15 tips to stay on the right side of the etiquette in Japan – food and drink

Are you planning a trip to Japan but worried that you’ll accidentally offend the locals because you don’t know the etiquette? Or are you concerned that your lack of cultural knowledge will make you look like a fool?   I know I felt that way when I moved from England to Japan. And not only did I worry about making mistakes, I actually excelled at faux pas! I can only now think back and say: I didn’t know any better.

But slowly I learned most of the common cultural peculiarities and after having lived in Japan for nearly three years many of the everyday conventions had become so familiar to me that I didn’t even notice them anymore. It’s only now that I have been back in the UK for a couple of weeks that I am aware of the behavioural differences between Japan and the UK again (for my regular readers who didn’t know yet, yes,  I’ve now moved back to the UK, and will write about the move soon).

Since the cultural quirks of Japan are still fresh in my mind, I thought this would be a perfect time for me to write a little list of them, not only to help any Japan novices going to Japan but maybe also to remind myself of these things a year (let alone twenty!) from now.

Below I list some tips for eating/drinking out. These should help you sail through your holiday eatery experiences as effortlessly as Nigella Lawson licks a spoon.

(1) Oshibori

When you go to restaurants, cafes or bars in Japan you will be given a hot towel (in up-market places) or a cold wet-wipe (everywhere else) to wipe your hands as soon as you sit down. When you’ve wiped your hands, fold the towel and place it next to your plate. You can use it for wiping your hands during your meal, but don’t wipe your face with it.

 (2) Restaurant service

In places like England, it’s rude to shout to get the waiter’s attention (in England you need to make an eye contact with a member of staff…even if it takes you half an hour!). In Japan, don’t wait for the waiter to spontaneously come to you. The waiter is waiting for you to shout ‘sumimasen’ (Eng: ‘Excuse me’) to indicate that you are ready to order. This is not considered impolite, and if you don’t do it, you’ll be there for a long while before the waiter finally comes to ask if you’ve decided already (I know this from experience).

 (3) Sharing

When eating out with family members, colleagues or friends, it’s typical that as a group you order several dishes and share them. The waitress will bring the food dishes and place them in the middle of the table and bring everyone a small plate (if there are no small plates on the table already). Everyone can help themselves to the food, or if you want to be polite, you can dish food onto everyone else’s plates first and then onto yours. If you are concerned about hygiene, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to dish out the food rather than the end that has been in your mouth.

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(4) No shoes

In many Japanese restaurants (that have tatami floors) you need to take your shoes off in the foyer. You put your shoes in a locker, take the key with you and walk to your table. If you need to use the toilet while in the restaurant, you should see some slippers in close proximity to the toilet or the foyer. Wear the slippers to the toilet and return them to where you found them on your way back from the toilet.

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shoe locker keys (and green tea)

(5) Chopsticks

When you need to put your chopsticks down during your meal you can lean them against your plate or put them over your plate/bowl (see photos below).

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When you’ve finished eating, if the chopsticks came in a small paper envelope, put them back in there (see photo below).

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If there is a little chopstick rest on the table which is (usually) between you and your plate, place the chopsticks there (see photo below).

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Or you can even just leave them on your plate so that they are horizontally resting on two points of the dish (as in some of the photos above). However, there are two things you should not do:

a) Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice i.e. standing up in the rice. The reason for this is that this resembles their use at a funeral (in relation to a person’s ashes), and should not be used in this way in any other context.

b) Also deriving from a convention practiced in funerals, you should never pass food from one person’s chopsticks directly to another person’s chopsticks. If you are giving someone food e.g. from a shared plate, you need to put the food on their plate.

(6) Finger foods

Even though in Europe it’s acceptable to use your hands to eat quite a few foods in a restaurant, a good rule of thumb in Japan is that you should eat nothing with fingers (other than maybe sushi and a burger). Even though to a novice in Japan some of these might feel quite comical and downright ‘wrong’ you should eat fries, a slice of pizza, sandwich or many types of desserts (e.g. cake) with your chopsticks (if you haven’t been provided with a fork and a knife or a spoon).

