Culture Tips: How to Eat in Japan

Japanese Deep-Fried Tofu

Japanese Deep-Fried Tofu

One of the pure joys of traveling is discovering the culinary delights that are at your fingertips. Japan, in particular, is a gastronomes paradise.

Yes, there are McDonalds and KFC chains on every block, but what’s the point in traveling if you aren’t willing to be a little adventurous?
The challenge to eating in Japan lies not only in finding local food and ordering successfully, but following the rules of table etiquette so you don’t make any social blunders.
There are more rules to etiquette in Japan than any other country in the world. This doesn’t mean that you need to worry about remembering all of them, but it never hurts to have a few of them mastered so you can surprise your hosts or friends with your knowledge of their culture.

How to find food:


  1. Look for restaurants that are busy. A busy restaurant means two things to a traveler. Busy restaurants usually mean good food. Lots of people eating in those restaurants means you can get a good look at local dishes first-hand.
  2. Department store food courts and train stations are usually pretty good places to eat. Food should be fast and considering how many people pass through these places, the food vendors probably have established a good reputation.
  3. Unlike their North American counterparts, convenience stores in Japan actually pack pretty decent food.
  4. If you’re  a picky eater, it’s generally safe to stick with noodles and rice dishes. Ramen noodles, udon noodles, beef noodles – there are loads to choose from.
The Art of Plastic Sushi Rolls

The Art of Plastic Sushi Rolls

Table Etiquette:

The Japanese are fastidious about manners. We always follow these simple rules:

1. Most places will provide a chopstick rest for your chopsticks. Use it. If you don’t have one you can lay your chopsticks across your rice bowl. Your chopsticks should NOT be sticking  out of the bowl vertically. It reminds people of death and funerals.

2. Don’t share your chopsticks.

3. Don’t feed someone else with your chopsticks.

4. Don’t stab your food.

5. Don’t lick your chopsticks

6. Don’t play with your chopsticks.

7. Don’t point at anything with your chopsticks.Don’t walk and eat in public. It’s better to find a place to sit down. Face away from people while you are eating.

8. Don’t pour beer or alcohol into your own glass. Let your guests serve you. Likewise, you should serve the people you are dining with.

9. If you keep your bowl close to your mouth you can avoid making a mess.

10. People don’t normally split the bill in Japan. If you invite someone to eat, you should pay.

23 thoughts on “Culture Tips: How to Eat in Japan

    • Carrie Post author

      It is pretty cool. They’ve got loads of that kind of stuff at the Narita airport if you’re passing through. I think we’re heading back to Japan sometime in the next few months, so I’ll keep that in mind.

      Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      I knew you were an adventurous soul, Steve. The first time I tried the ‘close your eyes and point method’, I ended up with a bowl of fried chicken heads. I’ve never had anything that bad turn up again. Although, silk worms were a close second come to think of it. I especially like using this method when you’re with a friend or two. That way, no one can wuss out if something really weird shows up.

      Reply
  1. kim

    I went to buy plastic food souvenirs at Kappabashi-dori in Tokyo but prices were ridiculous so I ended up with nothing. Great spot for making pictures though!

    To my surprise, I loved the food in Japan! (so much that I even documented what I had here: http://www.listsofbests.com/list/60076). Our guide was a local, so he took us to small noodle places and authentic bars, it was fantastic. We did slurp a lot though… at first we were all looking around in embarrassment (a bunch of shy Europeans) but he encouraged us to “make noise!”.

    A tip on how to great find drinks is the Izakaya (local pubs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Izakaya). They’re mostly packed with salarymen who are drinking (and snacking, sometimes also eating) after work. These places were not on the tourist-radar, so there weren’t any other foreigners when we were there. One “papa-san” even offered us a free round in exchange for publicity back home (and here we are :D).

