Dining Etiquette

The best advice is to look around you and watch how other Japanese diners behave.

Much dining etiquette revolves around the use of chopsticks (ohashi or “honorable chop sticks,” to be exact). These wooden utensil are often enclosed in a paper cover. After removing the cover, pull them apart if attached and rest them on the paper cover or the serving tray or dish.

When their food is served, Japanese will fold their hands in prayer, chopsticks resting in their thumb , and say, Itadakimasu (“I humbly receive this”), an expression of thanks to all those involved in producing the meal, from the farmer who planted the seed and harvested the crop to the chef who prepared the finished product.

You can use your chop sticks to stir the miso soup. Picking up your soup bowl and sipping from it is perfectly acceptable. You can also lift your rice bowl so that you are almost shoveling rice into your mouth. A there are no napkins in most restaurants, lifting the bowl to your mouth help you avoid spills that would stain your clothing. While pausing between bites, rest your chopstick on the edge of a dish or on the tray, but never leave them sticking directly into a bowl of rice (this is only done at the funeral, where the place setting for the recently departed has the chopsticks set upright in the rice, making it easier for the dead spirit to partake).

Never pass food from chopstick to chopstick or use your chopsticks to transfer food directly from a “family style” serving dish to your mouth. To transfer food from a common dish to your plate, use the pair of chopstick that should be resting on the common dish. If there are no extra chop stick available, use the reverse end of your chopsticks. Never use the end that you have put in your mouth or attempt to lick the tips of your chopsticks clean.

If you drop any eating utensils, signal the waiter by saying Sumimasen (” Excuse me”) and hold up the dropped item. lt will be quickly replaced. Do not wipe it off with the wet towel provided for washing your hands.

Raw fish is one of the first dishes served at a meal of traditional Japanese cuisine (kaiseki). Put a bit of horseradish (wasabi) in the tiny dish containing soy sauce (shoyu), lightly dip the piece of raw fish into the mixture (do not bathe it in sauce), and savor. Grated radish is often served with tempura; put the radish into the broth and dip the tempura into it.

In traditional meals, rice is served last with pickles, after which, a slice of fruit might be served (nowadays some kaiseki restaurants even serve pudding or green tea ice cream). When food is served on a tray and you wish to indicate that you are finished eating, lay your chopsticks directly on the tray or return them halfway into their paper cover and fold over the end of the cover to show they have been used and can be discarded.

When leaving the table, if you are seated on the floor, do not step on or over the seat cushions; step around them as well as other diners’ extended legs or belongings that are in your way. When you want to use the restroom, if you are not sure whether it is occupied, knock. lf you are answered with a knock, stand and wait, or return to your seat until you see that the facility is empty.

Lastly, do not be embarrassed to ask which sauce goes with which dish, or when a hot-pot dish is ready after the flame under it has been lit, or for an extra bowl of rice. The staff will be glad to explain eating procedures and help you with any difficulties.

You may also notice the same assistance being given to the Japanese customers.

With gratitude to Judith Clancey, Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide.