Love them or loathe them, chopsticks are the primary utensil in Japan, so if you’re traveling there you’ll need to know how to eat with chopsticks. Despite having used them several times before, I was worried about making a chopstick faux pas when traveling to Japan for the first time. So how do I start holding these things?
Start by holding out your hand as though you were going to shake somebody else’s, and then put the first chopstick under your thumb, facing diagonally downwards across your palm. Place the second chopstick between the tip of your thumb and forefinger, and keep it steady using your middle finger underneath. Bend your ring and little fingers, and tuck them under the lower chopstick, and you should have something that looks like the image below. Keep in mind, the top stick should move, and the bottom stick should be held in place.
This doesn’t even cover all of it. We’re going to give you a great guide to using chopsticks, one that will hopefully leave you looking like a total pro!
The History Of Chopsticks
Chopsticks have been around for centuries, with the first documented use in China, around 1200 B.C. Originally used to reach into boiling pots of water or oil, they weren’t used for actual eating until around 400 A.D., and they were not used outside of China until around 6-700 A.D., by which time they had spread across Asia.
Japan initially used chopsticks within their Shinto rituals, for which they were made of bamboo and joined at the top. With such importance in Japanese culture, you might feel a lot of pressure to make sure you get it right, so we’re going to break down the do’s and don’ts of chopstick use, and how you should use them to eat three of Japan’s favorite meals with them.
Japanese chopsticks tend to be shorter than most other chopstick standards in Asia, and their reusable chopsticks often come in three sizes – male, female, and child-sized, each of which is slightly smaller than the last. Usually made of bamboo or wood, they’re then lacquered for comfort and durability, a tradition which started in the 17th century. Of course, the richest and most prominent people in Japan would have theirs made of gold, silver, ivory, and even jade.
Japan was the first country to produce disposable chopsticks in 1878, and they use around 25 billion of them each year. Due to mass deforestation and global warming concerns, more and more restaurants and fast food places are leaning towards reusable chopsticks, and lots of people buy “chopstick containers” so they can transport their own hygienically. If you find a gorgeous pair of chopsticks while you’re traveling in Japan, why not find a container too so you can use them back home? You might look strange eating your lunchtime pasta with chopsticks, but it’s smaller than carrying a knife and fork, right? (I’m kidding, of course, the Japanese use knives and forks for pasta too).
Despite the fact that many places use cheaper or disposable chopsticks, Japan is also a hub of chopstick design, with many of the most elegant (and expensive) designs being created in Kyoto. In fact, not only is Kyoto considered by many to be the epicenter of chopstick design, around 85% of Japan’s chopsticks are made in nearby Fukui Prefecture.
The second method involves using your chopsticks like a shovel, but it’s more appropriate for informal dining settings. You bring the bowl close to your face, and with the chopsticks slightly parted “shovel” rice straight into your mouth. This works well if your rice isn’t as sticky. As I said though, if you’re in a formal setting or restaurant try to avoid this method, as it’s not really considered appropriate in those environments. But, in more casual eateries you’ll likely see others doing this too (especially if they’re in a hurry).
How To Eat With Chopsticks In Japan
1. How to eat rice with chopsticks
Many people from the west marvel at the thought of eating rice with chopsticks, and if you’re confused as to why that could possibly be the case please let me explain. At least in the U.K., when we think of rice many people (not all) tend to think of long-grain rice often accompanying South Asian curries, which has been one of our most popular foods/takeaways for several decades. This kind of rice would be hard to eat with chopsticks because it doesn’t stick together in clumps, so you’d only be able to eat a couple of grains at a time.
Short, or medium-grain rice used in East Asia cooks differently, and sticks together when it’s done, making it much easier to eat with chopsticks. What’s more, Japanese rice is so perfectly done that you don’t need to (nor should you) put any condiments on it, which would make it harder to eat with chopsticks. Japanese rice that’s cooked properly is delicious as a side dish without the need for any additions. It still takes a little practice to get it right, but once you’ve got the knack you’ll be carbo-loading like a pro.
There are two methods generally accepted to be the right way to eat rice with chopsticks, but let me make it clear that these methods apply to eating white rice in Japan, as some cultures may take offense at the second one. You’ll need to hold the chopsticks in the way we’ve laid out above. The first method involves grabbing clumps of rice and bringing it your mouth – simple right?
This method works really well for white rice in Japan, as it usually sticks together in delicious little clumps. Try not to push the chopsticks together too firmly, as you’ll likely break up the bite-sized clumps this way, which will make them fall from your chopsticks and harder to grab. Use a medium amount of pressure to break clumps away from the bowl, and maintain that light pressure as you eat.
2. How to eat noodles with chopsticks
This one can be a little intimidating, but trust me it can be done. For noodles with little sauce or broth, you simply want to use your chopsticks to grab a small amount. Take less than can comfortably fit in your mouth, or you’re going to be left looking a little bit silly, and lift them out of the bowl, high enough that you’re able to see that they’re not still tangled with any others (or again, you might end up looking a little bit silly).
Bring the noodles to your mouth and put them in (I know that seems obvious but I thought I should add it in case you’re practising with noodles right now), then remove the chopsticks, and slurp the noodles until they’re all the way in!
If the noodles aren’t too wet or “splashy”, you can gently use the chopsticks to feed them in, but this takes longer, and looks weirder. To start with, though, it might help you get the hang of it. DON’T worry, it’s not rude to slurp noodles, or make a little bit of noise while you’re eating in Japan – it’s expected! In fact, one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Japan can be had at a small ramen shop in Hokkaido, where the sound of noodle slurping and baseball fills the air, and is actually quite companionable.
