TRIPals

Experience Japan like a local

S.O.S. – Keeping it Cool in a Japanese Restaurant

The sense that Tokyo makes no sense keeps coming on stronger and stronger. When you’re new in town, its wonders will occasionally freeze your heart.

And if you are not of Japanese nationality, when in Tokyo, you are officially a freak, a glamour. Girls and boys. Whilst foreigners have an essential presence in the capital of Japan, you’re in the shrieking heart of a cultural machine which idolizes select non-Japanese culture, and simultaneously derides it for its difference.

As a result, 2015 Tokyo is beset with ripples of awkwardness as Tokyoites and foreigners meet with the Japanese party line, and each other. Many Tokyo natives, however much they may love their culture, are not down with treating people strangely due to their non-Japanese ethnicity, and want to distance themselves from norms in order to connect with people from other cultures.

However, notwithstanding such goodwill, conducting elegant exchanges at restaurants in Tokyo requires a little work from your side. If you don’t feel like being an outsider, here are a few pointers before you make an order and wild geese scatter in all directions.

Speaking Japanese

japanese restaurants

As you would expect, the ease of eating out in Tokyo is to some extent contingent upon your level of Japanese; or less ceremoniously, the waiting staff’s level of English. If you speak no Japanese, take note of the following phrases:

______, ______, and ______. That’s all. Thank you:
______ to ______ to ______. Ijou de. Onegaishimasu.
Thank you very much:
Doumo arigatou.
Do you have an English menu?:
Eigo no menu wa arimasu ka?
(The availability of English menus is now standard. But when menus are only written in Japanese, some have pictures of dishes. To order, point and say kore o kudasai.)
Do you speak English?:
Eigo wa hanasemasu ka.
Asking for a bill: use the gesture for warding off vampires (crossing your index fingers) and say
Okaikei onegaishimasu.
Thank you for the meal (said whilst leaving):
Gochisousama deshita.
At a ramenya, you place your order by selecting ramen using in-house ticket machines, and then giving your ticket to the chef. However they will often ask you how you hard you would like your noodle; and the following words mean soft/normal/hard:
yawame/futsu/katame
At a sushi bar, follow this guide.

Do try to use Japanese whenever possible, since the burden lies on you to use Japanese, not on the staff to use English; even if it’s been established that the waiter is happy to do so. If you can achieve this level of understanding, and approach staff with politeness and respect, then your level of Japanese becomes, to a certain degree, a moot point.

Speaking Tokyo

polite tokyo

Default expectations of foreign guests tend to be sky high. You’ll do well to be sensitive to this, by acknowledging your borrowed charm and the impact your presence will have upon the atmosphere of a place. Being aware, and following standard protocol for restaurant etiquette will allow everyone to have fun.

1. Be friendly and polite. Interact with waiting staff calmly and intelligently. Keep your order nice and simple. Make eye contact, smile. End your order with an onegaishimasu. Show gratitude for kind service.

2. Present yourself well in appearance and manner. At the same time, be natural! Relax, enjoy the company of your party, and Tokyo’s exceptional culinary culture: the cuisine, the service, the atmosphere of the restaurant you find yourself in. Have fun adapting your behavior as you soak in the cadence of your surroundings: whether it’s a traditional udon restaurant, a cutting edge sushi bar or a Paris-style affair.

3. Know the details regarding local customs beforehand!
– Learn how to use chopsticks, if you don’t know.
– At establishments with tatami matting, you are required to remove your shoes and store them in the compartments provided. (Dazzling sock game never hurts if you’re planning to dine somewhere traditional).
– Do not tip: the price given covers all services you receive.
– At most restaurants, you will be given a small wet cloth: use it to wash your hands before eating, then fold it carefully and set it aside.

Whether or not you can converse in Japanese, knowing how to “speak Tokyo” is a true skeleton key to the city. It’ll give you the confidence to go anywhere, do anything, and explore Tokyo to your heart’s content. Since it has held the title of the world’s Michelin gourmet capital for eight years and counting, you’re bound to enjoy the food; but knowing how to immerse yourself in Tokyo’s cultural dynamic gives you access to incomparable dining experiences.

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