A lot is said about the particulars of chopstick use but, basically, one should simply refrain from doing anything with them that you wouldn’t do with a knife and fork back home. A couple of specific things to avoid are sticking your chopsticks in your rice bowl so they are standing upright and passing food between pairs of chopsticks. These are both strongly reminiscent of Buddhist funeral rites. Also frowned upon is mayoi-bashi (wandering chopsticks) which is the act of uncertainly dabbing at dishes before deciding on what you want to eat. Pointing with chopsticks is also impolite and can even be interpreted as an invitation to a fight and licking chopsticks has sexual connotations so beware!
Eating and drinking in the street
Simply not done in Japan. Munching on the move is a sign of bad manners and you will rarely see a Japanese eat so much as a chocolate bar while walking, driving or riding on a train.
Loud slurping noises are not only perfectly acceptable when eating soba, udon and ramen but are positively a sign of good appetite and enjoyment. Added to this, a sharp intake of air helps to cool your steaming noodles as they enter the mouth, so when in Rome…
Drinking from bowls
Miso soup, the ubiquitous accompaniment to any Japanese meal is always served in a cup-sized bowl that you raise to your mouth. The same is true of udon, soba and ramen dishes. Whether or not you are given a spoon it is perfectly acceptable to lift and sip.
Japanese restaurants more often than not do not provide napkins. Diners are expected to be carrying their own handkerchief or a small towel for that purpose. Many restaurants do however provide an oshibori -- a small moist towel, hot in the winter and cool in summer, which is for wiping the hands before eating. On a hot day, you might see men wiping their faces and the backs of their necks with their oshibori but this is not particularly polite.
Blowing your nose
Try not to blow your nose in the presence of others and certainly avoid doing it at the dinner table. In Japan this is something done only in private like perhaps cleaning your ears or cutting your toenails is in the West.
Depending on how formal the company, you might be advised to use the reverse end of your chopsticks when you are taking food from communal dishes or serving food into someone else’s plate. Having said that, one of the signs of a warm social gathering is this rule being broken. Best to follow the example of your neighbor.
One thing you will notice very quickly at a Japanese drinking party is that no one fills their own glasses. With sake or bottled beer everyone pours for everyone except themselves. Strict etiquette says that you at least take a sip from your glass (if not actually drain it completely) when someone offers to pour for you and that you hold your glass with both hands while they pour. It is polite also to take a sip before you put your glass back on the table. This kind of drinking has plenty of potential for getting out of hand -- especially with sake -- and those wanting to slow down would be well advised to leave their glass full.
This is something you will hear rather than say yourself. It’s a warm welcome and thank you for coming usually hollered at the top of the voice by as many staff members as are on hand when you enter.
This is basic attention grabber. Possibly the most often used word in the Japanese language, it means “sorry” as well as “excuse me”.
“Kore / sore wa nan desu ka?”
Meaning “what is this / that?” this is a great one for pointing at delicious looking dishes that other diners have ordered or for when you’re eyeing up the unnamed items behind the glass at the sushi bar. Good luck understanding the answers.
This is the set phrase to be uttered before starting to eat. Like saying grace but a good deal quicker.
Be sure to say this to your host after you have finished eating. It literally means, “It was a feast” and is a polite thing to say whether you’ve had a full kaiseki meal or just a cup of tea and a sweet.
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