So, perhaps you’ve practiced with boring butter noodles (American readers, is that really a thing??), and want to move on the chopstick challenge of a lifetime – ramen.
3. Eating ramen with chopsticks
I might have overestimated how much of a challenge ramen will be, as it’s actually similar to just eating regular noodles. The complications come from the extra ingredients, and that warm, delicious broth. The good news is you’re going to be given a flat-looking spoon to accompany your ramen, which should be used for drinking the broth in-between bites of meat, vegetables, and oodles of noodles (sorry, I had to do it just once).
Start with the noodles (since we’ve already sussed that one out), but this time you’ll need to do a lot more slurping. Lift the noodles out as described, but once they’ve separated feel free to dip them back into the bowl to get some more of the broth and fat. This will definitely require a little bit of skill if you don’t want to spend the rest of the evening covered in bone broth, so try to take even, measured slurps that aren’t too over-enthusiastic.
One ramen philosophy states that eating a bowl of this delicious food is about “finding the rhythm of the noodle”, meaning you want to get into a nice flow of alternating between noodles, meat or vegetable, and broth. Most of the non-noodle contents of your bowl should be bite-sized, meaning that you shouldn’t need to break them into smaller pieces, simply pick individual ingredients and savor the taste of each one.
The only other ingredient that might give you any trouble is the egg, which can be a little slippery. Again, if you’re really worried about making a scene like a bad gaijin, practice at home with a fresh hard-boiled egg, but the trick is in exerting the right amount of pressure in the middle of the egg – don’t squeeze too hard or it will fly across the room into an unsuspecting diner’s face, and don’t hold it too gently or it will plop back into your bowl and splash your table (and friends) with broth.
When you’ve eaten all the solid parts of the ramen, it’s completely fine (and encouraged) to lift the bowl and drink the remainder of the broth!
Rather than letting you scan through the paragraphs, I’m going to share the hottest tips for faux pas-free chopstick domination (that was a mouthful, just like your first bite using chopsticks after reading this).
- Hold your chopsticks towards the back end, not in the middle or near the front. Not only does this give you more control, but you’ll also at least look like you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t feel like you do)!
- Use a chopstick rest (hashioki) when you’re not eating. Some restaurants will provide them if they have reusable chopsticks, but if the restaurant gives you disposable chopsticks, simply fold up the wrapper to create a makeshift chopstick rest.
- If the chopstick rest isn’t working out, you can rest your chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate, but ONLY if you keep an eye on the “don’ts” below.
- Use your chopsticks to separate bigger pieces of food by pushing them into it, and exerting a small amount of pressure to push them apart. Be careful when doing this, or you might send some of your food flying across the restaurant.
- Wait for any elderly members of your dinner party to pick their chopsticks up first, then you can begin eating.
- Practice before you go! The best way to improve your chopstick proficiency is to actually use them to eat! Maybe order takeaway food and practice at home – that way if you make a mess nobody else will see…
- Never use your chopsticks to spear food like some rudimentary fork – it’s considered rude and you’ll look like a complete noob.
- Chopsticks shouldn’t be used to move bowls or plates around, although you may even see some Japanese people doing this. It’s becoming more common amongst the younger generation as some of the old rules and traditions start to evolve, but if you’re dining with anyone older or in a more formal setting it’s best to err on the side of caution.
- NEVER stick your chopsticks into the middle of your bowl of rice while you’re not using them, as upright chopsticks are part of ancient funeral rituals in Japan. The act itself has a strong connection to death and burial, so it’s not something you’ll ever see Japanese people doing (ergo you shouldn’t do it either).
- Don’t lick your chopsticks, no matter how delicious the meal is. This is the equivalent of licking your knife in western countries (both are kind of creepy if you ask me).
- Try not to rub your chopsticks together. This was always something I saw people do on TV shows growing up, but like me, you might be surprised to learn that in Japan rubbing your chopsticks together suggests you think they’re cheap.
- If you don’t have a chopstick rest, you can place your chopsticks horizontally across the bowl or plate while you take a drink or a break from eating, just don’t cross them at any point, as this also stems back to ancient burial rites.
Ok, so it’s possible all those tips have given you a chopstick-related panic attack right now. Yes, whether it’s chopsticks or train travel there are a lot of unwritten rules of etiquette in Japan, but the chances are nobody will chastise you publicly for getting some of them wrong. As a visitor, you have a little grace period in which to get it wrong (although I take no responsibility for the silent judgment you might get for ignoring any rules). Try to take your lead from other people in the restaurant – it’s almost guaranteed that most if not all will be doing it the right way.
You should also resign yourself to the fact that of course you’re going to make some mistakes, and that’s fine! It’s like learning a new language – you have to make a few mistakes to get to any level of fluency, so you’re going to have to fling a few pieces of food before you’re proficient with chopsticks.
Do the Japanese use any other cutlery?
Don’t panic! Whether you’re anxious about not having any other options, or perhaps you’ve got specific mobility needs, if you’re desperate to see Japan but can’t seem to get the hang of chopsticks, you do have some options. Most restaurants have knives and forks, they just don’t put them out on the tables, so if you ask politely they’ll bring some out for you. You could say “Fōku to spūn kudasai”, which literally means please give me a fork and a spoon. Most, if not all casual restaurants will be happy to oblige. And if you really can’t take that chance? Bring your own!
And there you have it! I hope you’ll forgive my comedic foray into the worst-case chopstick scenarios because really they’re pretty easy to get the hang of. All you need is a little time, a little patience, and a lot of delicious Japanese food.
Let us know how you got on in the comments!