eat efficiently. So if you don’t hold chopsticks the right way, you might as well forget the idea of worrying about observing table manners.
If you were not born or raised in Japan, Japanese people wiil go easy on you, but holding chopsticks the wrong way is automatically associated with the display of immatureness. It’s not that you’ll be looked down upon just for that, but you might get a aww-how-cute type of response from the Japanese. So for example, if you consider yourself an alpha male and it is in your DNA to avoid being compared to a baby rabbit at all costs, hold those sticks right.
Here is a comparison between the right way and common wrong ways to hold chopsticks:
Japanese households used to train children on their chopsticks-skills by having them pick up peanuts or beans off one plate and moving them to another, and back again.
But recently, practice-chopsticks that naturally make children grip them the right way have been developed, and they’re being widely used.
2-1. Chopsticks Do’s and Don’ts
There are quite many rules for what you’re not supposed to do with your chopsticks during meals. Not observing these Don’ts will lead to being seen as being unsophisticated and rude. So for example, if you consider yourself as being classy and elegant, and you wish to remain so during Japanese meals, keep to these basic rules. They’re not too difficult to remember.
Chopsticks Don’t #1
Gripping your chopsticks like you would hold a primitive weapon used to be considered adversarial because… well, it would look like you’re about to stab someone.
Unlike Chinese chopsticks that are round at the end, Japanese chopsticks are sharper at the end. They could cause some serious injuries.
Chopsticks Don’t #2
Not to mention doing some actual stabbing into others, but stabbing food with your chopsticks is also a no-no. This looks like you’re trying to see if the food is properly cooked to the core, which can be interpreted as displaying distrust towards whoever prepared the food.
Chopsticks are meant to pinch, not stab.
Chopsticks Don’t #3
It’s rude to point at people with your finger in Japan, and pointing at people with your chopsticks is also not considered polite.
Chopsticks Don’t #4
Sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice and leaving them there is frowned upon because that is how rice looks when it’s placed in front of a Buddhist alter. Funerals are done in Buddhist style in Japan, and reminding others of death during meals is not a polite gesture.
Chopsticks Don’t #5
The collaborative action of handing and receiving food via chopsticks is also a out of bounds, also for a reason related to religion. After cremation, the bones of the dead are picked up with two pairs of chopsticks by two people and put into a container for storage.
So let’s try not to remind people of death during meals.
Chopsticks Don’t #6
Touching food in a communal plate with your chopsticks and drawing them back without taking the food is considered very rude. There are a couple of reasons:
1. Some people may find touching food that everyone shares with your chopsticks gross as your saliva will adhere to the food via your chopsticks.
2. Being indecisive and having second thoughts is not considered virtuous in Japanese culture.
Chopsticks Don’t #7
Circling your chopsticks over several dishes being unable to decide what to eat next is also not cool. It can be taken either as a display of distrust towards the cook or a display of your indecisiveness. Decide what you’re going to do with your chopsticks first, and then draw your weapon.
Chopsticks Don’t #8
You’re not supposed to lick food remainders off of your chopsticks because… it’s simply not a pretty sight. Just like in Western cultures, one of the purposes of Japanese table manners is to eat elegantly.
2-2. Useful tricks with chopsticks
When you eat at casual Japanese restaurant-pubs (called Izakaya – 居酒屋) in Japan with a group of people, you will share many large dishes with the rest of the group.
Picking food off of communal plates with your own chopsticks is not recommended because in effect, you are transferring your saliva via your chopsticks onto food the others may eat.
Sometimes, a spoon, tong, or a pair of long chopsticks is provided along with each dish to be used for taking a portion of the communal food and putting it on small, private plates (which each person has). This way, there’s no exchange of saliva. So use communal utensils to take food from communal plates.
It’s perfectly sensible to ask the waiter for a communal utensil if there isn’t one. This is what Japanese people say to do so:
Sumimasen, toriwaké yo no ohashi ka supoon o itadaké masuka?
Excuse me, can I get a pair of chopsticks or spoon for serving this?
