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My stay in Japan was an enriching experience because I got the opportunity to learn about their cuisine (especially sushi) and dining traditions. The Japanese are meticulous about their food and they follow certain rules and etiquettes for eating sushi in a traditional restaurant.
While there is no hard and fast rule about how to eat sushi in Japan, this is more about general politeness and social behavior to make your dining experience more enjoyable. When you are courteous, the sushi chef or itamae will be more interested in making your experience enjoyable.
If you live outside Japan, yet have a strong affinity for sushi, learning about the tradition and sushi eating etiquettes can be fun. Most sushi restaurants or Sushi-ya are small and intimate establishments. You can show them a mark of respect by following their traditions.
However, please remember that traditions and tips mentioned in this guide are not strict rules. You don’t need to feel intimidated to go out and eat sushi in a restaurant in Japan. I know many Japanese friends who are liberal with the rules, but following sushi etiquettes can earn you a good reputation.
Take the tips mentioned below as suggestions, not instructions, or directives on how to eat sushi in Japan. So, let’s get started with first things first.
Making a Reservation
Before getting into how to eat sushi in Japan, it is essential to know how to make a reservation. Most sushi bars will accommodate you when you walk in, but if you have any special dietary requests or you plan to eat during peak hours, you must make a reservation in advance.
As most sushi places are small with limited seating arrangement, they may charge a 100% cancellation fees if you do not show up or cancel last minute. This may sound a little unreasonable but consider the fact that they use fresh fish, which loses its freshness if you don’t turn up to consume it.
Many restaurants in Japan don’t accept credit cards, as cash is still the king here. You may want to call them and ask if they accept credit cards before making a reservation.
Arriving And Taking A Seat
When you arrive at a sushi restaurant or sushi-ya, you will find a short curtain made of four partitions. Place your hand on the lower left corner of the third partition and open. If you arrive 30 minutes before the closing time, you must ask ‘Are you still open”. When they say ‘
Sometimes the server may say ‘irasshaimase’ loudly to express his enthusiasm at seeing you at his place. Don’t be startled by a loud welcome and reply with a warm gesture. Say that you are looking forward to the meal.
As you enter, tell the staff how many people are in your group. If you are alone, tell him it’s just you with a little guilt in your eyes. Next, you will head to the sushi counter, and this is where you need to show your best behavior when interacting with the sushi chef and other customers.
Japan is a land of courtesy and tradition, so be respectful towards the people with whom you will share your dining experience. If there are some people already sitting at the counter, ask them politely is the seat beside them is empty. If you are with someone, request him or her to take a seat before you.
At the counter, you can see the sushi chef preparing different styles of sushi and serving the guests. Greet the chef with a smile as you are entrusting him to make your dining experience pleasurable. While smiling is not an essential part of sushi etiquette, a warm smile helps establish a bond with the chef, and he will be more interested in recommending different types of sushi to you.
Remember that eating sushi is not just a delight for the taste buds but also your eyes. If you would like to see how the chef prepares a perfect piece of sushi or involve in a conversation with the sushi chef or itamae, ask for a seat at the bar.
If conversing while eating is not your style or you don’t bother to see how sushi is made, a table may be fine. The bar area may be left for customers who enjoy interacting with the chef.
Related Article: What Do Sushi Chefs Say When You Enter?
How To Order?
In a small sushi bar, you may not have any servers or waiters. The sushi chef will take your orders directly or recommend his own choices. In some sushi restaurants, they may have a bar section along with a separate seating arrangement where the waiter/waitress may take the orders.
If you are sitting at the bar, remember that you can only ask for sushi and beer. The servers handle other non-sushi items such as soups and drinks. The main menu in any sushi bar remains the same, and you can order directly from the itamae.
You may ask the chef what he would recommend you to try first. However, make sure you never ask him ‘Is the fish fresh’ as this is considered as an insult. If you are eating in a sushi bar in Japan, you will be served fresh fish even in the smallest eateries, as sushi is something people eat regularly.
If you are going to a sushi restaurant outside of Japan, do your research in advance to ensure that the place serves fresh fish. In most sushi bars and restaurants, the chef will be glad to show you how he prepares sushi. Remember to compliment him for his skills and maybe buy him a beer to show your appreciation.