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Pizza with chopsticks

(7) Picking up your plate/bowl

In Europe the etiquette determines that (with most foods) you need to try to get the food off your plate and into your mouth by using cutlery instead of lifting the plate off the table and bringing it closer to your mouth. In Japan, people commonly hold a dish in one hand and chopsticks in the other while eating, and you can do the same.

(8) Rice

In particular in posh restaurants, rice is usually served as the last dish of the meal consisting of several courses, and it is served on its own! It does not come with a sauce like it does in Europe. However tempting it might be, try not to put soy sauce over the rice (but you can add e.g. roasted sesame seeds).

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It’s impolite if you don’t eat all your rice. This is the case in particular if you are visiting someone’s home. And when I say that it is impolite not to finish your rice, I mean you need to eat every grain in your bowl to indicate that the corner stone of the Japanese diet and agriculture, rice, is precious.

It might seem like an impossible task for an inexperienced chopstick user to pick up individual grains of rice, but you can lift your rice bowl of the table close to your mouth (see point 7 above) and with your chopsticks kind of shovel the rice from the bowl into your mouth.

Rice that is part of a dish (e.g. curry or fried rice) is usually eaten with a spoon (not chopsticks).

(9) Slurping

If you are a noisy eater, feel free to let your hair down in an udonya. However, if you can’t tolerate noisy eaters, I recommend not going to these types of noodle places where you will find everyone loudly slurping their noodles from the bowl into their mouths.

(10) Intestines (horumo)

In Japan they use a lot of intestines in cooking, especially in a Yakiniku (i.e. beef BBQ) places. If you are not a big fan of pancreas, diaphragm, womb or the large intestine you can say: Horumo irimasen which means that you will only want to eat the ‘meaty’ parts of the cow.

(11) The one drink rule

Be aware that there seems to be some kind of a one-drink-on-the-table rule in Japan. Only order another drink when you’ve finished your earlier one. When the waiter brings your new drink the chances are they will take your old drink glass away regardless of whether there is still some liquid in it.

(12) You should not pour your own drink.

If out with a Japanese person, and if you have ordered a bottle of wine, sake or beer you should not fill your own glass. The other person should notice when your glass is empty and fill it – and you should of course fill theirs. Given that Japanese society is patriarchal, Japanese men often expect the women to pour the mens’ drinks (this is one cultural feature of Japan that a feminist like myself might choose not to adopt).

(13) Sake and masu

If you order sake you often get it in a glass that is placed in a square vessel (called masu). The waiter will fill your sake glass at the table from a big bottle of sake, but surprisingly to many Westerners, when the glass if full, they will carry on pouring so that the glass overflows into the masu. Don’t panic. He’s just indicating their generosity by the overflowing ‘measure’.

When you drink the sake you’ve just been poured you need to do it without hands. That is, you need to bend over and take the first gulp so that you don’t touch the glass with your hands. After the first gulp you can lift the glass as normal but place it back in the masu in between gulps. When your glass is empty, you pour the excess sake from masu into your glass, and drink it.

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(14) Service charge

There is no tipping in Japan. If you leave a tip the waiter will run after you in order to return your change.

(15) Bakeries

There are bakeries everywhere in Japan and you should try some of the Japanese buns when visiting Japan! It’s usually self-service. Take a tray and tongs and select the buns you want from the counters. Go to the cashier and give her the tray and the tongs (they will clean them before giving them to the next person).

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I got a bit carried away!

This is not to do with etiquette, but here’s a little additional tip:

The wee hours of the morning are often represented slightly differently on the windows of izakayas than in pub windows in Europe, e.g. 26 hours corresponding to 2am.

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ps.  If you are Japanese or an expat in Japan feel free to correct any misunderstandings on my behalf or add any other restaurant/bar related tips that I have missed in the comments below.

My favourite Japanese sweet

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Japan is not known for its cakes or biscuits, maybe because desserts do not generally play a huge part in mealtimes in Japan. Instead, foodies’ associations with Japan include sushi, sashimi, udon, Wagyu beef, tempura, yakitori and other starter or main course options.