The other way to handle communal dishes is to flip your chopsticks upside-down and use the end that won’t touch your mouth. After you place your portion of food onto your private plate, flip the sticks back and start eating.
2-3. Why so many rules?
I’d say there are as many rules in Western table manners as Japanese ones, but the reason for having so many may be quite different.
In the Japanese subconscious lies a Shinto belief that there is a god in everything – trees, rivers, the kitchen, the restroom, shoes – everything. This means you are constantly watched by the gods so you’d better straighten up yourself at all times, including the time you eat.
Of course nowadays nobody cares about what the god of chopsticks may think of the way you handle the utensil, but everyone was told by his/her parents to eat with proper manners. The ancient idea of thousands of gods watching you has transcended to the notion of “you are being watched by others,” and this is what encourages modern Japanese people to try not to make a fool of themselves and discipline their children.
3. Having soup
Traditional Japanese meals always come with some form of soup in a soup bowl (usually wooden). The biggest difference here with practices in most other cuisines is that you will not be given a spoon for the soup. So how are you supposed to have soup without a spoon?
Japanese soup bowls are wooden because they are meant to be picked up with your hands and brought to your mouth. Wood doesn’t conduct heat well, so you wouldn’t have to worry about burning your hands. You have soup like you would drink coffee, except there is no handle on the bowl.
To eat the ingredients in the soup, you use your chopsticks to draw them towards your mouth as you drink the soup. It’s totally OK to make slurping noise as you suck your soup into your mouth (because it’s impossible otherwise), as long as you don’t make the noise epic.
4. Sitting around a table
There’s nothing different with sitting around a dining table in a restaurant or someone’s house in Japan and in any other country, except for one thing. In Japanese culture, there is a hierarchy to seating positions. Yes, seats are either superior or inferior to others.
4-1. At formal meals
You won’t need to worry much about getting the hierarchy wrong if you’re going out with your friends or family (because nobody would care), but when you go out for a meal on business, seating positions become a real thing.
Let’s say you eat out among a party of 4 – two guests who are your clients and two hosts (you and your subordinate). Each participant will be considered to have a different level of importance:
|1. Most important||The guest of a higher position|
|2. Second important||The guest of a lower position|
|3. Third important||The host of a higher position|
|4. Least important||The host of a lower position|
The basic rule of thumb in determining the order of importance is that:
- Members of the guest are always more important than the members of the hosting side
- The higher your position in your company is, the more important you will be considered
- The higher your seniority in your company is, the more important you will be considered
Business meals are held at formal restaurants with private rooms. Private rooms are quiet and therefore optimal for discussing business and building personal relationships.
So here is a diagram that shows where each person should sit during a meal held in a private room.
The basic rule of thumb here is that the seat closest to the door is the least important. So as seen in the diagram, the least senior employee of the hosting side will sit there, so that it will be easier for him/her to communicate with the waiter to order food/drinks.
The best seat is basically the seat that will be the most comfortable. If you sit close to the door, there will be people coming in and out of the door frequently and you won’t be able to relax. If there is a fireplace, it’ll be the warmest in the seat closest to the fireplace.
If there is an air conditioner shooting directly down at the furthermost seat from the door, that won’t be the most comfortable seat. If the seat takes blinding-bright sunlight, that won’t be the most comfortable seat. The best seat is something that’s determined case by case, and you’ll sometimes see Japanese people debating which seat each participant should take when they arrive at the venue.
Sitting in a more important seat than you’re entitled to is considered pretty offensive to the person meant to be seated there. So if you’re not sure where to sit, occupy the seat closest to the door and you’re unlikely to offend anyone. Others will move you appropriately if they think you shouldn’t be seated there.
Or, ask! Japanese people won’t expect foreigners to be able to tell the most important seat (called Kamiza 上座) and the least important seat (called Shimoza 下座) because it’s sometimes hard for them to tell which is which themselves.
Watashi wa dokoni suwaré ba ee desho?
Where should I sit?
4-2. On a date
If you go to a restaurant on a date, the idea of Kamiza 上座 and Shimoza 下座 is often applied. Yes, the lady is always considered the more important participant and so gets the Kamiza and the gentleman will always take the Shimoza. Again, remember that the most important guest (the lady) should sit in the most comfortable seat.
