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.

No excuses

I’ve lived in Japan for nearly three years now and I’m still in awe about their fantastic train service. For someone who lived in England for 14 years, the Japanese trains are bloody amazing!

When I move back to England, one of the things I will miss even more than the irresistible Japanese food (that has over the past 3 years added about 10kg on my waist) is the stress-free bang-on-time train service that I have been using to commute to work every weekday and to travel near and far around Japan during weekends.

You see, England is country whose train service can hardly be referred to as ‘bloody amazing’ and thus, I will have to soon again get used to all sorts of excuses as to why I won’t be able to trust that my train will be on my platform when it should.

This might be a bit mean to the English government (that seems reluctant to make any investment whose benefits last beyond their term in office) and to English train companies (whose only aim is to make profit for their shareholders regardless of how appalling a service they provide their passengers in the process) but I can’t resist pointing out that the English train operators’ three typical excuses for delayed, cancelled or overcrowded trains seem rather moot in comparison to the conditions in Japan. They appear to be the following:

1. Weather and natural disasters

Japan has a multitude of additional and frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. Regardless of these, Japanese train operators manage to provide a fantastic service. For instance, the average delay annually of the Shinkansen, i.e. the bullet train is between 20-50 seconds depending on the year (this includes delays due to uncontrollable causes, like earthquakes!).

In comparison, in England, trains are cancelled as there are ‘leaves on the tracks’.

2. The number of people

English train operators often defend their poor service by saying that the volume of people in modern day England does not reflect the capacity of its Victorian infrastructure. Namely, the platforms are too short for longer trains whose use would enable less overcrowded trains. I’m guessing the company/government decision-makers are not stupid, and thus they are aware that one could (a) modernise the platforms to reflect the needs of the modern day or (b) run a more frequent train service without extending the platforms. However, extra trains and longer platforms mean investment, more man-hours and higher fuel costs, all of which result in less profits, so the government and the companies are as eager to change the platforms or add extra services as your stingy auntie is to turn the heating up in the winter.

About 120 million people live in Japan. This is roughly twice as many as in England. Regardless of this huge number of people, the commute to work in Japan is generally relatively stress-free. If you do not fit onto the train you were expecting to take, you simply join the queue on the platform, and take the following train, which is likely to arrive a couple of minutes later. Therefore, not fitting onto the overcrowded train creates a delay on average of about 2 minutes.

The train and tube connections between different lines are unbelievably well thought through and executed. As your first train pulls in to the platform, your connection is usually already there waiting for you, or it will arrive within 30 seconds. So, all you need to do is basically just walk out of your first train and walk into your connection on the other side of the platform before it leaves 30 seconds later. It’s like magic! I assume English train companies’ intention is to provide something similar, but they haven’t quite managed to hone the operations to the point where passengers can enjoy their connection waiting for them at the platform instead of it arriving 45 minutes later (if even then).

3. Old equipment

Maybe a valid point is the functionality of the train company’s equipment. We get to the importance of investment here again, but let’s assume that one had to make do with pretty old trains. Would this be a valid reason to let your train service perform like a pensioner with a heart problem using a zimmer frame?

Well, in Japan it’s not. In Japan they have their high end bullet trains (would you not agree with me that they look like platypuses, see photo below) and they are investing now in the Maglev, the super fast magnetically levitating bullet train.

 

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Platypus

 

But in addition to these super fast, super reliable long distance trains, local Japanese train companies (many of which are privately owned), such as the one I have been using for the past three years to commute to work and back, use less sophisticated technology (see photos below).

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What I love about the aboves photo, and what to me gives an indication of the rigour and determination that the train companies and staff have about their schedule is the old-fashioned pocket watch on the dashboard. Every time the train stops, the driver checks the watch to make sure the train leaves on time. I suppose my point with the picture is that: good train service is not just about the equipment.

And ass I pointed out above, I think it’s not about the weather or the number of passengers either.

So what is it about?

I think it’s about attitude. I think it’s as simple as that. If train operators wanted to put passenger satisfaction first and provide good service, they would simply adjust to the needs of the modern society and to current passenger numbers, even if it meant a little less money for themselves/their shareholders.

But in a country with a long history of dog-eat-dog competition, where can we find the train operators or their decision makers that are not only concerned about money?

 

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One more point relevant to trains, but from a slighlty different perspective: Even though the train operators don’t care about their passengers very much in England, other passengers on the train do (only occasionally you are unlucky enough to encounter a person whose BMW was broken down and they’ve had to take the train. These are the people who behave on the train platform like their time is more valuable than everyone else’s). In England, if for instance an elderly person or a pregnant lady is on the train, you can be sure that someone will give their seat to these people. Japanese people on the other hand rarely offer their seat to anyone even if it was obvious that the other person needed the seat more than they did (see photo below of me carrying my sleeping 4-year old for a 40 minute journey from Kyoto to Osaka).

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A few tips to help you make friends in Japan

Japanese people are a little bit like the Finns, i.e. relatively introverted and shy, and even though they might want to have a chat with you they are as eager to open a conversation with a foreigner as a squirrel is to cuddle a boa constrictor. Consequently, you might find it’s hard work to make Japanese friends… well, that is unless you are in Osaka, where on the train or in the park old ladies frequently engage with you in lengthy conversations in Japanese (regardless of whether or not you speak Japanese) and hand out to your children bags of sweets, bookmarks or pieces of fruit (regardless of whether or not you consent to it) and where random strangers tap you on the shoulder and ask (a) if you could be their foreign friend and/or (b) if they could practice their English with you. But elsewhere in Japan it might be more difficult to talk to the locals.

