in Just 11 Easy Steps
Learning Japanese is a great hobby. It requires levels of endurance and discipline possessed by English Channel swimmers, while garnering the respect typically reserved for those really skilled with yo-yo’s. The good news, if one can call it such, is you don’t need much Japanese to get by in Japan.
Nowhere is this truer than at a Japanese restaurant. Instead, what you need is to know how things work. Once you’ve got the system down, it’s amazing how few words are actually required.
First night in Japan
My own culinary journey began after a grueling day-long flight half-way around the world and several hours of wandering lost in the backstreets of Tokyo. I was out of PowerBars, famished, and thoroughly exhausted. I located a Denny’s, but remained determined not to eat there, which was really pretty naive. Instead, I stood outside a small, wooden neighborhood restaurant, and finally summoned up the courage to duck below the blue curtain and slide open the door. This turned out to be a highly questionable decision.
A small room full of Japanese people froze in silence, mid-chew, staring. A woman approached me and uttered something I didn’t understand. I sheepishly said “dinner?” and she gestured to a seat at the counter. I sat down and she brought me a menu that looked like it’d been written in a joint collaboration between a cat and a bird.
I knew next to no Japanese, but one thing I knew was that the Japanese word for beer is “Bee-ru.” So that’s what I said.
She looked at me like I’d just invented a new language, then said something else I didn’t understand.
“Bee-ru,” I pleaded. Then I made the universal gesture for drinking.
She went behind the counter, held up a beer mug, I nodded, and we were in business.
And that’s basically how the remainder of the evening proceeded. She held up a daikon radish. I nodded. Then a carrot, some chicken, edamame, some leafy greens, an egg. I nodded, shook my head, nodded, nodded, nodded. This went on for quite some time, until I was able to consume enough sustenance to survive. The next night, I went to Denny’s.
After that, I spent 12 years learning Japanese. So that’s one way to get dinner. Okay, don’t do what I did. Here’s a much simpler way to fill your pie hole.
Step 1: Pick a Restaurant
The first thing you want to do is select an eatery you can manage. Having zero dietary restrictions helps a lot, since you can always resort to the point-at-the-menu-and-hope-for-the-best method, although you risk getting an entire sliced raw onion like I once did.
You’d be wise to select a place that says “English menu,” or at least has a picture menu. There are a fair number of both in most cities.
It’s also important to get a rough idea about what kind of Japanese restaurant you’re dealing with. Is it a steakhouse or a ramen shop? A place that serves grilled birds on sticks or stews made from cow and pig guts? This is often harder than it sounds, since you can’t see inside many places. But you’re not going to get far ordering sushi in a pizzeria, so look for clues on any menus or signs outside. What you’re looking for is 1) a restaurant that serves food you want to eat; and 2) a menu you can manage.
Step 2: Fix your Face
Barging into a restaurant wide-eyed with a beaming grin will only send the waitstaff scrambling for a tattered English menu and shouting to the Chinese waitress in the kitchen to come deal with you. The number of “foreign”-looking people you’re with will only magnify this effect, while being with a single person who appears “Japanese” will defuse it.
Similarly, gazing around slack-jawed with wonder will almost guarantee you’re not greeted normally. I’ve seen restaurant hostesses look right past the white people in line and usher in the Asians behind them. We’ll deal with you later.
Your best bet is to adopt a matter-of-fact facial expression, and go in like you know what you’re doing. It’s no different than McDonald’s; you’re just ordering food, so don’t make a big deal about it.
Step 3: Slide Open the Door
Once you enter a restaurant, you’re going to want to use all the phrase-book Japanese you studied at Community College. Yeah, forget that. Half the time neither you nor the waitress can properly hear one another over the din of the restaurant, and with your accent it won’t matter anyway. A member of the staff may shout something when you walk in, or they may not. Simply make eye contact with someone and
Step 4: Hold up Some Fingers
Gesture with the digits God gave you to indicate how many seats you want. Index finger when you’re by yourself, two fingers for when you’re with a friend, or want to symbolize peace. If you’re with 11 or more people, well, split into two groups or something.
Step 5: Survive the Three Questions
At this point, you may be asked some or all of the Three Questions. This is a routine inquisition that serves no purpose other than to gauge your Japanese comprehension. You merely need to guess correctly which questions you’re dealing with:
- Do you have a reservation?
- Smoking or non smoking?
- Do you want to sit at the counter or a table?
The easy way around this is just to grunt and motion toward open seats at the bar counter. This nicely bypasses all three questions. If the place is fully booked, you’ll get some shaking of heads and negative body language, in which case you can just back out.
It’s worth noting that Japanese people, particularly older men, are fully capable of conducting the entire restaurant transaction wordlessly. You’ll see a weathered old geezer stumble in wearing a surgical mask, mumbling nonsensically in a regional dialect, and nobody bats an eye. Well, he’s Japanese, not some white or black guy, so everybody’s okay. Look, this is a country where television interviews are routinely subtitled so Japanese people can read, in Japanese, what other Japanese people are saying in Japanese. So understand you? Hell, they can barely understand each other.
if you want to sound intellectual, you can describe the situation as “Japan has a high-context culture,” rather than simply admitting that most people are just really sucky communicators.