But in addition to the gorgeous savoury mouthfuls, you can also experience some real sweet gems in Japan – Ichigo Daifuku being my absolute favourite. I loooove them! In fact, one of the positives of me being back in Osaka (and not at home in England) is that I can pop in a department store and buy one (or two!) of these and have them for lunch.

Even though I find it difficult to put daifuku into a specific category of food, I’d say they are more of a dessert or a cake rather than something to have for lunch. However, given that the main ingredient of daifuku is rice dough (mochi), I’ve convinced myself that I’m not a pig even if I have them to fill me up at lunch time.

In short, daifuku are balls of gooey rice dough inside which is a piece of fruit, and/or (if, as a non-Japanese speaker, I am unlucky and accidentally get the wrong one) red bean paste known as anko.

My favourite is the strawberry-filled daifuku, which combines the sweet and fresh taste and firm texture of the strawberry with the bland taste and sticky texture of the rice dough.

Having said that, melon, mandarin and pear daifuku are also delicious and worth giving a go. In my view, the bean filling on the other hand is as enjoyable as the spoonful of cod liver oil my mum used to force down my throat as a child, but the Japanese seem to love it. In fact, I’ve heard it is the most popular filling!

In any case, if you ever visit Japan, you should go to the food court of a posh department store (e.g. Daimaru, Kintetsu, Hansin, Hankyu) or even just to a corner shop and buy a ball or two of daifuku. Whether you’ll love it or hate it (some people don’t like the gooey texture), your palate will have experienced something that it is unlikely to experience elsewhere in the world.

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My lunch

No fish left in the sea

I spent last weekend in Tokyo and I loved it! Its posh department stores and restaurants in Ginza, its trendy cafes and shops in Shibuya and Harajuku (this even though I am an old timer), and its traditional Japanese restaurants in Asakusa, to name a few of the key sources of my love for the capital of Japan.

However, by far the most striking experience I had in Tokyo was the Tsukiji fish market.

Some of you might view going to a fish market a bit like going to the butchers or an abattoir, and you are right – that’s what it is, kind of. But if you are prepared to eat octopus sushi, tuna sashimi, raw sea urchin, salmon soup, oyster tempura, grilled mackerel, deep fried white bait, eel on a skewer, pan fried perch, prawn cocktail, or to open a tin of Whiskas for your feline friend, I think one should be prepared to understand (and ideally see) where that food comes from and accept the responsibility that your (or your cat’s) diet will mean that marine creatures will be caught and killed for your benefit.

To try to get a better understanding of this, I had an early start and met my Japanese friend in the foyer of my hotel at 4.40am. He had kindly offered to come to the fish market with me before heading to work straight from the fish market. Since the tube wasn’t running that early in the morning, we walked for 20 minutes to the fish market and got there at 5am when the ticket office for the tuna and sea urchin auction was due to open. They only let 150 visitors observe the auction, which starts at 5.25am.

When we got to the ticket booth, we learned that the booth had opened already at 2.30am and that by 4am all the tickets were sold out, and that we were thus not going to witness the extremely expensive black tuna or sea urchin changing hands by way of some elaborate hand movements indicating bids and prices.

Disappointed, we walked around aimlessly trying to avoid being run over by very busy men on battery powered turret trucks which looked like a cross between a forklift and a petrol barrel (see short video below).

 

By coincidence we came across one not–so-busy man, sitting on a crate of fish and my friend asked him if there was anything interesting to see at 5am instead of the auction that we had missed. Apparently we were welcome to go and have a look inside a huge, intimidating looking warehouse full of men, boxes of fish and turret trucks.

 

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So we walk into the warehouse, again trying not to get run over by the guys on their trucks or clog up the narrow walkways. I’m taking photos of fish, squid, octopus, turtles, and shell fish in boxes and fish tanks, and on tables and trolleys, and of sellers and buyers negotiating (see photos).