In metropolitan areas of Japan, you’ll often come across cafés and restaurants with furniture arranged like this:
If you’re a heterosexual man and the maître d’ shows you and your partner to a table where you’ll be sitting across from each other, make sure you offer your lady the sofa, not the chair. Why? Because the sofa is more comfortable.
If both sides are sofa-seats, offer the bigger sofa to your lady. Why? Because it’s more comfortable.
There are exceptions of course. If there is a huge window with a gorgeous view, the seat facing the window can be the better seat. If there is a huge window but the view is just OK, the sofa facing away from the window will still be the better seat. The man makes the call, and there is no definite right answer, but his judgement tells the lady something about his quality as a man.
If you feel that never being able to sit in the more comfortable seat is unfair for the man, don’t expect to go much far in a relationship with a hot Japanese girl.
5. Sitting on tatami mats
Dining at traditional Japanese restaurants and very traditional households is enjoyed on tatami mats. People sit on cushions called Zabuton (座布団) that are placed around a low and wide table.
Sitting on the floor to eat can be tricky as you’ll be fighting with the painful sensation of your feet getting numb. So to let off the pain, Japaense people change their sitting posture every several minutes during a meal. Because of this tediousness and the fact that sitting on the floor is not really good for your back, dining experiences with Western dining tables and chairs have become much more common everywhere in Japan.
But in case you do find yourself on tatami mats at authentic Japanese restaurants, here are three ways you can sit:
- Seiza 正座 – Fold your legs, put them together and sit on your heels, with your back straight. You’ll look like the letter L. This is the most formal way of sitting on the floor. However, you’ll legs will feel unbelievably numb within minutes in this posture, so don’t strain yourself too much. Change postures before it’s too late.
- Agura あぐら – Fold your legs, split them apart and sit on your butt. You might be familiar with this posture if you do yoga. This is a rather casual way of sitting and is often favored by men as it takes a more manly look compared to the next type of posutre. Not recommended if you’re wearing a skirt, for obvious reasons.
- Kuzushi seiza 崩し正座 – Fold you legs and put them together like when you do a Seiza, but slide your butt to one side so that one of your butt cheeks sits on the floor, not your heels. Because of the femine look, this posture is rather casual too and is favored by women. But it’s perfectly fine for men to do it too. I personally find this posture sexy when women do it.
6. Drinking with others
When you go drinking with several other people, you will often go to a Japanese style restaurant-bar called Izakaya 居酒屋. There is a certain set of practices followed in this kind of social occasion.
In Japan, drinking was traditionally a festive group activity for the purpose of bonding with others. There was a time when all participants drank the first drink from the same cup (they passed the cup around until everyone had his share), as it was believed that one’s spiritual greatness and/or shortcomings are transferred to others via food and drink. Drinking is an important team-building ritual still now.
Nowadays, Japanese people don’t share a single cup with everyone else of course, but oftentimes, everyone orders the same drink for their first glass. 99% of the time, the first drink is beer.
6-1. Before clinking glasses
If beer comes in bottles, it’s expected that everyone pours beer into someone else’s glass (this ritual is called Oshaku お酌). You’re not supposed to pour beer into your own cup yourself.
Group meals are an act of building commradery and the act of pouring alcohol into another’s glass gives each person a good reason to go and say hi to the other participants.
In such group meals, you will commonly see people not just pouring drinks for others in neighboring seats but also going to far-away seats to do the same. Again, Oshaku makes a good excuse to have a little conversation with people you are going to eat with, so give it a try when you see the chance.
At drinking parties with people at work
Now here’s the tricky part – in business settings. If you go out with a group of coworkers with mixed levels of seniority, the most junior employees and women are sometimes kind of expected to go around doing Oshaku for more senior employees.
This is considered a chance for junior employees to get their faces known to their superiors. In turn, those who are in superior positions are supposed to wait patiently until one of their subordinates come to Oshaku for them. So if you get a job at a Japanese company, by all means go pour some beer into your boss’s glass.
