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Japan Travel Guide

Eating in Japan: Ordering and Etiquette



When you visit most restaurants in Japan you are greeted by the word Irasshaimase (Welcome), often shouted out with brio by the entire staff. In response, you should indicate with your fingers how many places are needed. After being seated you'll be handed an oshibori, a damp, folded hand towel, usually steaming-hot, but sometimes offered refreshingly cold in summer. A chilled glass of water (mizu) will also usually be brought automatically.

The most daunting aspect of eating out in Japan comes next - deciphering the menu. We've included a basic glossary of essential words and phrases in this section; for more detail, try Japanese: A Rough Guide Phrasebook, or the comprehensive What's What in Japanese Restaurants by Robb Satterwhite (¥1200; Kodansha). In addition, it's always worth asking if an English menu is available (eigo no menyp ga arimasu-ka). If a restaurant has a plastic-food window display, use it to point to what you want. If all else fails, look round at what your fellow diners are eating and point out what you fancy. Remember that the teishoku (set meal) or kosu (course) meals offer the best value, and look out for the word "Viking" (Baikingu), which means a help-yourself buffet.

Chopsticks (hashi) come with their own etiquette; don't stick them upright in your rice - an allusion to death. If you're taking food from a shared plate, turn the chopsticks round and use the other end to pick up the food. Also never cross your chopsticks when you put them on the table or use them to point at things. When it comes to eating soupy noodles, you can relax and enjoy a good slurp; it's also fine to bring the bowl to your lips and drink directly from it.

When you want the bill, say Okanjo kudasai (Bill please); the usual form is to pay at the till on the way out, not to leave the money on the table. There's no need to leave a tip, but it's polite to say gochiso-sama deshita (That was delicious) to the waiter or chef. Only the most upmarket Western restaurants and top hotels will add a service charge (typically ten percent).

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