It’s well known that eating out in most parts of Japan is very convenient and accessible, even if you’re not in the middle of a major city like Tokyo. Even as a tourist who may not speak any Japanese, it’s easy enough to get by. But if you’re going to be living here, there are some key points you should learn about that will make everything go that much smoother and be even more fun.
First of all…understanding the table charge
Although it isn’t custom to tip in Japan, you do pay a small fee for your seat, known as seki-ryo or otoshi-dai. This will be common wherever you go, so know in advance that you haven’t been overcharged. This fee will usually be a few hundred yen per person.
One interesting thing about the otoshi-dai is that you get an otoshi, or a small pre-nibble as a ‘welcome’ or ‘thank you’ from the shop. These can be a variety of things (though at most chain izakayas it’s usually edamame beans or prawn crackers), but you can find yourself tasting bites of Japanese food you’ve never seen or tried before.
Eating at an Izakaya or Japanese-style pub
An Izakaya is a place people usually gather with friends for parties, nights out or just a quick drink after work with food. These are incredibly versatile places: you’ll see the university saa-kuru (‘cirlcle’ or club activity) kids egging each other on with drinking calls at one table, at the next a group of suited salarymen, perhaps one with his tie around his head, and off to the side a couple just having a casual evening out.
One of the most important things you need to know here is about nomi-houdai, or the ‘all-you-can-drink’. This isn’t generally seen in Western cultures, but it works basically the same way as an ‘all-you-can-eat’, except for an inexpensive set price, you can drink anything off what is usually a very extensive menu. Your worst mistake in a casual place like this would be to order any drinks separate from the nomi-houdai.
Remember the word, always check and you’re guaranteed for a fantastic and budget-friendly night (or lunch) out every time.
As a site note though, you may be surprised by the requirement at many of these places despite their casualness, to take off your shoes and leave them in lockers at the entrance. Make sure you’re not misled by the overall laid-back atmosphere and just step up to the front counter. Having to take off your shoes is a very common requirement, so be watchful when you enter.
Dining at restaurants
Whether you’re just taking yourself and a few friends, or if you’re dining with a client, it’s important to know a few rules. As a rule-of-thumb, treat it just like the train – make sure you have your phone on silent or, as it’s called in Japan, manner mode, and be sure not to talk on the phone inside the premises.
Another thing to remember is not to wear too much of a strong perfume or cologne. Especially in a Japanese style restaurant where milder flavors are used, this is considered to interfere with the delicate aromas and the other customer’s palettes.
In addition, going to a restaurant is an excellent way to practice everyday Japanese. However, if you still don’t feel ready to order in Japanese, be aware that not all places have English menus or English-speaking staff. Check if there’s an English menu beforehand and if not try looking on the restaurant’s homepage for pictures of what you’d like to eat, so you can prepare in advance. This is actually a good trick even if there is an English menu, as usually it won’t be updated to contain things such as limited specials, and you don’t want to miss out!