And now you may ask, why are women expected to Oshaku, not men? Isn’t that sexist?
I think it is, especially if someone orders a female employee to go around the table. Women were traditionally deferent to men at workplaces and they were often placed lowest in the corporate hierarchy. Therefore, like junior employees, female employees often took on the role of performing Oshaku at drinking parties.
Women having to Oshaku is considered an obsolete practice by younger generations in Japan nowadays. It’s stupid to assume that women are automatically positioned lower than men in this modern-day world where an increasing number of women occupy leading roles in business. Making women behave like hostesses is just plain insulting, no matter how long this tradition is.
The younger Japanese generations especially don’t buy the old practice of Oshaku. “Just drink whatever you want to drink whenever you want to drink and no one should have to serve one another,” they would say. So this practice, I would say, is gradually decaying.
You will still see some Japanese women standing up to Oshaku for others at drinking parties from time to time, but they do so because they have been told to when they were still very junior in their careers, or are just trying to be nice the old Japanese way.
So if you are a woman and you get invited to a drinking party, don’t feel obliged to go around the whole table to Oshaku for everyone. Just stay seated, pour beer in glasses of people sitting around you, like any men would do. Nothing less, nothing more.
6-2. After clinking glasses
After everyone gets a full glass of beer in their hands, someone will make a short (or long) toast and say the word “Kanpai 乾杯 (cheers).”
Then, everyone clinks glasses and the drinking and eating starts. After you finish the first glass of beer, you can order whatever will please you. You don’t need to stick to beer.
Now here’s another slightly tricky part. It’s considered polite to pour in beer into others’ glasses when you notice their glasses are not full. Although everyone has his or her own pace of drinking, you’re not supposed to decline when you’re offered more.
This is another phenomenon that’s getting unpopular among younger generations. Offering more to drink is a practice most likely meant to make the other feel welcomed in the party, but many of the younger generations don’t even like alcohol. To them, forcing people to drink is more like bullying.
So now it’s more OK to decline even in business settings. Just thank the person for noticing that your glass was starting to empty and say no thanks, nicely. Or you can accept the offering, pretend to drink a sip, and leave your glass full so that no one will try to bother you anymore.
7. Paying for meals
Knowing who should pay and how much to pay can be difficult in Japanese dining experiences. There are definitely some protocols that are commonly followed, but there are also exceptions happening daily.
Age, seniority and gender play a big role in determining who should pay for the meal, or pay more for the meal.
7-1. If you drink with your peers
If you go out with a group of people who are more or less the same age and are more or less in the same ranks in the corporate hierarchy, you will go Dutch.
The total bill ÷ the number of people = What each person pays
So if the total bill was 30,000 yen and you drank in a party of 8, each person would pay 3,750 yen.
Now in this method, big drinkers benefit the most and people who don’t drink will pay for more than they actually had. It’s virtually impossible to keep track of how much of what each person ate or drank, because most dishes are shared among the whole group. Big drinkers may eat less than non-drinkers because they’re busy drinking.
So for practical reasons, Japanese people go Dutch when they drink with peers. I think it’s partly due to this Japanese practice of splitting the bill that cash is still the primary form of money here in Japan.
There are, however, all-you-can-drink meal plans (called Nomi Hodai 飲み放題) that charge each diner a flat fee. For example at certain Izakayas or restaurants, you will get a dinner course and can drink whatever beverage you’d like for 3,000 yen/person within a 2-hour time slot.
There’s no room for argument about who should pay how much in this kind of meal plan, but still, drinkers get a better deal.
In Japan, drinking used to be almost expected from any adult (until the law got stricter towards drunk driving in 2007 and the practice of overdrinking came to be looked down upon by younger generations in recent years) and a significant number of restaurants still support the idea of “the more you drink, the better off you are.”
7-2. If you have lunch with your peers
Because nobody drinks alcohol for lunch (at least not on work days), it’s easy to keep track of who ate what. So for lunch, you pay for what you ordered.
