How to Eat at a Japanese Restaurant

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:

  1. Do you have a reservation?
  2. Smoking or non smoking?
  3. 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.

Speaking Japanese

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.

Using Words

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.”

Waiter: 「生の中でよろしいですか」

You: “Beer-u?”

Waiter: 「瓶ビールですか」

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.”

Waiter: 「七時まで、晩食セットもありますので、それでよろしいですか」

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.

58 Replies to “How to Eat at a Japanese Restaurant”

    1. This is fairly common knowledge in Japan.

      In the U.S. (as I recall), you can make a sort of check-mark in the air to indicate to the waitperson that you want the check. In Japan, it’s crossed fingers. A fellow diner (a foreign guy) was kind enough to tell me this years ago, after seeing me make the air check-mark.

      1. I had been mimicking Japanese people crossing their fingers for years, until I did it a few months ago and was informed that making an X is wrong – you should make an ✓ by crossing the base segment of your left finger over the top knuckle of your right finger. I watch people do it a bit more closely now, and am unconvinced that anyone actually knows this. I need 日本人の3割しか知らないこと to confirm whether or not this is the official Japanese way.

        1. You know, that strikes me as one of those “things people say,” like eating peas on a knife or something. If nobody does it, is it actually “correct”? Eh, maybe.

          Anyway, I’ve seen the fearsome X about a million times and the “I’m trying to make an X but my finger’s broken” never, so think I’ll stick with the X.

          1. Hmmm I always went with making the X with my hands or even arms if they were REALLY far away. In the US, I hold my left hand out and pretend I’m signing with my right hand…I also do that in Japan and somehow still gets across or I just, you know, use my words…

  1. You forgot Step 0: do not let a Japanese person suggest a place to drink, otherwise you’ll end up with an empty bank account. It’s like they’re physically incapable of spending less than 5k yen on a night out

    1. Okay, that’s a point, and could well explain the state of my bank account.

      On the other hand, I’ve found that letting a Western person suggest a place is a similarly bad idea. The price might be good, but the food seldom is.

      1. Fortunately (?) after my sixth haibooru I can’t distinguish between regular yakitori and Hokkaido yakitori, so I always prefer cheap places. Lucky me I guess?

        1. Gaius,

          I would also add… don’t expect those outings with your Japanese friends/coworkers to get you drunk or full, either. Nomihoudai is almost always a scam. The more people going, the less value you’re going to get.

          Pregame with a beer from the konbini, and stop by again after “dinner” to stuff down an onigiri or two until actually full. Otsukare sama desu!

          1. Or better yet, if you’ve got a fancy ricemaker, program it to have fresh rice waiting for you around the time you intend to be home. Crack an egg on top, eat until satisfied, and pretend that the 5k yen you just spent actually did its job in getting you full!

            1. Okay, before you guys further malign my beloved all-you-can-drink nomihoudai, allow me to add a comment.

              Now, you’re right that going to the thrice annual office party is never a good deal, especially if the boss’s dopey secretary selected the all-you-can eat nomi-tabi-houdai option. Then you’re in for a couple slices of smoked ham, a handful of edamame, and a face-full of fries when nobody’s looking. So on that we agree.

              But…if you go with like one buddy and pick your spot, you can get into some fabulous all-you-can-drink deals. I remember this one joint in Yamanashi for under 10 bucks an hour, including beer, with no minimum food order. I’m pretty sure I drank the price down to under a dollar a beer. Although perhaps “remember” is too strong a word.

              Anyway, point is, it’s all about choosing wisely. Man, this is making me thirsty.

              1. Yeah I second that…if it’s just a few of you, pretty good value to be had…I’m pretty sure I’ve come close to shutting a few places down.

                That reminds me of this funny satire article in the Negi a few years back…

                Restaurant Ends Nomihodai Plan, Citing “British People”
                Popular restaurant chain Tengo ended its long-running all-you-can-drink service plan earlier this week after a feasibility review made continuation of the service impossible. Speaking by phone to The Negi, Product and Services Manager Dingo Hayashi said that the two-hour, ¥2,000 nomihodai promotion had been eliminated “due to strong interest from British people.”