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hiya Kim,
      I’m not sure why some of your comments go to my spam filter while others go through. Sorry this took so long for me to find. You know I love hearing from you! John and I maintain to this day that our favorite ‘foodie’ trip was Japan. I’m going to take you up on your tip as well. I was just speaking with my friend this evening and we’ve set a date. Can’t wait to go back. I’m all about staying under the tourist-radar. 🙂

      Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Yay! Is this your first trip to Tokyo? Glad I could be of service. John and I are also in the midst of planning a trip to Japa. We’re looking at the end of March or beginning of April. Last year, we caught the autumn foliage. This year, we want to catch the cherry blossoms.

      Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Italy will be so amazing. What a romantic place for the two of you to go. What are your travel plans so far? Any special places you want to visit in particular?

      Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hi Mark,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m sure you’ll have a blast in Japan. It’s one of the most unique countries I’ve ever been to. I see you’re heading to South America. I’ll be looking for your posts. I was there twelve years ago and I’m dying to see how much has changed and how much has remained the same.

      Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hi TAI,

      Thanks for coming back and commenting again. I’m glad you like the article. The more you know about a culture, the easier it should be to understand. Not that I’m anywhere near understaning Japanese culture….but I sure like learning about it.

      Reply
  2. Kaminoge

    This is a pretty good article on eating in Japan. I would just clarify a couple of points, however. Busy restaurants in Japan don’t always mean the food is good. Japan is a very trend-conscious country, especially in the big cities, and some restaurants are busy because they had been featured in a magazine or newspaper article, or had appeared on a TV program. I often go to quieter places when I’m in Japan, and I’ve usually found the food in them to be very good, too.

    And when it comes to eating ramen noodles, slurping is almost a requirement! Few dining experiences in this world are noisier than being in a ramen joint, surrounded by slurping Japanese salarymen!

    Itadakimasu!

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Kaminoge,
      Thanks for clarifying. We haven’t had a bad meal in Japan yet. Busy or quiet, it’s always a delight to eat in Japan. I would think that a lot of travelers might worry about the language barrier, and might not know what to order. Didn’t you live in Japan for years? Are there any special dishes that you recommend a first-time traveler should try?

      Reply
  3. Kaminoge

    I don’t think the language barrier presents much of an obstacle. Many restaurants have plastic food models out front. When I first went to Japan and couldn’t speak the language, I would take the waitpersons outside and point to what I wanted. It never failed! A lot of establishments also have picture menus. And there’s always the option of pointing to what one of the other diners is having (that also worked wonders for me at a vegetarian restaurant in the New Territories in Hong Kong, where the menu was all in Chinese -no photos- and the waiter couldn’t speak English!).

    As for specific dishes, there are so many to choose from, but two of my favorites are tonkatsu (pork cutlet) and okonomiyaki, a kind of pancake containing lots of things like vegetables and seafood. And sushi, of course! Even the fare at kaiten-zushi restaurants (the ones where the sushi comes by on conveyor belts) is often superior to what you can eat back home (or in Taiwan).

    Reply
  4. Alex

    Awesome post! One of my favorite parts of traveling is getting to eat different foods and also learning about the culture behind food. Japan is definitely on my dream list for travel and your tips on etiquette were really interesting. I didn’t know there were so many rules!

    Reply
  5. globetrotteri Post author

    Thanks Alex. I\\'ve found that most Asian countries have certain rules for table etiquette that should be followed. I\\'ve been to Mexico several times, but it\\'s so overrun with tourists, it\\'s hard to figure out what traditional table etiquette is like in Mexico. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Rick

    I’m still trying to figure out why every American that writes about food overseas has to make a reference to McDonald’s…..

    Reply
    • Carrie Post author

      Hi Rick,

      Probably because McDonald’s is a symbol that almost everyone in the world can instantly relate to. Everyone knows what those golden arches mean. By the way, I’m not American. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Kaminoge

    Actually, McDonald’s in Japan often has limited-availability special menu items that can’t be found anywhere else. My favorite of these was the Tsukimi (Moon Viewing) Burger – a hamburger patty with egg, bacon and sauce (cheese optional), and generally only on offer in September of each year.

    So it is possible sometimes to eat at a multinational corporate fast-food joint and still sample a local culinary treat 🙂
    .-= Kaminoge´s last blog ..Beating the dog days of summer in Takao 高雄の旅行 =-.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *