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For visitors, navigating Tokyo's restaurant world can feel intimidating, especially if you don't speak Japanese. Luckily, a little extra planning and a big heaping of politeness will go a long way. Tokyo resident and dining expert Melinda Joe guides you through everything you need to know to get the most out of your trip — without accidentally making a bad impression.
Smile and say, "Konnichi-wa."
Greetings are important in Japan, where the culture is defined by politeness and formality. Although English is increasingly spoken at restaurants in Tokyo, it is still far from common. A simple konnichi-wa (good day) or konban-wa (good evening) will help put your hosts at ease. A few basic phrases go a long way, so practice saying excuse me (sumimasen), please (kudasai), and thank you (arigato gozaimasu).
Whenever possible, reserve. Restaurants in Japan tend to be small and fill up quickly, so assume that you'll need to book in advance. Most accept dinner reservations, but some Japanese restaurants — especially casual places serving rice bowls or set meals — don't take bookings at lunch; you'll just have to wait in line. For fine-dining hotspots likeDen andFlorilege, you should book at least a month ahead; two weeks is recommended for popular izakaya (taverns) such asKotaro, but calling a day or two in advance should suffice for most casual eateries. Reserving for groups of six or more can be tricky, so look for restaurants with koshitsu (private rooms).
In some cases, it's possible to book directly through the restaurant's website orOpentable, while services such asVoyagin can secure seats for a fee. However, many of Tokyo's restaurants have yet to enter the digital age, so the best way to reserve is by phone — or fax. If you're staying at a hotel, take advantage of the concierge service. Major hotels have a lot of pull.
Alas, there are places that turn away first-time customers. Because Tokyo eateries are often intimate spaces, proprietors are wary of newcomers disturbing the wa (harmony) among the guests. The best way to get into a restaurant likeKyoaji orSushi Saito is to accompany a regular.
Hanamaru in KITTE. |Norio Nakayama/Flickr
If you manage to get reservations, show up.
Restaurants in Tokyo may have as few as seven seats, and some high-end spots do only one dinner service per day. Given the high costs of rent and ingredients, failing to honor reservations can result in significant losses for small restaurants. If you have to cancel, do so as soon as possible. For last-minute cancellations, you may be charged the full price of the tasting menu, so check the restaurant's reservation policy.
Problems with no-shows and double bookings by tourists have made things harder for overseas visitors. Many restaurants now ask for a Japanese phone number to confirm your reservation the day before. If you don't have a local number, give your hotel's contact info.
And don't be late.
The Japanese value punctuality. Tardiness is considered rude and could cause you to lose your table. If you're going to be more than 15 minutes late, it's advisable to call ahead and let the restaurant know.
Substitutions are not a given.
If you have food allergies or dietary restrictions, let the restaurant know when you make the reservation. Many Japanese restaurants specialize in a specific dish — for example, tonkatsu (pork cutlets) or soba (buckwheat noodles) — and often can't accommodate many special requests. Giving the restaurant a heads-up will allow them to prepare.
Know when to book...
Many restaurants and shops close on Sunday and Monday. If dining is a priority, research your options beforehand. Even if the restaurant doesn't have a website, you can generally find the opening hours listed on Tabelog.
Reservations are tough to come by in December, when restaurants are booked solid with year-end parties. Christmas Eve is a prime date night, which means that you're likely to pay a premium for the special menu. The Japanese celebrate New Year's at home with their families, so most restaurants shutter from January 1-5. At this time, your best dining options are inside hotels. The same is true during the Obon holidays around mid-August, when restaurants generally close for up to a week.
Tsukiji sushi bar | Bryan Allison/Flickr
And what time to eat...
Tokyo is not Barcelona. Lunch service typically runs from 12 p.m. to 2:00 p.m., while most restaurants serve dinner from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Izakayas, where you can order small plates for sharing, stay open later, but kitchens generally close by 11 p.m. For all-day dining options, look for cafés, noodle shops, and major chains like Ootoya. You can pick up a late-afternoon snack at one of the city's excellent bakeries, or in themany depachika food halls located on the basement floor of department stores like Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya. If you find yourself hungry at 3 a.m., convenience stores are open 24 hours.