                When the service was first conceived, Tengo based the pricing on the amount of liquor a human being could consume before blacking out or dying from alcohol poisoning. However, the data failed to take British nationals into account. Word about the all-you-can-drink offer soon spread in the UK expat community, and within days the company’s three Shinjuku branches were seeing steep losses.
                British patrons, however, have their own complaints. “The staff walk so bloody slowly, it’s hard to get a buzz going,” one customer told The Negi. “It was, like, three minutes between drinks. After all, it is all-I-can-drink. And I’m not a poofter.”

                1. Just to be clear for those that don’t know, The Negi is Japan’s version of The Onion! In other words, fake news!! (but very funny indeed 😛 )

                  1. I thought The Rising Wasabi was the Japanese The Onion haha

                    And yeah, I agree some nomihoudais can be quite cheap (the 900 yen nomihoudai+tabehoudai in Akihabara and a few 1000 yen clubs in Roppongi with several hours of nomihoudai come to mind), but I believe the best drinking parties I’ve ever had involved buying cheap alcohol at a convenience store and sitting at a bench in a park or somewhere that doesn’t cost an arm.

    1. The way of Japan is long and the road is winding. I suggest filling up on snacks and coffee before embarking.

  2. Another excellent “How To Survive In Japan” article, well done. It would be interesting to find out if/what/how you cook meals at home. Nothing quite like Drunken Cooking, I’ve seen Julia Child hit the bottle in prime time so we’re in fine company. Of course that would explain all the frozen Swanson Chicken Pot Pies I managed to char in college. I doubt any college student has not woken up hung over in the AM (or thereabouts) only to find the meal he/she cooked in the oven is as black as a coal briquette from attempting to cook it the previous night and passed out. Oh the memories…and the smell…and the cleanup.

    Speaking of food, what is it like having all those flavors of Kit Kat bars in Japan? Okay, it’s not really “real” food but half the things in the USA are not anyway so “real food” here in the States is a loose term. It’s a pretty low bar we set here, like quality television programming or government transparency. I read a CNN article where there are a gazillion flavors and that the Japanese give them as some type of good luck gift as the words Kit Kat in Japanese somehow refer to wishing one good luck. Please tell me this wasn’t fake news from Ted Turners 24/7 media machine! Don’t burst my bubble Ken, you have already deflated all my aspirations on Japan after all.

    Speaking about news, where/how to you keep up to date in Japan? The Japan Times, NHK, porn sites? I’ve read that the Japanese news media self censor themselves. Reporting on a taboo subject might get you fired. It would be interesting to get your thoughts on this and I’m glad that your site is not one to skip on the real 411. Doubt you will be meeting with Shinzo Abe anyway unless it’s for Drunken Cooking. You might want to keep some sake in the house just in case he pops over with some frozen Swanson Chicken Pot Pies.

    Going back to food, is Pino Ice Cream really that good? I’ve seen a few J-Pop Perfume (one of the few J-Pop music groups I like, perhaps you can touch upon the music scene later) music videos where they promote it. And hell yes, ice cream is a food! What’s wrong with you people who think ice cream is a treat?! It’s in the USA government food pyramid “thingie” we all had in grade school. Probably just as much sugar in ice cream as there was in the Captain Crunch, Coco Puffs and Frosted Flakes most of us ate as kids growing up. Top that healthy breakfast off with a Pop Tart for good measure. With that much sugar in me I as was able to beat the bus to school. So there, I feel vindicated on having ice cream for breakfast as an adult.

    Lastly on food, what is the one thing that you refuse to eat regardless of how much you have had to drink? I’m guessing there is more than one but let’s narrow it down a bit. This should be interesting…

    I look forward to your opinions and meandering musings. Do keep up the posts for us knuckleheads who still want to go to Japan and lamely attempt to mix in with the locals while they have those “Yankee Go Home” look in their eyes.

    1. You touched on a whole lot of stuff, but let me just reply about cooking. Yes, I cook a fair bit. But the thinking around it is a wee bit different from most Western people.

      Here’s what’s not in my kitchen: bread, bacon, pizza, cereal, peanut butter, cheese, chicken, jelly, salsa, ketchup, chocolate, soda, frozen waffles, cans of anything, boxes of anything. Not sure these qualify as foods I refuse to consume under any drunk circumstances, but in general I don’t eat them. Not sure many of them even qualify as foods, to be honest.