By the way, in most cases, payment for restaurant meals are done at the entrance/exit of the place where the cashier is. You leave no tip.
At restaurants in business districts, most restaurants let you pay individually. So for example let’s say you went out with a colleague and you ordered a 900 yen meal while your colleague ordered a 1,000 yen meal. Your bill will say that the total will be 1,900 yen, of course.
But at the cashier, if you say the phrase below, they will ask you what you ate and you’ll pay 900 yen, while your colleague will pay 1,000 yen.
Shiharai wa betsu betsu de oné gai shimasu
We’d like to pay individually.
7-3. If you dine out with your boss
When you have lunch, dinner or a drink with your supervisor or a person in a higher position than you, you can almost expect to be treated.
As you get older and/or climb up the corporate ladder, you’ll come across more occasions where you are expected to pay for meals. At least that’s how it is in metropolitan areas of Japan.
There are a few reasons for this. First of all, it’s almost always the boss that invites his/her subordinates out for a meal, so the boss is the host and the subordinate is the guest. The host is expected to pay.
The second reason is because the boss may take his/her subordinate out to a place that’s out of the latter’s league. Incomes differ significantly depending on the position, so it won’t make sense for the boss to expect you to pay half the bill.
Finally, in Japanese culture, showing respect for the elders is a norm (at least superficially). Elders occasionally need to show that they are worthy of respect. So at work, in school, in college, in sports teams and any other form of community, the more senior members try to take good care of the more junior members. And in doing so, senior members sometimes feel the need to show off by, for example, treating junior members.
So when you dine out with your boss and it’s time to take off, follow these procedures:
- Pretend that you’re willing to pay for yourself. Reach for your wallet/purse.
- Let your boss say something like “No, don’t worry about it.”
- Say something like “Really?”
- Let your boss pay. But don’t look at how much he/she is paying, as that’ll be rude.
- Thank your boss for a wonderful meal.
7-4. If you dine out on a date
Japan is going through a transitional stage in terms of gender roles, like many other countries in the world. Although it was a given for men to treat women on a date for the longest time, this practice has become very gray. There is no one answer to this riddle.
However it should be noted that in Japan, historically, men were on center stage for everything. Especially in the days of the samurais (from around the 9th century all the way up to the 19th century), each samurai family strived to make their name known. Men were the face of each family. They went to war and died for the family. By dying courageously in war, men could contribute to elevating their family name and also bring wealth and prosperity for their wives and offspring.
So the women’s role was to provide support for their husbands from backstage and let them take the spotlight. Doing so benefited the family.
These traditional expectations for each gender still have a certain degree of influence on how men and women behave in public. For instance, when it’s time to pay the restaurant bill on a date, the man would want to pay and take credit for the meal. The woman would offer to pay, but would ultimately let the man pay.
After they leave the restaurant, independent-minded women would swiftly hand cash that’s worth half the bill to the man. What she is doing here is protecting her dignity by paying for the food she had, while at the same time protecting the man’s dignity too by letting him pay the full bill in public (at the restaurant cashier). The lady may alternatively offer to pay for another meal (often a less formal one) on another date, and actually do just that.
Meanwhile, there are quite some Japanese women who think a woman’s worth can be measured by how often they get invited out and get treated for meals and other things by men. Living in Tokyo for over 30 years, I personally feel they have a point. Also, I feel they are, by all means, allowed to think so as long as they’re hot and intelligent. If neither is a feature they carry, I suggest they burn in hell.
Anyway, some women with this philosophy will still offer to pay at the end of a meal, but may not bother seeing the man again if he actually takes the offer. But then some other women with the same philosophy will repay the kind gesture by paying for another meal later on.
Many Japanese women have become financially and psychologically independent, and gradually, more are becoming global minded – they know how independent women behave in other parts of the world. They have the leisure to choose what to do.
They can choose to pay and take the modern approach, or choose to let the man pay and take the traditional Japanese approach. Their choices don’t even need to be consistent. It makes dating less predictive, and fun, in my opinion.
8. Eating sushi
Sushi shouldn’t get many people nervous as it is eaten all over the world nowadays, but let me note some table manners that will help you to eat sushi with style here in Japan.
