Regardless of where you travel, there are always rules that you need to follow when it comes to the local culture. But I can’t think of anywhere that’s more complicated than Japan. Maybe complicated isn’t the word. It’s easy for me to say that as a westerner, and I want to be clear – there’s nothing wrong with the traditions. But again, as a westerner, these traditions can seem complicated if you aren’t familiar with the culture. And we are here to help you with that. In general, the Japanese are very lenient when it comes to the manners of foreigners. As long as you try to follow along, and don’t make a mess of yourself or dump all over their traditions, you’ll be fine.
Most of your time eating in Japan will be spent in restaurants, so follow these tips to help you avoid any major mishaps:
- In most restaurants, a hostess will seat you – even if its a sushi bar.
- It’s good manners to acknowledge the chef behind the counter before sitting down.
- If there is no hostess, many people will ask the chef for permission before sitting down. This can be done by pointing at the open seats (with an open palm) and saying, “OK?”
- Many restaurants will have a basket on the floor next to the table. This is where you put your belongings. It’s a great way to keep your things together, and out of the way.
- If you’re feeling adventurous, you can order the teishoku, which is the set lunch of the day. Don’t bother asking what is in it, unless your server speaks English. The dish itself is complicated, and you might not understand unless you’re very familiar with Japanese food. That said, it’s usually an assortment of vegetables, meat or fish, and it almost always comes with miso soup and rice.
- Do not ask for substitutions.
- Japanese meals typically feature small bowls of food, many with lids. Take off the lids and rest them upside down on the table.
- Gracefully choose foods from different bowls and savor the flavors. Try some rice, then a bit of this and that, then some more rice, etc. You’ll find that certain flavors complement each other, such as rice with miso soup. This is the art of eating in Japan.
- Never ever put sugar in your green tea. This is something I would never do in North America, let alone in another country. Enjoy the tea in its natural form!
- Lastly, bring the small bowls up to your mouth rather than hunching over the bowl on the table.
What about drinking? Japan doesn’t seem like a place to travel when you’re wanting to enjoy cocktails, but that assessment is wrong. In fact, you can get some pretty incredible cocktails in Japan, but keep the following in mind:
- If you get too drunk, and out of control, people may call the police. If you put others out because of your behavior a “sorry” gift is required the next day. Also, don’t expect to be asked out drinking again.
- You actually don’t have to have an alcoholic beverage to fit in when in Japan. Unlike in North America where this seems to be a requirement, you can drink something else – tea, soda etc.
- Always do a toast before drinking. Even if it’s just you and a friend. Touch your glasses together and sai “kanpai!”
- There are a lot of rules around having your glass refilled. It’s considered the height of good manners to refill another person’s glass when it’s empty. As a result, topping up people’s glasses with beer, shochu (the local spirit), or sake before they’re finished avoids the horror of someone being left staring at an empty glass.
- When someone is refilling your glass, it’s polite practice to hold it up with both hands. When your glass is full, you can acknowledge the kindness by taking a sip.
- You can politely refuse when someone tries to fill your glass, but it’s better to just leave your glass full so no more can be put in it. To me, this seems a bit like a waste, but as I said, I’m unfamiliar with the culture.
Does this make you want to visit Japan? Like I said in my opening, all of these rules make it a bit complicated. I would worry that I would mess things up, and end up looking like a fool or offending someone. By the sounds of it though, they are used to the rest of the world not understanding, and yet they’re still happy that we are taking in the culture.