      Here’s what’s there instead: rice, carrots, eggplant, cabbage, okra, radish, spinach, lettuce, mushrooms, broccoli, green peppers, fish, clams, onions, tomatoes, seaweed, miso, natto, sesame seeds, plain yogurt, tofu, eggs.

      Cooking typically involves chopping up some veggies and sauteing them in sesame oil, flavored with fish broth. That plus a salad and a bowl of soup (if breakfast) or grilled fish (if dinner) makes a meal. Takes about 10-15 minutes.

      I also eat out a lot, but it’s pretty much the same stuff. It’s just more for the social experience and change of scenery.

      …And yes, Kit Kat sounds a lot like the Japanese for “surely (you’ll) win.” There are a tremendous number of flavors, and they change constantly. Don’t have any of those in my kitchen either, though.

    2. >Speaking about news, where/how to you keep up to date in Japan? The Japan Times, NHK, porn sites?
      The Japan Times is definitely better than the NHK.
      Also, at times of various emergencies (3/11?), it might be best to rely on foreign media…
      *Just what kind of news do porn sites deliver?:D

  3. Woa, what are they putting on Ken’s beer? Not only a lot of posts recently, but all of them retain the same distinct fun style. Good posts as always. I’m still waiting that book.

  4. Oh man, it’s been 3 years since I lived in Japan for a year but this brought back awkward dining memories. Must remember Step 2 when I visit in November.

    Been following your blog since 2013 (could be longer?!) – thanks for the humour, awesome writing and being consistent with your love of Calbee chips – any interesting flavours at the moment?

    Hope you’re well!

    1. Calbee’s never ceases to amaze me. Just off the top of my head, some flavors I’ve seen recently are yaki-tori, edamame, seaweed, butter and soy suace, yuzu and chili, and ume plum.

      As you know, seasonal and regional flavors are wildly popular. Just don’t get too attached, because once the season’s over, you’ll likely never see them again.

      Thanks for reading, all these many years!

  5. Man, I remember once sitting next to what I think was a yakuza member, at this tiny ramen shop in Osaka. I’m pretty sure he was a yakuza guy, with the arm tattoo, bald head, rings on fingers, and that he was eating katsudon (which wasn’t on the menu, and was prepared immediately by the two people moving hastily behind the corner, skipping out on others who were there first). He sat right next to me and all I could think about doing was being as silent as I could be, as I slurped my noodles.

    Now with that story, this comment is relevant, cause I want to ask what keeping up with American (or western) media is like in Japan. Like with the recent explosion of Marvel and DC movies, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Stranger Things (popular movies, tv shows, books in the US). Even just Western trends in general, do you bother keeping track of that stuff, or does it feel completely foreign now?

    1. That’s a good question. And yeah, it feels completely foreign. I’ve never seen the shows or books you mentioned. I mean, I’ve got NetFlix, so I theoretically could, but somehow I don’t have time to sit around and watch TV on a regular basis. I might watch one Western movie a week. Not studying Japanese would probably free up a lot of time though.

      It’s weird to see the things that Americans put value on. There’s always thousands of people gathered to protest something or other. That’s amazing. Aren’t they worried about being fired for being part of a protest? Get fired in Japan and you might never get another job—it could be the end of your life.

      And don’t you have to go grocery shopping on a daily basis? When do you have time to protest? Between work, cooking, cleaning, and laundry, I can’t imagine when we’d have time to join a protest, which may be why we don’t have very many here.

      Watch some Japanese dramas, if you haven’t already. The things that consume our time, and the things we value, are vastly different.

      1. The US seems like its rapidly degenerating into insanity. There is always some great travesty to march against or virtuous Twitter hashtag to tweet, some monumental change to be made – at least until two weeks later when it’s all forgotten, replaced with the next urgent injustice that requires an outrage performance. This cult of outrage & the corresponding politicization of everything has long lost even its satirical charm.

        I think it will be refreshing to escape this environment of shrill, incessant outrage & virtue signaling for Japan, which, while definitely nutty in its own ways, seems to be much less in thrall to treacly politics and bloviating activism. I hope to no longer have to endure a barrage of ideological phantasms like white privilege and mansplaining, and the only person obsessed with microaggressions will be myself, as I attempt to keep count of the times I’ve been asked where I’m from or complimented on my chopsticks skills. I’m really looking forward to it.