8-1. Try eating with your hand
Eating with your bare hand used to be considered the proper way to eat sushi. Nowadays, nobody would frown at you if you choose to eat them with chopsticks. I feel most Japanese people eat with chopsticks. Perhaps you’ll get a frown or two if you try eating with a fork, though.
There are a few advantages to eating with your hands. First of all, skilled sushi chefs make sushi in a way that will keep its form when held with your bare hand, but crumble delicately when you pop it into your mouth. So if you are not really skilled with your chopsticks, you may drop a few grains of rice in the soy sauce when you try to dip it into the sauce. It won’t look too elegant.
Second, it’s easier to flip the sushi upside-down to dip just the fish part into the soy sauce if you handle it with your hand. Then, again, the chances of having rice fall into the sauce will be minimized. Besides, rice soaks up a little too much soy sauce, and this is part of the reason many sushi enthusiasts dip the fish part.
Yes, your hands will get a bit sticky if you eat with your hand, but that’s the reason you always get a wet towel (called Oshibori おしぼり) when you seat yourself at a sushi restaurant.
8-2. Eat from top left to bottom right
When you order a set of sushi at a very authentic sushi place in Japan, you’ll be given several different kinds of sushi laid out diagnally on one plate. There is no rule to the order of which piece to eat first or last. But in fact, traditionally trained sushi chefs would place the sushi in the order he thinks will taste the best.
The left-most piece is the one meant to be eaten first and the right-most piece is meant to be eaten last. Oftentimes, the more bland fish (most of these are colored white) will be placed towards the left and the fish with more flavor will be placed towards the right. It is said that eating the more flavored fish first will condition your tongue to underappreciate the more subtle taste of bland fish.
If you get a plate with sushi laid out in two rows, you start from the top left and work your way towards the bottom right, as shown below.
8-3. Don’t dip Gunkan into soy sauce
There are three types of sushi, categorized by how they look.
- Nigirizushi 握り寿司 – The ones with a slice of fish or another type of seafood placed on top of rice
- Makizushi 巻き寿司 – Rolls. Fancy types of roles like California Rolls were developed abroad.
- Gunkanmaki 軍艦巻 – Oval shaped rolls with seafood placed on top. Gunkan literally means naval ship, and that’s what this type of roll looks like.
Now as I noted earlier, sushi enthusiasts tend to dip just the fish part of the sushi so that the rice won’t crumble. The rice of Makizushi is held together pretty firmly so you can dip it in soy sauce without any problems.
However dipping Gunkanmaki without breaking it apart can be difficult. So what regular sushi eaters do is this:
- Take one of the ginger slices (called Gari ガリ) that often come along with your order of sushi and dip it into soy sauce.
- Hold the Gari above your Gunkanmaki and trickle a few drops of soy sauce onto the fish part.
Some of these Gunkanmaki come with a slice of cucumber. In such a case, you can use the cucumber as a substitute of Gari to apply soy sauce from above.
9. Eating sashimi
Sashimi are slices of raw fish. So basically they are sushi minus the rice. Unlike sushi which is prepared with wasabi sandwiched between the fish and rice, sashimi comes all alone.
Here again, there is no strict rule you need to follow, but there is certain mannerism to keep in mind to enjoy sashimi the most elegant and tasty way.
9-1. Eat white fish, then red fish
When you order sashimi, you don’t just get one slice or one kind; you get an assortment of different kinds of fish. Each kind has a different taste and texture.
As mentioned above in the part about eating sushi, in order to not tire your tongue, it is recommended that you start from the more bland-tasting fish. The sashimi slices that are colored white or transparent are the bland types, and the slices that are colored orange or red have more flavor.
So for the full experience, it is said that you should eat white fish first and then eat red fish. But having said that, I’ll confess that I personally don’t really take much care in this aspect. Good sashimi tastes good. Period.
9-2. Don’t mix wasabi into soy sauce
Sashimi is always served with soy sauce and wasabi. The idea is that you add saltiness with soy sauce and tang with wasabi.