Step 6: Wait for Stuff to Happen
Once you’re seated, several things may occur. You might be brought a small towel, which will be hot. Or else cold, or room temperature. Wipe your hands with it. Wipe your face if you want. Twirl it into a Q-Tip shape and clean your ears, whatever, it’s a free country. You might get a glass of water. You might not. You might be brought a small appetizer. Congratulations, you just spent 3 bucks for something you didn’t order. You should eat it, if it’s good, and if not, you might want to quickly reassess your choice of restaurants. I’m not kidding.
You might also be brought a menu. Or one might be on the table in front of you. Look around. Use the eyes, Luke. It might be all over the walls, on little slips of paper or wooden shingles. If you need an English menu, simply use this helpful phrase: “English menu?” If something with pictures and words made for actual humans does not appear, skip to Step 10, pay the bill, make a polite exit and return to Step 1. It’s not your fault.
Step 7: Order Food
In Japan, the waitstaff typically do not come to your table to ask what you want. Neither do they drop by the moment you’ve got a mouth full of mashed potatoes and enquire “So how’s ev’rythang, Hon?” Instead, when you want them, you call them.
There’s a small amount of skill involved, in that you need to be conscious of how busy the restaurant is. In Japan, this is called “reading the air,” and it’s characterized as possessing an otherworldly awareness of one’s surrounding. In English, this can be translated as “having a clue” or “using your brain.”
If a waiter or waitress is walking by with a tray full of plates, now’s probably not the time to place an order. If the cook behind the counter is busy turning a slab of tuna into a plate of thinly-sliced sashimi, nope, that’s not the time either.
Catch someone’s eye, raise a hand, or if necessary, grunt something. Someone will notice and come to your table. Then point to what you want on the menu, and order.
I can’t tell you how bad of an idea this is. If you have to resort to actually speaking, you’re already halfway to creating an international incident. Here’s what you’re looking at:
You: “Bee-ru kudasai.”
You: “Beer? Beeeer-? Be-rue? B.Ru?”
Waiter: “Might I assume you want a draft beer?”
You: “Oh, thank God, English. Yes, that’d be great.”
You: “Look, I’ll just cup my hands and you fill them up, okay? How is this so complicated?”
Now, it’s easy to equate Japanese words with communication, but that’s just opening a can of whoop-ass on yourself. Instead, simply point at the thing on the menu that looks like Beer and hold up a finger. You will get beer.
Proceed to order the remainder of your meal in a similar fashion.
Step 8: Eat Food
I’d like to include a bit about Japanese restaurant etiquette here, but I’ll save that for another time. For now, just shovel nutrition in the general direction of your face, and don’t worry too much about it.
Step 9: Ask for the Check
In casual restaurants, this may not be necessary or expected. You just stand up, walk to the cash register, and pay. This works fine if you’ve only ordered a basket of fries and two beers, so there’s not much addition to be done.
On the other hand, if you’ve lost your mind and ordered the deluxe sushi sampler, two plates of fried chicken, an order of spring rolls, the squid-ink pasta, a lightly pickled radish, some tofu with fish flakes, and a stunning array of drinks, then you’ll want to ask for the check. I always need the check.
To get it, simply hold up two crossed fingers, like you’re trying to scare away an imaginary vampire and don’t have a crucifix handy, only slightly tilted so it’s an X and not a cross.
Step 10: Pay the Bill
In some restaurants, you can pay at the table, but most of the time you take the check to the register. To avoid coming off as a complete rube, have your money ready before you get there. There’s no tipping, and tax is built in, so have that 3750 yen in hand before you stand up.
Step 11: And out the Door you Go
Remember that matter-of-fact expression you walked in with? You’re gonna want that again. Foreign folks love to make a big deal, saying how delicious everything was and bowing toward the kitchen. That’s like praising Ronald McDonald for his two all beef patties and special sauce. Save yourself and two countries a lot of embarrassment—-just nod slightly and walk the eff out the door.
Words you need to know
Congratulations, you’ve just succeeded in eating food. Simply repeat this process three times a day for 365 days over a few years until it feels natural.
Of course, there’s no end of internet wisdom, which is that great opportunity for everyone to display how much they know by showing how much you don’t. You’ll hear mentioned useful phrases like “sumimasen,” “itadakimasu,” and “gochisosama deshita” Nothing wrong with using some Japanese, but why make things complicated? The chances of speaking such phrases correctly and without abysmal pronunciation isn’t great. On the other hand, “please” and “thank you” are understood just as well, and there’s an amazingly high chance you’ll apply them appropriately. As with most things in life—-and Japan—-your best bet is to keep your eyes open, mouth shut, and stick with your strengths. Happy dining.