Sometimes the biggest sushi etiquette is to know how to behave well in a restaurant and show respect to the itamae. He may be busy if you visit the restaurant during peak times. However, feel free to converse with him if he can. If you manage to build a good rapport with the chef, he will know your preferences and dish out perfectly made sushi that complement your taste.
When ordering sushi, always consider your appetite. I would recommend that you order a few at a time because leaving food on your plate is impolite in Japanese culture. The sushi pieces may look small, but they have rice that can fill you up faster. Even if you don’t like the taste of a particular variety of sushi, don’t express your displeasure. Compliment the chef for his hard work!
Related Article: 15 Most Popular Cooked Sushi To Order in Restaurant
What’s The Correct Way To Order
If you are new to Japanese culture, you will be surprised to discover that there is a specific rule on how to eat sushi. When you are at a restaurant, you must start with whitefish or other lighter varieties of fish, followed by the fatter versions such as grilled eel and toro (fatty tuna). Remember to cleanse your palate with the pickled ginger after every bite.
The serving plates come with two pieces at a conveyor-belt sushi bar and just one piece at the high-end establishments. You may pick items from the menu or decide to go with the chef’s choice when you are dining at a well-known restaurant. The chef will craft out a menu for you immediately. Just tell him if you are not a fan of certain flavors.
When the chef puts sushi pieces on the table, the right way is to eat them immediately at their peak flavor. The sushi rice is at room temperature and the chef’s hands warm the fatty fish, hence it feels tender to touch and eat.
After The Meal
When you have finished your meal, appreciate the chef for his efforts and offer formal thanks. If you want to try Japanese, say ‘Gochisosama’ for casual places or ‘Gochisosama-deshita’ for the more formal settings. It means ‘thank you for the meal.’
If you used disposable chopsticks for eating, put them back inside the bag neatly and fold the end. Alternatively, you may leave the sticks on your plate sideways, but they should not point to any person. If you keep the sticks next to your plate or bowl, this means you are not done yet.
When you are eating with someone, your host, or the person with a higher rank will offer to pay the bill as per Japanese tradition. If you pay, remember to keep the money on a small tray instead of handing it directly to the server. When there is no tray, use both your hands to give/ receive money as a mark of respect.
Just as it is important to mind your manners when you are eating sushi, you should also be courteous when you are done. After you have completed your meal, it is unmannerly to linger there talking to your group in a busy restaurant.
As a general rule, it should take you about one and a half hour maximum for a meal, and two hours at the most if you drink beer/ sake after the meal. In case of omakase dining, you will know that your meal is over when the chef offers you a piece of fruit, tea, or something similar.
Tipping in Japan is not a common practice, and it may be considered rude. Tips are often included in the bill, so you don’t need to worry about paying anything separately. If you want to thank the chef for his service, buy him a drink instead.
Dos And Don’ts Of Sushi Eating Etiquette In Japan
Sushi chefs spend years to improve their skill and attain the kind of finesse that you see in your food plate. When you are out to eat sushi in Japan, make sure you follow the dining etiquette. Here are some dos and don’ts to guide you:
• In most Japanese sushi bars, you will be offered a hot and wet towel that is usually placed beside your plate. The towel is known as an ‘oshibori,’ and it is used to clean your hands after eating each piece. Fold it neatly and put it back as it was before returning.
• If you find it difficult to eat sushi with chopsticks, use your hands instead. There is no need to feel ashamed, as many people prefer eating sushi with their hands. Holding sashimi with chopsticks is easier than picking a sushi piece.
• Always eat nigiri sushi in one single bite, instead of taking two bites. Biting the sushi pieces is considered rude because the chef spends a lot of time trying to get the perfect form. If the sushi pieces are too big for you, request the itamae to serve smaller pieces to you.
• The right way to eat nigiri-zushi is to pick one piece and dip one side into the shoyu or soya sauce. Make sure you dip the fish part and only slightly touch the sushi rice. Too much soya sauce will overpower the taste of raw fish and may cause the sushi rice to fall into the sauce tray.
• The chef will serve sushi with pickled ginger that works like a palate cleanser. You must take a bite of the ginger after eating sushi to cleanse your palate and prepare to enjoy other varieties of sushi containing different types of raw fish.
• I would recommend that you offer a sake or beer to the sushi chef as a mark of respect and appreciation for his hard work. He will appreciate your friendly gesture and chances are; he will remember you when you visit again.