But not to worry, if you are visiting Japan and would like to experience authentic Japanese communication in a friendly situation or even make friends with some random Japanese people this is what we’ve found works marvellously:

1) in the evening, go to a small izakaya (gastro pub) or a standing sake bar, the smaller the better really, a 5-10 seater would be perfect.

2) sit/stand at the bar (in very small izakayas there are no tables anyway)

3) have a couple of glasses of dry sake, sweet plum wine or a pint of beer

4) start talking to the person sitting next to you. It helps if you know a couple of words in Japanese, after all, the chances are the Japanese person will have a very limited knowledge of English. The quickest way to start a conversation is to comment on the sport on the TV in the izakaya, or mention how delicious the sake or food is. Further into the conversation you should mention how much you love Japan (which shouldn’t be difficult as Japanese food, public transport, customer service, culture and nature are all amazing). Even though Japanese people love their country, what they love even more is foreigners telling them that they love Japan.

5) one additional tip for connecting with Japanese people at 11pm when you’ve jointly emptied the sake reserves of a small izakaya is to learn the lyrics to USA for Africa’s We are the World song before your trip to Japan. Seriously! Surprisingly perhaps, pretty much everyone in Japan, or at least in Osaka, knows this song (because the kids’ area at the Universal Studios in Osaka plays this song non-stop all day every day).

To convince you that the above method works like a dream here are a couple of random but wonderful instances of us making friends in Japan:

 

Crazy mama-san

A German friend was visiting me in Osaka and we were looking for a place to eat. We stopped outside a small Korean izakaya to have a look at the menu (which was written in Japanese and we couldn’t understand any of it) and decided not to go in. But as we started walking away from the restaurant a salesperson from a bike shop across the road storms out of his shop and with a few words of English persuades us to go to the Korean restaurant, saying that the food is great and the mama-san (owner/manager) is very friendly. We felt obliged to go in.

We sat at the counter next to two salarymen and a lone guy. We struggled to order anything because mama-san and her sous-chef/waitress didn’t speak English so the lone guy next to us offered to translate. It turned out he owned his own restaurant a couple of blocks away but was having his ‘break’ (involving no food, but hefty glasses of sake). We had a chat with him about his visit to Canada some 20 year ago, and when he had to go back to work (a little tipsy), we turned to the two salarymen sitting next to us and to another group of men who had come downstairs (from the seating area upstairs) to talk to us. It was an interesting mix of people. There was a piano tuner, a university professor, a relatively famous actor, office workers, a car sales person, two crazy ladies behind the bar and me and my German friend, both of us university lecturers.

The night turned a bit crazy with singing, mama-san taking a gulp of wine, gurgling it and spitting it back in the glass and redrinking it, several of the customers ended up serving drinks/food behind the bar and the punters, mama-san and the sous-chef trying to pronounce my German friend’s name even in a remotely similar way to the way it should be pronounced.

It was a hilarious evening and ended in everyone exchanging their business cards to indicate friendship.

 

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Mama-san and a customer behind the bar

Standing Sake bar the size of a match box

My husband and I have a favourite standing sake bar in the Shinsaibashi area of Osaka. It is tiny. It literally consists of one table (which is really just a piece of wood balanced on top of some drinks crates) and a fridge to keep the sake cool.  As to food, the owner is happy for you to bring in whatever you like (including take-outs from the local 7-eleven). And we like the place precisely because of these properties. The sake bar having only one table means that you have to talk to the people next to you, and the cold (or hot) sake helps with no single mutually intelligible language. Regardless of the fact that my husband and I don’t speak Japanese beyond the very basics and the other customers generally not speaking English beyond the very basics every time we’ve been to this place we’ve had a great time, maybe partly because most customers when coming in exclaim with delight kokusai (‘international’) party or because more than once when we haven’t managed to understand each other a Japanese customer leaves the sake bar, goes searching the surrounding bars and eventually comes back with a Japanese person who can speak some English to translate between English and Japanese.

We love this place so much that we often take our European visitors/friends there with us. Here’s a photo taken at my most recent visit with a friend.

 

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And to prove that this is not only the case in Osaka, here are a couple of pictures of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo where I went with a Japanese friend and ended up having a great time with some other diners (who were eager to tell me that they had visited Europe and their son was an associate professor of English at a university in Nagoya) and the owner of the restaurant who wanted to practice his English. Having been able to talk to the owner, who was the sushi chef of the place, allowed me to finally put some words to the foods that I’ve been eating for the past 2 ½ years.

So, not only will you have interesting, hilarious and entertaining evenings interacting with random Japanese people after a couple of glasses of something slightly stronger than just green tea, but you will learn a lot about Japan and Japanese culture as well.

 

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Sushi chef (owner) secretly took a selfie with my phone

 

Even though I am posting this blog post on New Year’s Eve, the above tips are not really meant to be used tonight or any other NYE. After all, in Japan NYE is a little bit like Christmas eve in Finland or Christmas day in England, i.e it’s spent at home relaxing with one’s family eating too much, watching TV and maybe visiting a temple/church during the night. But if you are in Japan pretty much any other evening than NYE,why not try and make some Japanese friends. And if you are a bit shy to open the conversation, remember that the chances are that the Japanese person sitting next to you is as eager to talk to you as you are to them!

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