Some Japanese people would take a bit of wasabi with their chopsticks and put them in soy sauce and blend the two, like how some people like to blend ketchup with mustard.
Some other Japanese people would take a bit of wasabi and adhere it onto sashimi, and then dip it in soy sauce.
Which is more plausible in terms of table manners? Here again, there are no strict rules in eating sashimi, but the latter is considered more elegant. By not mixing wasabi with soy sauce, you can enjoy the taste and smell of wasabi more accurately. Besides, your soy sauce plate won’t look mushy.
I agree that wasabi tastes and smells great if you have it at a classy Japanese restaurant. They serve quality wasabi. But at more casual eateries, who cares?
Personally, I kind of like the salty and tangy taste of wasabi mixed in soy sauce. There’s even a soy sauce variant at supermarkets called Wasabi-jyoyu 山葵醤油, which is literally a bottle of soy sauce with wasabi blended together.
10. Eating cooked fish
If you stay at a hotel in Japan and eat breakfast there, you may get a Japanese style breakfast. While for a continental breakfast you always get ham or bacon, eggs and bread, for a Japanese style breakfast you always get rice, miso soup and cooked fish.
Cooked fish is always served with its head facing your left. Eating this elegantly is a true challenge and even some Japanese people cannot manage to do it right (including me until recently).
Not knowing what to do with the numerous fish bones, you are likely to end up feeling miserable for creating an utter mess, like the picture below.
Here are the steps to take to prevent this bummer.
- Find the spine of the fish by touching it with your chopsticks.
- Tear the top half of the fish upwards, starting from the base of its head working your way towards its tail. Eat the top half.
- Similarly, tear the bottom half of the fish downwards, again starting from the head to its tail. Eat the bottom half.
- Now you would have eaten one side of the fish. Hold the head with your left hand and the spine with your chopsticks, and lift them up and put them aside.
- Eat the rest of the fish. When you’re done, push all the skin and bones off to one side so as to make your plate look clean.
Here is a video I found that shows you the procedures above.
11. Eating natto
A breakfast food I dare you to try is natto. Natto is fermented soy beans, and it is often eaten with white rice, like peanut butter is with bread. Natto enthusiasts stir natto after adding a tad bit of soy sauce and mustard. It has a distinct smell that I bet you won’t like, and is coated with spider-web-like gooey strings that stretch as far as half a meter. You will NOT like the look of it at first glance.
However natto typically ends up being popular to those who have the courage to try it – many of my British friends came to like it and eat it regularly. Its saltiness and umami complements white rice very skillfully.
It’s not difficult to learn, but you’ll need to watch this video to understand how it’s eaten.
12. Eating soba and udon
There are two big categories of Japanese noodles (ramen is technically Chinese noodles):
- Thin noodles made of buckwheat flour called soba
- Thick noodles made of wheat flour called udon
These are served either warm or cold, and depending on what you have, the way you eat will differ.
12-1. Eating warm soba or udon
There’s nothing difficult in eating warm soba or udon. You eat them like ramen. You can choose to drink the soup or not after you finish the noodles. It’s your choice.
The only thing you might worry about is making slurping noises when you eat. Japanese people pinch a stack of soba (or udon) with their chopsticks and suck it into their mouth, making quite a noise, which you may feel disturbed hearing.
Soba was a kind of food that busy people of 17th – 19th century Tokyo (then called Edo) ate as a quick lunch. Because these people were constantly in a hurry, they may have started to suck soba into their mouths to save time, and this practice may have been passed on to the modern-day Japanese.
It’s not that Japanese people are consistently noisy eaters. They would not make the same sound when they eat pasta (except for old people who can’t tell the difference between different cuisines). Some young girls may consciously avoid making that sound, which nobody will have any problems with. It’s just when a Japanese guy tries to eat soba (or udon) without making noise that people will raise an eyebrow. They’ll sort of suspect he’s gay or at least metrosexual.
So it’s kind of a masculine thing to make slurping noises. As a non-Japanese, you have the choice of doing as the Romans do or eat silently. Japanese people are mostly aware of the fact that foreigners may feel awkward hearing or making such a noise, so they won’t have any problems with you if you choose to eat soba like pasta.