Looking for street food? Head to Osaka.
Contrary to popular belief, modern-day Tokyo lacks a robust street food culture. Food stalls can be found at festivals and outside of parks, but they're hardly gourmet destinations. Many shops selling yakitori or takoyaki (octopus dumplings) have take-out windows (typically in addition to benches or tables for standing), but eating while walking is generally not accepted and eating on public transportation is a definite no-no.
Eat like a local.
Get comfortable using chopsticks, as Japanese restaurants may not have forks on hand. At high-end sushi bars, however, it's also ok to eat with your fingers. Just don't ask for extra soy sauce or wasabi; the chef will have already seasoned the fish, and even if he or she grants your request, know that you have not made a friend. At other Japanese restaurants, there are no hard and fast rules. The staff will guide you through each course. Note, however, that Japanese people speak softly at restaurants, so use your indoor voices.
Izakayas and tachinomiya (standing bars) are more relaxed, convivial spaces. Don't be surprised if neighboring diners approach you for a chat. When someone refills your glass, return the favor; pouring for others is good drinking etiquette. Plates are meant to be shared, and it's common to order a rice dish at the end of the meal.
Don't be afraid to slurp your noodles at ramen and soba shops. The Japanese see it as a sign that you're enjoying yourself. Be aware that lines are often long at noodle houses, so don't hang around once you've finished eating. The tendency of Western tourists to linger at busy eateries is a frequent complaint among owners.
When you're ready to pay, ask for the check with o-kanjo kudasai (bill, please). Tipping is not necessary. High-end restaurants add a 10-12% service fee to your bill, while more casual eateries usually tack on a nominal seating charge. Although paying with credit card has become more common, keep in mind that some restaurants accept only cash. Before you leave, be sure to say gochisosama desu — a polite way to express thanks for the meal.
Melinda Joe is a drinks columnist for The Japan Times and a sake judge for the International Wine Challenge in London. She has written for Newsweek, CNN, The Food Network, WSJ, and Departures Magazine.
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Not finishing one's meal is not considered impolite in Japan, but rather is taken as a signal to the host that one wishes to be served another helping. Conversely, finishing one's meal completely, especially the rice, indicates that one is satisfied and therefore does not wish to be served any more.Is it OK to drink while walking in Japan? ›
Japanese tend not to eat while walking along or standing around on the street. However, it is acceptable to drink while standing aside a vending machine.What do Japanese staff say when you enter a restaurant? ›
Upon entering a restaurant, customers are greeted with the expression "irasshaimase" meaning "welcome, please come in". The waiter or waitress will ask you how many people are in your party and then lead you to your table.How can you show your host you like your meal in Japan? ›
1. Showing gratitude for the food, and to the host. In Japan, before eating people say itadakimasu (いただきます) which literally translates as “I humbly receive (this meal)”, but they also say gochi sou sama deshita (ごちそうさまでした) which translates as “it was a fine feast”.Is it rude to burp after a meal in Japan? ›
Blowing your nose at the table, burping and audible munching are considered bad manners in Japan. On the other hand, it is considered good style to empty your dishes to the last grain of rice.Is it rude to clear your plate in Japan? ›
Always finish your meal!
The Japanese consider it rude to leave food on your plate, and even more so to order more food when you haven't finished everything you've already got. This is related to one of the fundamental concepts in Japanese culture, mottainai, which is a feeling of regret at having wasted something.
If you're walking around temples and shrines, it is a good idea to be respectful and have a top layer with sleeves and no tummy or cleavage showing. However, it is not a rule and you'll sometimes see Japanese people not following these dress-code standards.Do you tip in Japan? ›
Tipping in Japan is not expected, and attempts to leave a tip will almost certainly be turned down (a potentially awkward moment). In Japan, it's thought that by dining out or drinking at a bar, you are already paying the establishment for good service.Can you keep the pajamas in Japanese hotels? ›
Yes, you can keep hotel pajamas if you decide that you want to do so. However, there are a few things to consider before doing so. First, make sure that the hotel has given you explicit permission to take the pajamas.What is the proper way to say thank you in Japanese? ›
Arigatou on its own is a simple, somewhat casual “thank you.” That said, most people prefer doumo arigatou or arigatou gozaimasu as their standard way of saying thanks, because both of those phrases are more polite than arigatou on its own.
