Dining in Japan
Dining in Japan can be stress-free and you don’t have to read Kanji to enjoy the food here. Here are some tips to enjoy Japanese food in Japan
Restaurants listed in this “MeSay” guide with an [E] mark have prepared English or photo menus to make your ordering much easier.
Some members of the restaurant staff cannot speak English, but in most cases you should have little trouble in placing your order provided you speak slowly and clearly or you write down what you want on paper. All of the establishments listed in the “MeSay” Restaurant & Bar Guide, even those without an [E] mark, warmly welcome foreign visitors. So feel free to visit any one of these fine establishments. You are sure to have a great time!
Some of the listed restaurants and bars cannot handle telephone calls in English. So if a reservation is required, you should ask a Japanese-speaking friend or the concierge at your hotel to make this reservation on your behalf. Popular restaurants can become very crowded and in some cases patrons have to wait several hours. Reservations are recommended, especially for Friday and Saturday nights. You should mention that you saw their ad in the “MeSay Restaurant & Bar Guide”.
Japan’s public transportation system is very developed and runs like clockwork. The roads can be very crowded in the daytime and so the trains and subways are the best alternatives in terms of both cost and time. In most cases you can walk to the establishment from the station. However, if it is at night or if the restaurant is far from the station, you should take a taxi. Also be sure to confirm the train schedule so that you do not miss the last train home.
You can easily catch a taxi in front of your hotel or at taxi stops in front of train stations. Simply show the taxi driver the restaurant you want to go to from the “MeSay Restaurant & Bar Guide” and say “Kono mise ni itte kudasai” (Please go to this restaurant). Once you arrive at your destination, you only need to pay the amount shown on the meter. Tips are not necessary (unless the driver carried heavy bags for you or performed some other special service).
How to Enjoy a Japanese Restaurant
One characteristic of Japanese cuisine is the incredible variety in terms of cooking methods. Various cooking styles from around the world have been adopted to develop many different flavors, even when using the same ingredients. Another characteristic is the skilled manner in which Japanese cuisine makes use of the differences in seasons and regions. This goes beyond simply using different ingredients during different seasons. During the very hot seasons there are many dishes that look cool and refreshing to help whet your appetite and during the cold months there are many dishes made from steaming pots to warm both your body and spirit. Geographically, Japan stretches over a large area running north and south. This means there is a wide variety of food products from Japan’s various regions, which can be used to create a very rich menu.
The price ranges include everything from the expensive to the very cheap fast food (you can even get some meals right out of vending machines). However, keep in mind that some of the more expensive restaurants often have very reasonably priced lunches. A meal for between 1,000 and 3,000 yen at an upscale restaurant can be a very good deal.
Some restaurants charge a 10% service fee during dinner time. There may also be cover charges and added fees for appetizers. This is a type of “tip” in Japan where there still is no custom of tipping. Therefore, you never need to leave any additional tip after eating.
Getting a table
Except for the local fast food chains where you can sit anywhere you wish, most restaurants would ask you for two things: the number of people needing a table, and whether a smoking or non-smoking table is preferred. As there are a good number of Japanese people who smoke, it is often easier to get a non-smoking table during peak hours. Some restaurants would ask you to take your shoes off and put them in shoe lockers by the door. If there are keys to the lockers, be sure to remember where you kept yours, as it can be such a hassle to be groping for it after you’ve had a few drinks with your meal. If the lockers don’t have keys, remember which locker you put your shoes in, for the same reason.
Placing an order
The menus are usually placed on each table. Feel free to ask for an English menu. If they don’t have one, you can always point to a picture on the menu. The portions are not as big as in many American restaurants, but don’t be deceived by the size, as they can be quite filling. It is always easy to order again. Many restaurants offer set meals at lunch, and even dinner times. These sets offer a salad, soup, or appetizer, the main dish, dessert, and a drink. You can opt to have your drink before or after your meal is served. It is also unusual for restaurants to offer a choice of dressings for your salad. In many restaurants, servers are multi-takers. It is rare for you to have an “assigned” server. Servers are generally very attentive.
Eating your meal
By default, chopsticks are served with your meal, but you can always ask for a fork, a spoon, and a knife. When eating steamed rice, the bowl should be raised from the table. Miso soup is sipped straight from the bowl, so you’ll need to raise the miso soup bowl as well. Hot noodles are served with chopsticks and a soupspoon. Slurping is not considered rude, and is very much acceptable. It is however considered rude to use your chopsticks to pierce your food like you would with a fork. The chopstick is not a barbeque stick. It is also considered bad manners to rest chopsticks upright. The cuts are usually small enough for you to eat in one “trip” of the chopsticks. If you must take a small bite, most dishes are served with small plates where you can temporarily “park” the uneaten portion of your chopstick pickup. Not all dishes are served with a serving instrument, so when you touch something with your chopsticks from the serving plate, that would be considered your choice, so you must pick that portion up and either park it on your small plate, or put it in your mouth straight away.
Paying for your meal.
When the last order item is served, usually coffee/tea and/or the dessert if you ordered a set meal, the server confirms with you that everything you’ve ordered has already been served. The bill is then left on your table, or is hung by a hardly visible hook on the side of your table. Take the bill to the register, and pay for your bill. Generally there is no tipping in Japan, so the price on the menu is all that you would have to pay for. Instead of tips, most restaurants serving ala-carte dinners would serve small appetizers (otooshi or tsukidashi) and include the cost of these in your bill. Some restaurants also have a cover charge (sekiryo) for dinner. If you went in a group and agreed to go dutch, you don’t have to have a math whiz among you just to figure out how much each of you would have to pay. The cashier can do that for you. Just say, “betsu-betsu,” and you only pay for what each of you ate.
Call of nature.
If you need to go to the restroom, don’t ask for the restroom, but ask for the “toilet.”