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There were piles and boxes of fish everywhere in this gigantic warehouse whose extremities were unknown to us. I had never seen so many fish.  I started to have an unnerving thought. Tsukiji fish market is just one of several fish markets in Tokyo, and there are many more fish markets in Japan, and Japan is just one country in Asia, and Asia is just one continent. These types of fish markets take place in thousands of places in the world. And they take place every day! I could but think that there must be no fish left in the sea! It’s all on tables and boxes in fish markets like this! Or revolving around sushi restaurant counters or being covered in batter in fish and chip shops.

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When the tuna auction had finished and the tuna was brought to the market

 

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After having had a look around the market, we decided that we had seen enough and wanted to head back to the hotel, but the warehouse was so big that we couldn’t find our way out. Eventually, my friend asked directions from an elderly man loading his turret truck. We were gobsmacked when the guy glanced at us from underneath his eyebrows and then offered to give us a lift to the closest tube station in his truck. At 6am these workers are super busy. I don’t think they would generally be willing to operate a taxi service for lost visitors. So, we were extremely grateful (and very excited!) when we hopped on the back of the truck and off we went.

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When we cruised out of the warehouse, I noticed many tourists (none of whom were using a similar taxi service as us!), and said to my friend that it is weird that none of the other tourists came into the actual fish warehouse to have a look. That, funnily enough, we seemed to be the only tourists there.

He then admits that the guy who had instructed us to go in had done so because my friend was wearing a suit (as he was going straight to work from the fish market) and the guy had said that even though strictly speaking we were not supposed to go in, the staff would think we were there on business! Never have I felt more like a gatecrasher! But at the same time I was grateful to my friend and his suit for having experienced something I’ll never forget – the content of the entire sea on tables of a fish market and the ride at the back of a barrel on four wheels.

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I have mixed emotions after seeing the fish market.  Part of me is happy to have seen first hand where our food comes from. However, it does make me think seriously about how much I actually enjoy eating fish. Do I love it so much that I am prepared to support the fish industry in their capture and killing of fish? Aside from the suffering that the fish endure, I am also concerned about the hazards for humans of eating fish (e.g. due to levels of mercury) and the environmental impact of fishing. One to ponder I think.

Eternal meditation

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I recently had an amazing, educational and spiritually enlightening experience. A friend and I stayed at Koyasan (Mount Koya), a UNESCO World Heritage site, about a 1 ½ h train journey south of Osaka.

Koya is an old Buddhist town founded by a monk called Kobo Daichi some 1,200 years ago and even though there used to be many more temples, due to some monks’ happy-go-lucky attitude with candles, today there are 117 temples in Koyasan’s 4 km x 2 km area.

When we got to Koyasan we were hungry to see as many temples as possible. But instead of visiting all 117 temples, we managed maybe about 15 after which we, surprisingly perhaps, felt desensitised to all the picturesque buildings, smell of incense, aesthetic temple rock gardens, lovely little ponds and their carps and ever so friendly monks smiling at everybody.

 

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So, we decided to go back to our lodgings and meditate with the monks.

We stayed in a pilgrim’s lodgings (Shukubo), which is a temple that has rooms for people making a holy trip to this extremely important spiritual place in Japan.

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Our room

 

My friend and I are not Buddhists, in fact, neither one of us are religious, but after having spent a weekend in Koyasan, we agreed that if we were religious, Buddhism, its positive attitude and concrete real life application would be the one we’d be most likely to go for. Apparently, one way to be a good Buddhist is to start by cleaning your home! Due to your ‘soul’ being connected to the ambient world, a clean and tidy home equals a clean and tidy soul. I love this kind of practical stuff, which doesn’t really strike me as religion but more like common sense. Related to this, our temple lodgings were spotless!

The food at the temple was vegetarian and sooo good – even fried tofu that usually tastes like a wet woolly mitten was to die for! After dinner, two young monks came to clear away the food trays and replaced them with our beds. I asked them whether or not they cook the food themselves. They said that they have a chef who does all the cooking (the monks just make beds and do other household chores, and presumably meditate, pray and engage in other Buddhist routines). I’m guessing the chef used to work in a Michelin star restaurant. I’m not kidding. I’m still drooling over that tofu.