Here’s a video of a guy making slurping noise while eating warm soba, if you’re interested.
12-2. Eating cold soba
When you order cold soba at a soba restaurant, you will typically see wasabi, leek slices and a dip called Mentsuyu めんつゆ on your tray. After you’re done eating, the waiter/waitress will bring you a white transparent liquid called Sobayu そば湯 in a tea pot. If it’s your first time eating cold soba, you’ll wonder what each of these are for.
Here are the basic steps you take to have the full soba experience:
- Dump the leek slices into Mentsuyu and put in as much wasabi you’d like too. You can skip this process if you’re not fond of leeks or wasabi, as they are optional.
- Scoop a batch of soba with your chopsticks and dip it into Mentsuyu. But try not to let go of the soba while you dip because if you do, your soba will soak up too much of the dip and will lose its subtle flavor.
- By the time you finish eating your soba, you’ll probably still have a bit of Mentsuyu left. Around this timing, the waiter/waitress will bring you warm Sobayu. Pour Sobayu into the remaining Mentsuyu and you’ve created warm soup. Drink it, and your meal’s done.
Sobayu is the water that was used to boil your soba, and it includes a lot of nutrients: rutin, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, and choline. These stuff help you prevent all sorts of modern diseases like diabetes, stroke and dementia. It’s also good for skin-health. So drink up!
12-3. Eating curry udon
Curry udon is just as it sounds – it’s udon in hot curry soup. However the curry is blended with Japanese condiments like soy sauce, dashi and sweet rice wine (called Mirin みりん). I have never met a person who dislikes the taste of curry udon and I cannot imagine a foreigner disliking it either.
I highly recommend curry udon for those who haven’t tried it, but I must warn you that it will not be an easy game to play. When you fail to eat this with care, the udon will start dancing around between your chopsticks, spraying the curry soup all over the place, soiling your clothes with brown marks.
I dare you to try curry udon with a white Armani shirt or a new white Banana Republic blouse. It’s suicide.
But of course restaurants serving this weapon of mass destruction don’t want your garment to get hurt. So they usually give you a paper apron that you wear as an armor to curry-proof your clothes.
It will make you look dorky, but I advise to put this apron on unless you feel omnipotent. I have warned you.
13. Eating Tebasaki
Tebasaki are Nagoya-style fried chicken wings. You may have a chance to eat them when you eat at an Izakaya (Japanese style restaurant-bars). These taste crispy and spicy and it’ll be hard to stop once you start at them.
However it’s difficult to eat these efficiently. You’ll end up feeling incompetent at the activity of eating as you’ll be struggling to get meat off of such a little piece of chicken with your extra-greecy fingers.
Tebasaki is most eaten in Nagoya and people there all know how to handle these wings. So here’s a video of a lady from Nagoya city showing you the quick and easy way of eating Tebasaki.
To put these procedures in words:
- Break Tebasaki in half by twisting the joint
- Rub the meaty half with your thumb and index finger to loosen off the bone
- Put the meaty half into your mouth all the way up till your fingers and yank the meat off with your teeth
- Chew on the sides of the other half and you’re done with that piece
14. Using a toothpick
When you eat at a Japanese restaurant, you will often see wooden toothpicks like the ones in the picture above placed on top of your table. These are called Tsuma Yoji 爪楊枝 and are used to pick off small pieces of food stuck between your teeth after your meal.
But it’d be gross if everyone started clensing their teeth while others are still eating. So there are table manners to follow. When you use a Tsuma Yoji in front of others, you’re supposed to cover your mouth with your hand so as not to show people what you’re doing.
After you’re done using it, you should place it somewhere on the tray along with the empty plates and bowls, and stand up to go pay at the cashier.
15. Leave a comment if you need to know more
That’s it from me here. But if you come across a Japanese dish or dining situation that I have overlooked, please let me know through the comment section here. I’ll add an explanation of appropriate table manners.
Have fun exploring Japanese cuisine!