だいじょうぶ (daijoubu) - “No Thanks” 違う (chigau) - “That's not right” すみません (sumimasen) - “I'm sorry/Thank you but…”How do you say thank you to a Japanese waiter? ›
Arigato: A standard “thank you”. Domo: A less polite, more informal way to say “thank you”.What does burping mean in Japan? ›
Society and culture
For example, a burping guest can be a sign to the host that the meal satisfied them and they are full. In Japan, burping during a meal is considered bad manners. Burping during a meal is also considered unacceptable in Western cultures, such as North America and Europe.
After finishing the meal
Place the chopsticks horizontally on the table or tray on your side, with the tip to the left. In Japan, it is considered taboo to place chopsticks vertically, as it is impolite to leave the tip facing the other person.
- 1) Do not rub your chopsticks together. ...
- 2) Do not stick chopsticks into your food. ...
- 3) Do not pass food to another pair of chopsticks. ...
- 4) Do not use one chopstick. ...
- 5) Do not leave your chopsticks crossed on your bowl or the table. ...
- 6) Do not point with your chopsticks.
It is said that crossed chopsticks represent death itself in China. While Japan may not associate this practice with death, it is still generally considered bad manners to cross your chopsticks. Whenever possible, try to remember to keep them in a parallel position whether they are in your hands or placed down.Is it rude to pick up your bowl in Japan? ›
It's perfectly good manners in Japan to pick up the bowl you're eating from in one hand while you eat, and totally acceptable to drink soup straight from the bowl.What does yellow plate mean in Japan? ›
Japanese cars are classified into regular and light (keijidosha) cars, which are subject to different taxes and regulations. Keijidosha cars (yellow license plates) are smaller vehicles that must conform to strict size, weight and power restrictions.Is it rude to cross your legs in Japan? ›
In Japan, crossing one's legs is seen as disrespectful. It is because when you do this you show the bottom of your feet to guests, and since they have picked up dirt, you are showing that dirt to your guests. This makes for very bad business relations.Why do you not tip in Japan? ›
Why is Tipping in Japan Rude? The reason why tipping can be seen as rude in Japan is because they value dignity and respect much more than tipping. The Japanese believe you are already paying for a good service, so there is no need to pay extra by tipping.
In Japan a person with a BMI of 22 kg/m2 or more is considered obese. Japanese women are considered overweight if their BMI exceeds 1 kg/m. In Japan, the average adult male weighs approximately 78 kilograms (172 pounds). The average female is about 57.5 kilograms (127 pounds).Are jeans OK in Japan? ›
Shorts, jeans, and camisoles are perfectly fine to wear as long as you don't plan on attending religious sites. While denim isn't a popular fashion choice for those beyond their teen years, black jeans are more acceptable due to their versatile nature.What is the fat limit in Japan? ›
Those exceeding government limits - 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women, which are identical to thresholds established in 2005 for Japan by the International Diabetes Federation as an easy guideline for identifying health risks - and having a weight-related ailment will be given dieting guidance if after ...Can you drink tap water in Tokyo? ›
Japan's tap water is drinkable and safe. The national water infrastructure is reliable, and purification facilities are well-maintained, so the tap water is good quality and easy on the stomach. Most of the water supply in Tokyo and major cities comes from dams, reservoirs, or comes from rivers.Can you drink tap water in Japan? ›
Yes, drinking water from taps in Japan is safe. For environmental reasons, try to use a refillable water bottle rather than buying bottled water whilst travelling in Japan. Metro train stations have public water fountains, but otherwise these can be hard to find (this is the land of vending machines after all).Is water free in Japan? ›
If you eat in a restaurant, most places offer tap water for no extra charge. Just ask the staff. In fact, tap water is a source of pride for many of Japan's mountainous regions as cool, clean water is a product of the surrounding peaks. Make sure to try some if you find yourself in these areas.Is it OK to take bathrobe from hotel? ›
Long a staple of hotel thievery, the bathrobe is one of the most debated 'can I steal this? ' items, but in general these are off limits and will be laundered and reused for the next guest. Most hotels will also charge you if one does go missing.Can you leave your luggage at a hotel before check in Japan? ›
Most hotels and hostels are willing to store luggage for travelers, but the availability of this service may vary depending on the location and the amount of available storage space. However, many hotels should be able to accommodate guests by allowing them to store their luggage before check-in or after check-out.Do people take their shoes off to enter Japanese hotel? ›
Shoes & Slippers: The etiquette in most Japanese hotels is to remove your shoes at the front entrance, leave them in a rack, and then put on a pair of supplied slippers. Once you reach your room, slippers can be removed.What does Domo Arigato mean? ›
When you buy something at a store, store clerk would say "DOMO ARIGATOU", meaning thank you "very much".