  6. Waiter: “Might I assume you want a draft beer?”
    You: “Oh, thank God, English. Yes, that’d be great.”
    Waiter: 「七時まで、晩食セットもありますので、それでよろしいですか」

    Good Japanese god Ken, I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard in a while. Still reading all of your posts as always, hoping that last one didn’t mean you knocked up a girl. If so, my benefit is you get to stay in Japan but your loss is that you get to stay in Japan.

    Love the stuff man, your writing never stops improving. I’d love to hear about one of your really boring days in Japan for a change, I’m sure you would still make it stupidly funny.

    Catcha lata homie,

    1. You know, I was just thinking I should write about a typical day here.

      Got up this morning, didn’t feel too hungover, and slammed half a cup of stale Starbucks from the fridge. Stumbled to the neighborhood center and watched a performance by some elementary school kids, which was like army drills being done by midgets. Called my mom for Mother’s Day. She was getting drunk with my brother.

      Went out for a breakfast of grilled fish, rice, cabbage salad, an egg, and miso soup. Later maybe go to the gym or skateboard in the park, or just bike to an izakaya for Sunday afternoon drinks and a bit of sashimi. Somewhere before that try to read some of the Japanese newspaper and study 25 vocab flashcards. Maybe watch a Japanese video (“Freeter, Ie wo Kau”), then iron a shirt for tomorrow, shower and shave while having one more beer, and pass out on the couch.

      Guess that’s a pretty typical Sunday.

      1. You iron your shirts? Props to my man!
        *personal policy: doing the same only for dates/meetings with clients (regular workday: wrinkled shirt ww)

        1. Yeah, that’s the 108-yen refill. I stick it in the fridge for the next day. It’s cold and a little stale, but still a pretty damn good cup of coffee.

          1. I buy a whole liter of ice coffee at the grocery store for less than 100 yen, and every cup is better than Starbucks’s overpriced joe. Starbucks exists as a place to ogle cute girls; the coffee is only secondary.

            1. Funny you should say that. I mean about the iced coffee, not the cute girls. I’ve recently started buying those 100-yen PET bottles of coffee too. Very tasty. Now if I could just stop drinking a liter of coffee per day, we’d be in business.

  7. …when I read this new post and the comments I had to smile and remembered happily an eating experience in Tokyo, last December:
    it was my second time in Japan, as a tourist. I am grinding an learning my Kanji, but of course, my Japanese is only rudimentary.
    So, for some things, it takes a lot of courage for me to do!

    I had the dream of eating gyoza and there was a very small restaurant, specialized on gyoza, near my hotel. It was clearly frequented only by Japanese, and had an enormous gyoza featured above the entrance.

    I walked by every day and was very afraid to enter: will I behave in the right way? Will I commit some huge blunder? Will I get something to eat? Will I get some gyoza??? Will they hate me in there???

    And on Friday night it was open and I stood in front of the entrance and thought: it might be my last time in Japan, in Tokoy, perhaps my only chance in life to ever eat this dish. And only these thoughts of death and limited opportunities in life gave me the courage to enter:-)

    (..have to add: I am not young, and after an accident three years ago I am aware of the possibility of death and last chances to do anything…)

    So I entered. It was a hole in the wall and had room for about twelve people along a counter, a bar, behind which the cooked grilled the gyoza. There were two parties of Japanese and one free seat. I squeezed in. Ha.

    My back touched the wall behind me. And there was a waitress behind the counter who gave me the menu and I ordered my gyoza, beer, and then more gyoza, and more beer. It was great, I loved the food, and was happy I had had the courage to enter for the experience.

    The Japanese around me talked between them, in this place the most imporant thing seemed to be not to take up too much space:-)

    The waitress poured her live story out to me, which includede working as a waitress in London, and she was unsure about going back there, as she was growing older and getting an life back in Japan might get difficult. I could not say more than: “difficult”, but it was ok.

    She thougt me courageous, traveling alone to Tokyo, but I found her to have much more courage and I told her so.

    It was clear, it was a one-time visit for me, and I would not be coming back.

    This was kind of sad.

