How to behave at dinner

You’re a long way from Yo! Sushi...

How to behave at dinner

When you arrive in Japan, it’s only a matter of time before the culture shock hits (right after the jet lag). Never fear, though – Time Out Tokyo is on hand to help you navigate the less immediately obvious Japanese customs and rules of conduct. Perhaps the most important one of all is eating in public. Here’s our guide to basic chopstick competence, the best use of your oshibori and when it’s okay to slurp (quick spoiler: it’s okay to slurp).


In many Western cultures slurping has a bad rep. But in a ramen joint, noisy dining is practically mandatory. Make your selection, pay at the ticket machine and in moments you’ll be rewarded with a steaming bowl of pork, noodles and greasy broth. Clasp your food with your chopsticks and commence your slurping. The louder, the more appreciative. (Expert hint: to avoid broth leakage, purse your lips to form a gap between your lower lip and gum – this will act as an effective slurp-slop gutter.)


Want service? Subtle eye-contact won’t work here – bellowing a hearty ‘Sumimasen!’ (‘Excuse me!’) when hungry is the best approach. It’s especially useful in the hubbub of an izakaya. Some places provide a buzzer, so you can pretend you’re on ‘The Weakest Link’ while you wait for your wakame.


Tipping isn’t the done thing in Japan, so unless you want the staff to chase you down the street, keep the gratuity to yourself. To say thanks, instead start your meal by saying ‘Itadakimasu’ (‘I will receive’) and end with ‘Gochiso-sama deshita’ (‘It was a real feast’). It’s politer – and you’ll be 10-12.5 per cent better off.


It’s likely you’ll be given an oshibori (wet hand towel) to freshen up with before eating. Guidebooks warn against using it to wipe your face, but you’ll still see plenty of salarymen flannelling away. If you feel the urge to join in, remember it’s face first, hands second. Also, never blow your nose at the table – it’s seen as uncouth. Blow your nose into your oshibori, and it’s sayonara social life.


DON'T TRANSFER YOUR TERIYAKI Much eating etiquette stems from ancient rituals – such as the rule that it’s impolite to pass food from chopstick to chopstick. It suggests a custom that takes place at cremation ceremonies – so is considered, believe it or not, a bit of a buzz killer.
DON'T IMPALE YOUR RICE If you’ve seen the movie ‘The Wolverine’, you’ll know never to stick your chopsticks upright into a bowl of food – especially not rice. This mimics another cheerful funeral ritual whereby rice is offered to the dead with the chopsticks standing straight up in the bowl. Do this and strike the death-knell for your evening.
DON'T SLICE YOUR SUSHI Sushi is designed to be scoffed in a mouthful. Eating with your hands is customary, and chopsticks are fine too. Basically you’ll be okay as long as you don’t go chomping into it or – heaven forbid – sawing into it with a knife and fork. Nothing to do with funerary rites this time – it’s just that sushi on your chin is never a good look.

This article appears in the launch issue of Time Out Tokyo magazine, out now.

By Rebecca Morice
Illustration by Daniel Morgenstern
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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