Tips for Newbies: Dining in Japan

Devan Baird

As a newbie in Japan, the challenges and cultural differences you will face are plenty—even regarding something as rudimentary as eating. And since Japanese food is world renowned for being some of the best, you don’t want to let something like a vending machine stand in your way of getting some delicious noodles. And just like in our last post (Tip for Newbies: Trains, Trash and Toilets), we’ve outlined some need-to-knows for the inexperienced—this time so you can go on the foodie adventure of your dreams, without any newbie issues.

 Ordering Food from Vending Machines

Tokyo is a city on the go and known for its vast vending machine collection. With a wide selection of items in these machines you can find almost anything, from corn soup to bananas. You can also use them, however, to order your food. Outside many “fast food” Japanese-style restaurants you will find a vending machine with all the menu items to choose from.

Japanese dining
Photo by Devan Baird

So, instead of going inside and placing an order, you can make your selection before even entering the store. This type of ordering system is commonly found at ramen shops, or traditional quick Japanese restaurants. Each item should have its own button and usually an image to show you exactly what you are ordering. Just put in your money, make your selection, and the vending machine will spit out a ticket for you to give to the  staff inside. And voila, you have mastered ordering a meal from a vending machine in Japan.

Chopstick Etiquette Musts and Must-Nots

Chopsticks, also known as hashi here, are serious business. There are proper ways to hold them, use them, and even a correct way to put them down. But, if you are just visiting Japan or a newbie to life in Tokyo don’t stress out too much about the details. There are just a couple cardinal rules that you should know about and abide by.

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1. When using chopsticks there is no need to master picking up a single grain of rice right away, but do your best to not get frustrated and stab whatever it is you are trying to eat. I know it can be difficult to master the art of picking up your food with two sticks, but you will be seen as pretty childish if you start spearing your food.

2. One of the biggest mistakes you can make unconsciously with chopsticks is putting them straight down in your bowl of food. Two chopsticks standing straight in a bowl of rice is the typical offering for the dead at a funeral.

Japanese dining tips
Photo by secretlondon123 used under CC

So, doing that in the middle of a fast food beef bowl restaurant would be considered very disrespectful. Just place the two chopsticks over the rim of the bowl lying flat.

chopsticks and rice - Japanese dining tips
Photo by Washoku used under CC

Similar to this, never pass food to people chopstick to chopstick. Just like with putting them straight into rice, this is an action used in funerals, but instead of food they are passing bones.Kotsuage

3. Sushi is a staple of Japanese cuisine and also an art to most Japanese people so, it is not surprising that there are rules that go along with eating it. Where in most places it would be criminal to discard your chopsticks and eat with your hands, with sushi it is completely acceptable. So if you are sick of fighting with your utensils just take a trip to your local sushi-go-round.

Unlimited Drink Bars

When in Japan, you might be tempted to try out the Japanese version of Denny’s (which, by the way, is completely different than the ones found in N.A.), where you will find something called a Drink Bar or ドリンクバー.  Many family-style restaurants in Japan, like the above-mentioned Denny’s or the infamously cheap Saizeriya, offer the option of a drink bar—which is essentially a drink buffet. For 300 to 500 yen (or about $3 to $5 USD) you can get unlimited drinks. These drinks can range from a melon soda slushie to a mocha café latte. This is not limited to restaurants either, this is quite common at karaoke places. For example, at most drink bars you should be able to get a selection of coffees, lattes, sodas, fruit juices, and tea. This can be a great opportunity for you to try all of the weird Japanese drinks you can’t find in your own country.



Newbies to Tokyo are face a lot of challenges but these simple Japanese dining rules are important to remember to help you adjust to your new life/visit here.  These cultural norms may seem bizarre at first, but not to worry, they will quickly become second nature to you.


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2 Responses to “Tips for Newbies: Dining in Japan”

  1. Sony Lindberg

    Just one thing id like to add: When eating sushi, the fish side should be lightly dipped, instead of the rice-side. This has to do with the rice getting wet and falling apart, which is seen as non-pleasant (just as if you’d mash your potatoes with the gravy at a fine restaurant, would be frowned upon.). And one should try not to use too much soy-sauce as its really just for enhancing the existing flavor, not as a gravy.

    Sushi has been a fine food (and still is, just not expected to be treated as such at the really cheap places where you dont have any contact with the chefs) and as such, better than usual table-manners is recommended. As a foreigner, you will be excused for lacking in your eating-etiquette, but still try to be as polite and considerate as possible.

  2. Fernando Temprano

    How do you guys not have Torikizoku on this list! Super cheap chain Izakaya that has at least one location near every major station (Ikebukero has 4). Wide selection of various Japanese dishes, especially Yakitori, photos for every menu item for easy ordering and an english menu. Literally everything is 280 yen and its an introduction to the wonderful “pin pon” device.

    Just plug this “鳥貴族” into Google Maps and find the nearest Torikizoku.

    Iitadakimasu bitches.


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