    I hope I am not being a nuisance with this long post, but I had many great meals in Japan, but this was the most memorable, as it cost me so much courage to get it!!:-)



    1. That’s wonderful, Raebia. I’m glad you had a good dining experience. But you shouldn’t feel nervous about entering a Japanese restaurant, or worried about “behaving in the right way,” any more than you would at a restaurant in any other country.

      Do the same thing for a few weeks (or years), and you’ll appreciate how much Japanese restaurants are just ordinary places. You’re only ordering food.

        1. …and I don’t think this is a special experience exclusive to Japan: to me, it is always exciting, if sometimes terrifying, when going to a strange country, eating there, trying not to get lost..:-)

          It’s challenging, but fun.

          1. …and, what I do, travelling, is completely different from deciding to really live abroad. I know this. Once, I almost went to live in the UK, but ultimately decided against it.

            Who knows what is best…?

            Greetings to Japan, sincerely,


    2. There’s a fun little series that I was watching on Netflix called Samurai Gourmet…not too thought provoking, but it was cool and there’s one episode where the main character was getting all worked up about the right thing to do in a restaurant…and eventually he realized that you’re just supposed to relax and enjoy it…it’s just food!

  8. …last thought: I would have never forgiven myself and would have felt regrets all my life, had I not walked in.

    And I did a blunder, I felt so nervous about paying and getting out gracefully I forgot about paying at the exit, and the waitress had to tell me – but this is not important:-)

    It was a very happy experience:-)

    Very happy even to remember:-)

  9. “Your best bet is to adopt a matter-of-fact facial expression, and go in like you know what you’re doing.”
    Best piece of advice I’ve seen regarding Japan in a while.

    I have this friend who is also living here for a couple of years and can actually speak quite some Japanese, but was always frustrated that no matter if they asked if he could speak Japanese and he answered yes, folks would still speak fucked up English or I-don’t-really-think-you-can-Japanese level Japanese.

    After talking a while with him about it we quickly fixed the problem. If someone asks if you can speak Japanese, simply answer in a rude Japanese. Or don’t even answer, even better. Give them a dry「うん」and suddenly.

    Answer with a cute 「できます」or similar and you might have the accent and pronunciation of a voice actor, still they won’t take you seriously.

    1. I must say that’s similar to my default response to the all-too-familiar “Oh, your Japanese is so great.” Not yes, not no, not thanks. Just a very flat “uuuh.”

      So the script is, you walk into a restaurant, the waitstaff identify you as “foreign,” they fumble around trying to speak simple Japanese and mock-English, you indicate you can actually speak, they compliment you on it in a condescending way, and you blush and act like a schoolgirl. Then they bring you the English menu.

      If you break that script and act like an adult male, nobody knows what to do. Now we’re in unfamiliar territory, like meeting a black man who’s a doctor, or a woman who’s an airline pilot. Okay, it’s a little more far out than that. A white person who acts like every other person in Japan? Nobody’s ready for that. Pandemonium reigns.

      1. Ah yes, that’s sort of how I eventually came to being treated less like a sideshow is by not reciprocating. I’ve personally found that responding to the “do you speak Japanese?” with 「なんとなく」with the energy reserved for reading from a phonebook results in them treating you with the same courtesy afforded to other energy-drained salarymen.

      2. happened to me fo me for the first time, yesterday… and even after speaking jaoanese the waiter continued talking english… place had a lot of foreigners though (also a first for me)… i actually thought its somehow funny… its a common complaint, though… im still not convinced that this is the default behaviour… i rather think its case by case (otherwise it would have happened to me more often, i guess)…

      3. Best response would be, continue conversation in another language (gotta learn those ‘But from now on, please don’t speak any Korean, since we’re not in Korea, ‘mkay?’ in Korean, or ‘As much as I like Chinese, I am much more comfortable talking to you in Japanese, thank you’ in Chinese….)

  10. Yeah, so I suppose it’s gradually becoming a fixture that I be commenting some bizarre stuff here. Really liking your writing. You been looking into that Finland stuff? Food was the critical point, eh? Well, no surprises there right! Anyway, cheers!

  11. Unintelligible regional accents? So, does Japan have a Glasgow? (Do a web search for Angry Scottish People)

  12. Very helpful. I was starting to break out in hives trying to memorize when to use kudasai versus onegaishimasu. Pointing and grunting is much more my speed.

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