Saying Thanks with Sumimasen instead of Arigatou
In some cases, it's more common to use the Japanese phrase すみません (sumimasen), which means “I'm sorry” or “excuse me”.
' as in 'domo arigato' meaning “Thank you so much.” Just saying 'domo' would be less polite than 'Arigato' since it's the short version of 'Domo arigato. ' People use 'domo' rather than 'arigato' when they consider 'arigato' is a little bit formal in a situation.What is the most respectful thank you in Japanese? ›
Arigato gozaimasu! / Thank you!
This is a polite way of saying "thank you". While traveling in Japan, this is probably the most basic "thank you" phrase you'll be using.
The simplest and most straightforward way of saying yes in Japanese is はい hai. In a more formal style, one may also use は！ ha!. If you are conversing with a close acquaintance, ええ ee is also suitable.What does Domo mean in Japan? ›
Domo is equivalent to the English version of “very much” and “very”. In many situations, the word is used to express appreciation.How do you respond to Domo Arigato? ›
“Dou itashimashite” (どう致しまして) means “You're welcome” and is widely known as the common response to “arigato gozaimasu”, but it sounds rather stiff and formal. “Iie iie” (いいえいいえ) or “ii yo ii yo” ( いいよいいよ) translate as “Not at all” and are casual replies that are more frequently used in daily life.Is it OK to just say Arigato? ›
In a casual situation, arigato is completely OK, while Domo arigato gozaimasu would not be the right thing to say. On the other hand, when you receive something precious or something from a respected person, saying just arigato would be rude.What is chopstick etiquette in Japan? ›
Chopsticks (箸, hashi) are used to eat most kinds of traditional Japanese dishes with some exceptions. Some of the most important rules to remember when dining with chopsticks are: Hold your chopsticks towards their end, not in the middle or the front third.What do you say when you finish a meal in Japan? ›
After eating, people once again express their thanks for the meal by saying "gochiso sama deshita," which literally means "it was quite a feast." Now that you know how to eat a Japanese meal, let's take a look at how to hold the chopsticks and dishes.How do you eat politely in Japan? ›
Typically the Japanese eat at low dining tables and sit on a cushion placed on tatami floor (a reed-like mat). In formal situations both men and women kneel (“seiza”), while in casual situations the men sit cross-legged and women sit with both legs to one side.
First, at a nice restaurant, it is considered rude to rub or scrape your chopsticks together as this implies that you think their chopsticks are cheap or poor quality. When not using your chopsticks, you should lay them on the “hashi-oki” or chopstick rest.Why is slurping noodles polite in Japan? ›
Slurping is a sign of appreciation
In Japanese culture slurping your noodles shows how MUCH you are enjoying your meal. The slurping process also cools down the noodles and enhances flavors, so don't feel uncomfortable and just slurp it!