• Many sushi bars or restaurants may serve sake only with sashimi and not with sushi. As they are both rice-based, many servers feel that they don’t complement each other. You may drink green tea instead which works as a great beverage that helps with digestion after you are full.
• When pouring out beverages, it is considered as a mark of respect to pour out for fellow guests first and then fill your glass. The Japanese tradition follows the hierarchy in this aspect. The person who is lower in rank will be responsible to order and serve the drinks. If you have invited someone to dine with you at a sushi bar, you automatically become the host, and it’s the host’s responsibility to ensure that glasses are full.
• Sake is the Japanese wine made by fermenting rice. It is served both chilled and hot. If you are visiting a sushi restaurant for the first time, you will need to experiment and see what you like best. The higher quality sake is usually served chilled.
• Ask the sushi chef politely for any special or seasonal items that may not be listed on the menu. It is acceptable to ask questions to the itamae, and he will like the interest you show in trying out more variations.
• Always seek permission before clicking pictures of your culinary experience. While doing so, please ensure that you do not disturb others and do not let photography come in the way of a wholesome dining experience.
• Do not rub the chopsticks when eating sushi in Japan because it is considered rude. Chopsticks are made of wood, and if they break, it implies you are telling the owner that his materials are cheap. When not using chopsticks, keep them parallel on the holder or sauce dish.
• Don’t try to mix wasabi with soya sauce in the dish. The chef already adds the right amount of wasabi between sushi rice and fish or neta in Nigiri-zushi. Trust the chef, as he knows how to strike a perfect balance of flavors without overpowering any of them. If at all, you need some extra wasabi on your sushi, tell the chef to add some more as he prepares the next pieces in front of you.
• Don’t use the end of the chopstick you put into your mouth to pick pieces of food from other person’s plate as this is considered impolite. If you need to transfer food from your plate, use the end that you hold in your hands.
• Don’t ask for a spoon for your miso soup if you are not offered one at the bar . This means the chef expects you to pick the bowl and drink from it directly. You may use the chopsticks to put the solid pieces into your mouth.
• Don’t pass food to the person next to you using your chopsticks as this is similar to the Japanese tradition of passing the bones of a deceased relative at the funeral. If you need to pass the food, ask the person to pick the food from your plate.
• Don’t stick the chopsticks in the sushi rice or leave them sticking up as this appears similar to burning incense sticks during a funeral of a close one in Japan. You will hurt the sentiments of others, so be careful about it.
• Don’t belch or burp at the Japanese table as it is considered rude. If you need to burp, don’t be so loud that others on the table can hear.
• Don’t wear perfume, cologne, or any other type of scent because sushi experience has much to do with the smell. You should not overwhelm the primary freshness of sushi-grade fish with different flavorings and aromas.
• Don’t mention the names of other eating establishments when you sitting in a sushi-ya. Also, avoid showing pictures of sushi on your mobile phone and asking for something similar, as they may be subject to availability. Trust the chef’s choice or pick from what is on the menu.
Sushi Terminology Guide
Knowing a few Japanese words can enhance your sushi eating experience in Japan. Your chef will be impressed by your interest in their culture and your genuine efforts of using Japanese words. Familiarizing yourself with these terminologies will also help you order better. Here are some keywords:
• Neta: This refers to the various sushi toppings such as shrimp, maguro, and so on.
• Shari: This is the Japanese term for vinegared sushi rice.
• Gari: This is pickled ginger served along with sushi. As it has antimicrobial properties, eating it with raw fish helps in eliminating the fishy smell and cleansing the palate. For more: Why Is Ginger Served With Sushi?
• Murasaki: It refers to shoyu or soya sauce, which is a taste enhancer.
• Hikarimono: It refers to thin slices of fish (horse mackerel, pilchard, and pacific saury) attached with the shiny silver skin.
• Namida: It refers to spicy wasabi added by the chef to enhance the taste of sushi.
The Final Words
If you are visiting Japan for the first time, eating sushi at a traditional restaurant can give you an insight into their dining culture. While the Japanese hosts, chefs, and servers are always warm and welcoming to guests from across the country, you can impress them by following the sushi etiquette.
When you are in a sushi bar or any other establishment in Japan, go by the concept of ‘reading the air,’ which means being aware of your surroundings. Act in a way that is harmonious to what is going around you. Wear your smile, be polite when asking questions, and appreciate the efforts put into preparing sushi. I wish you a great sushi experience!