 

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After dinner we went on a night tour led a monk to one of the most sacred places in Japan, Okunoin.

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Okunoin is a Buddhist cemetery consisting of 200,000 tombs, the most important of which is that of Kobo Daichi’s (the monk who is the father of Koyasan). Well actually it is not his ‘tomb’. You see, in the 9th century, at the age of 63 years, Kobo Daichi entered a room underneath one of the temples for eternal meditation. Supposedly, for the past 1200 years he’s been there but only the reigning head monks of the temple, when bringing him his daily meals, have seen him in his deep state of meditation. One British tourist asked the question that might be on some of your lips: Is he still alive? By the monk’s ever so diplomatic answer, I assume that was not the first time someone asked that question. He said: Some people believe that he is still alive, but most people assume that he lives in this temple in spirit.

The cemetery surrounding Kobo Daichi meditation temple was breath-taking. In the dark it looked magical but also a little spooky. It didn’t help that the monk told us that a well half-way through the cemetery was believed to indicate whether you were to die soon. Apparently, if you couldn’t see your own reflection in the water of the well it meant that you would die within three years. We decided to wait until the morning to have a look – we really didn’t want to risk it at night with hardly any light. The monk added that a flight of steps next to the well were also an indicator of your longevity. He said that if you slipped or fell over on the steps then you would die within three years. Maybe this was just a way for the monk to get a group of Westerners (who hardly resembled graceful gazelles) to pay attention and not break their necks on the slippery steps (and maybe sue the temple!). After all, before we got to the cemetery and its slippery steps one lady in our group had already ended up on her all fours. Luckily nobody fell over on the fall-over-and-your-a-goner-in-three-years-steps, and as far I am aware, the lady didn’t sue the temple for the earlier tumble either.

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The steps at night

 

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The steps at day

 

We slept on the tatami floor on a relatively thin futon. I didn’t sleep very well. Not because of the thin futon or nightmares about Okunoin and life-ending wells but, due to the walls in old Japanese buildings being essentially paper, I could hear a guy three rooms down the corridor snore and the couple in the room next to us breath. But I didn’t mind too much really – a bad night’s sleep is a small price to pay for experiencing Koyasan!

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At 6am our alarms woke us up to go and take part in our temple’s morning service and fire ritual (gomakito), which they hold routinely every day, rather than as a gimmick for the tourists. The purpose of them is to pray for our ancestors and to cleanse negative energies and thoughts. These ceremonies were very interesting and to me a little bit moving, partly because of what I wrote on my soegomagi – a piece of wood that the monks burn in the morning fire ritual for a contribution of 300JPY (€2.50). What I wrote was a wish that there would be a cure for Type 1 diabetes. Maybe it was the incense, the powerful beating of the taiko drums, the chanting of a mantra by the monks and the thought of my Type 1 diabetic daughter that made me feel so emotional. In any case it was lovely (and I am looking forward to the cure for Type 1 soon).

The only things that distracted me in the morning service and the fire ceremony was an approx. 10-year of daughter of the British lady who had asked about 1,200 year old Kobo Daichi’s vital signs at Okunoin temple. The daughter loudly farted during the morning ceremony and the family giggled for 5 minutes after which the daughter and their 8-year old son lay down on the floor, I presume expressing boredom and/or tiredness.

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Morning service

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Fire ritual

 

After breakfast (and some more tofu, Yay!) we went back to the Okunoin cemetery. Some of the oldest tombs have stood there in the middle of the forest, in the morning mist for 900 years. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything quite like that.

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One of the oldest tombs in Okunoin

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In addition to the beautiful old tombs and a tranquil atmosphere, there were also some more modern tombs and even some slightly quirky ones, like a rocket, a teacup and a termite tomb.

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Apparently, anyone can have a tomb in Okunoin; you don’t even have to be a Buddhist. You just need to have a thick wallet to pay for the spot and to have a tomb made. But even though Okunoin was amazingly beautiful, I think I want to go into my eternal meditation back home, in England or Finland.

 

 

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Jizo (if you would like to know more about jizo, click here)