People rub cheap chopsticks together to remove splinters from them. This is often the case with waribashi (disposable chopsticks that you break in half before use). If you rub your chopsticks together, it shows that you think the host has provided you with cheap/ low-quality chopsticks.Why can't you leave chopsticks standing up? ›
One of the biggest and most frequent taboos is placing your chopsticks vertically in your bowl. At Japanese funerals, a bowl of rice is left with two chopsticks standing vertically in the center. When you place chopsticks straight upright in a bowl, it's said to bring bad luck.Is it OK to poke food with chopsticks? ›
Some people may want to stab or poke their food with chopsticks as a way to test its doneness, but this is also considered rude as it conveys the message that you don't trust the chef to cook your food properly.Is it rude to not finish ramen broth in Japan? ›
You don't need to overthink it; there is no rude way to eat ramen. If you want to drink the soup straight from the bowl, by all means indulge. Just enjoy the bowl and you are doing it right. And don't worry if you can't finish all of the soup.Is it rude to take leftovers home in Japan? ›
While restaurant portion sizes in Western countries have birthed a custom of taking leftovers home for a second meal, this is not the case in Japan. If you are considering asking for a take-home container, the answer, unfortunately, will almost always be no.Is it rude not to finish sushi? ›
Finish What You Order
When dining omakase, finishing everything that's put in front of you is essential for good sushi etiquette; it's considered extremely rude, not to mention wasteful, to leave any of the pieces uneaten.
Pointing at people or things is considered rude in Japan. Instead of using a finger to point at something, the Japanese use a hand to gently wave at what they would like to indicate. When referring to themselves, people will use their forefinger to touch their nose instead of pointing at themselves.Is it rude to sip from your ramen bowl? ›
It's totally OK to drink the broth from the bowl. It's considered a compliment to how good the broth is. But finish it at your own risk; those broths are flavor bombs, packed with sodium (see above). Another thing that is OK to do is to ask for extra noodles if you've finished the ones in your bowl.
It may be considered rude to eat ramen with a fork if you are in a traditional setting or restaurant. This is because it is traditional to eat ramen with a set of chopsticks and a ramen ladle. However you can eat with a fork when you're at home if it's how you feel most comfortable.Is it rude to slurp noodles in USA? ›
In such situations, the proper dining etiquette for ramen may be a topic of concern. One great example is slurping the noodles. It's considered bad manners to slurp in the U.S. but is considered the norm in Japan.Is it rude to take pictures of food in Japan? ›
Photography Etiquette in Cafés and Restaurants
In most cases, they'll be more than happy to let you take a photo of your meal. It doesn't matter if you're taking professional or casual food photos. Make sure you don't include any visible faces in your shots.
It is perfectly acceptable etiquette to request sushi without wasabi or with a reduced amount of wasabi. The ginger is there to refresh your palette after eating a fatty topping. If you eat too much of it, it will affect the flavor of the sushi.Is it rude to clear your plate? ›
Traditionally, you should leave a bite on your plate to convey that you enjoyed the meal and were served enough to be satisfied. Today, diners (and especially children) shouldn't be excepted to join the #CleanPlateClub or feel bad if they finish their meal. Instead, just eat until you're full.Is it rude to mix wasabi and soy sauce? ›
Mixing wasabi with soy sauce is known as wasabi joyu, an amalgamation of the words wasabi and shoyu the Japanese word for soy sauce. According to Sushi Sasaya Korin, wasabi joyu is a violation of etiquette not only when it comes to sushi but all Japanese food in general as the two should always be enjoyed separately.Is thumbs up rude in Japan? ›
1. Yes/okay. Make a big O shape above your head with your arms to indicate “okay!” in much the same way Westerners might use a thumbs-up or put the first finger and thumb together—both of which are considered fairly crass gestures in Japan.Are Americans welcome in Japan? ›
Visa Free Travel for U.S. Citizen Tourists
Effective as of midnight April 29, 2023 (Japan time), all travelers arriving in Japan will no longer need to present proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test certificate.
Wear slip-on shoes
While flip flops are a big no-no for most occasions (save for a trip to the beach or a midnight run to the conbini), comfy ballet flats, loafers, boat shoes, or even a nice pair of slip-on sneakers are practical options. You might also notice that open-toed shoes and sandals are uncommon.