You’re in a Japanese restaurant IN JAPAN! Some of the globe’s finest food awaits you, but if you really want to enjoy your meal like a local, you need to brush up on some Japanese culture. Here are some things you can do to eat more like a Japanese person and pleasantly surprise your hosts.
First, you need to express thanks for the meal. In homes across Japan, families at table put their hands together before the meal as if to pray and chant together, “i-ta-da-ki-masu! (いただきます). ” Be careful, the “I” makes an “ee” sound. Literally, the phrase means, “I humbly receive.” But at a deeper level it is an expression of thanks to everyone and everything that was involved in the production of the meal from the sun, the soil and the farmer all the way to the cook and the server.
Next, many Japanese restaurants give diners a small towel soaked in hot water. It’s called an o-shi-bo-ri (おしぼり). You might be tempted to wipe your face with it, but please resist. It’s for your hands, and wiping your face with it is considered impolite.
Sometimes you will find Western silverware at your table, but mainly the Japanese eat with chopsticks. And they have many taboos around them. For example, it’s considered savage to stab food, they don’t use them to point at anything. The Japanese don’t even use their fingers to point. It is considered too direct, and therefore, rude. If they need to point to something, they use their whole hand. It’s also considered savage to stab any food with the chopsticks.
The next set of eating customs originated from a desire to separate funeral rituals from the dining experience. Most Japanese people are cremated when they die, and chopsticks are an integral part of how the Japanese handle the cremains. During the Buddhist funeral ceremony, the family uses chopsticks in their left hand to pick up the bones and place them in the funeral urn. They pass bones from chopsticks to chopsticks. For these reasons, the Japanese don’t eat with chopsticks in their left hand, and they don’t pass their food from chopsticks to chopsticks. Food is also offered to the dead at funerals to sustain them on their final journey. And when you give a bowl of rice to the dead, you stab the chopsticks upright in the rice. For this reason, it is taboo to stand your chopsticks in your own bowl of rice.
Speaking of rice, the Japanese have been cultivating rice for 3,000 years. They know how to enjoy rice, and they don’t put soy sauce on rice. If you really want to enjoy your rice with soy sauce, consider doing it sushi style and pour your soy sauce into a small dipping dish first.
If you need something during your meal, ask, “…ku-da-sai”（ください） – “…please.” Water please? “Mi-zu-o ku-da-sai.”
If you enjoy your food, you can tell your server, “Oi-shii-ka-tta-desu!”（おいしかったです） — that was delicious! — and “a-ri-ga-tou!”（ありがとう） Be careful, the “a” has an “ah” sound, the ‘ri is more like “li,” and the “tou” sounds like “toe.”
When you’re finished eating、say, “go-chi-so-sa-ma de-shi-ta” (ごちそうさまでした): “I was treated to a delicious meal.”
When you’re ready to pay, you need to pay at the front desk. The Japanese don’t pay at their table, and they don’t leave a tip for the wait staff. Tipping suggests that the service was deficient, and the Japanese pride themselves on being excellent without strings attached.
There’s one last phrase you might need before you go: “toi-re wa doko desu-kat?” (トイレはどこですか?): “Where is the restroom (toi-re)?”