Eating Out: A Basic Guide to Restaurant Japanese

Richard Webb

If you’re not too well-versed in the vernacular, eating out in Japan can be a bit stressful. Pointing and gesturing will get you somewhere, but it might also get you something you didn’t order! Too cheap to pay for Japanese lessons? No problem. Print out this guide and prepare to dine like a pro.

Entering the Restaurant

Upon entering a restaurant, you will likely be greeted with the word “irasshaimase”, meaning “Welcome”. Soon after, the person greeting you will likely follow up with, “Nan mei sama desu ka?”, or “How many people?”

Now it’s time to respond in Japanese! To do that, it will help to know a little more about one important part of this sentence: the “mei” counter.

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For the uninitiated, Japanese has a large range of counters that are used to count different things. There are counters for people, animals, birds, small objects, long objects, flat objects, and many more. The “mei” counter used here is the polite counter for people. In the question above, it is used after the word “nan”, which by itself means “what”, but when combined with a counter like “mei”, it means “how many”.

When responding to this question, you too will need to use the “mei” counter (or the less polite counter for people). Thankfully, this counter is quite straightforward; if you can count to ten using regular numbers (ichi, ni, san…), all you need to do is combine this number with “mei”. So, if you are a group of four, you could respond to the question by saying:

E: We are four people.
J: yon mei desu

Although the staff member would have used the word “sama”, which is a more polite version of “san” as it is used after names, be careful not to include “sama” in your response. Like “san”, “sama” is an honorific suffix, and therefore shouldn’t be used when referring to yourself.

The only other thing to be careful of is that for the numbers four and seven, you should use the “yon” and “nana” variations, not “shi” or “shichi”.

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Ordering an individual item of food or drink in Japanese is quite easy. All you need to do is say the name of the item you wish to order, followed by “kudasai”, or “please”.

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E: [Food/drink name] please
J: [Food/drink name] + kudasai

Now, a lot of the time, you’re going to be ordering more than one thing. To do that, just use the particle “to” in between each item of food, like you would use “and” in English, and finish with “kudasai”. Here’s an example:

E: A tonkotsu ramen and a beer please
J: tonkotsu ramen to bīru kudasai

This is fine if you only want to order one of each item, but there are going to be times when you want to order more of something. To do this, you need to express the quantity using another counter. There are a number of counters that can be used when ordering food or drink, but there are two in particular that will get you through any situation – the “tsu” counter and the “ko” counter.

The “ko” counter is quite easy. For most numbers, you just need to say the number followed by “ko”, and you’re done. There are a few exceptions though, so here is the “ko” counter for the numbers one through ten.

1. ikko
2. niko
3. sanko
4. yonko
5. goko
6. rokko
7. nanako
8. hakko
9. kyūko
10. jukko

The ones to be careful of are one, six, eight and ten. For all of these, the original number has been shortened, and a hard double “k” sound is added in its place.

Most restaurants have plastic food outside, so you know what each dish looks like.

The other counter, “tsu”, is more common, but also more difficult, because most of the numbers look nothing like the regular ones. Here they are:

1. hitotsu
2. futatsu
3. mitsu
4. yotsu
5. itsutsu
6. mutsu
7. nanatsu
8. yatsu
9. kokonotsu
10. tō

Although it requires a bit more effort, these are worth learning, as the “tsu” counter is probably the most commonly used counter of all.

Now, when we actually want to order more than one of something, we need to add these numbers to the original sentence we used to order things. The best way to do this is like so:

[Food/drink name] + wo + [Number using “ko” or “tsu” counter] + kudasai

Here’s an example:

E: Four waters please.
J: mizu wo yonko kudasai
J: mizu wo yotsu kudasai

Now, if you want to get a little bit tricky and order multiple items, including more than one of some items, you can do so using “to” like before. The only difference is that this time, it should be used after each counter. Here’s an example you might use when ordering sushi:

E: 3 tuna and 2 salmon please
J: maguro wo mitsu to sāmon wo futatsu kudasai, or
J: maguro wo sanko to sāmon wo niko kudasai


Beginning Drinking

When drinking alcohol, it is polite to wait until everybody has received their drink before starting. Once everyone has their drink in hand, it’s time for everybody’s favorite word: “kanpai!” This is the Japanese equivalent of “cheers”, and once said, you are free to go ahead and drink.

Beginning Eating

When eating in Japan, it is customary to say “itadakimasu” before digging in. This word literally means “receive”, and is a polite way of expressing your gratitude for the meal that has been provided for you.

Asking for the Bill

When you’ve finished eating and are ready to pay, you will probably need to ask for the bill. To do this, just say the following to the waiter:

E: Please bring the bill
J: okaikei wo onegaishimasu

Literally, “kaikei” means “account”, and an “o” is added to the front to make it more polite.  “Onegaishimasu” is a polite word used when asking for something, much like the word “kudasai”.

Leaving the Restaurant

Although it’s not absolutely necessary, it is polite to thank the restaurant staff on your way out. You can do this using one of two phrases:

  1. arigatō gozaimashita
  2. gochisōsama deshita

The former is just the regular old polite way of saying “thank you”, but in the past tense (the usual way is fine, too). The latter literally means, “That was a feast”, but is essentially the same as saying, “Thank you for a wonderful meal”. You can also use this when eating at home – yours or someone else’s – to thank the cook for preparing the meal.

And there you have it – all the basic phrases you need to get you through your next Japanese dining experience. Try them out next time you head out for a meal and let us know how you go. Good luck!

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Filed under: Eating & Drinking, Living
Tags: Featured, Japanese, Restaurants
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5 Responses to “Eating Out: A Basic Guide to Restaurant Japanese”

  1. Avatar
    BeastmanAIDS August 20, 2014

    Good guide – looking forward to future articles!

  2. Avatar

    I really like this guide. I would love to see more versions of this, like at the karaoke or sento.

    • Cheapo Editor
      Cheapo Editor September 12, 2014

      Thanks, Diana. Richard will be posting some more versions over the coming months – so check back from time to time. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Hasselbladsnapper September 30, 2014

    This guide is ok, but a real help would be a sheet with popular dishes on it ….. Chicken Yakatory, Pork tonkatsu cutlets, or dishes that reflect a western diet, just to make a break from fish & rice dishes. I like traditional Japanese food, but an occasional western break is nice! and such a menu decoder would be great.

    • Avatar
      CheapoGreg October 6, 2014

      Thanks for the suggestion. We might throw this kind of thing into a guide book – there are just too many to easily fit into an article. At least plenty of places have menus with photographs.

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