If you’re not proficient with the Japanese language, going to certain establishments during your visit to Japan can be daunting. One of these establishments is a restaurant.
Unless you go to a high-end restaurant or an established food chain in the big cities, the servers only speak Japanese, and the menus are in Japanese only. Don’t worry, you can most likely get what you want by just pointing at the item on the menu however, the waiter might ask you about the specifics of your meal. The worst-case scenario is getting something unexpected.
So how do you order your food? This article will give you tips on what to do from the moment you decide on a restaurant to stepping out of it after a great meal.
Choosing a Restaurant
If it’s your first trip to Japan, you might want to go to a restaurant that you know something about. Maybe you’ve read about it online and thought it was great. Your friends might have recommended it to you. The concierge of your hotel could have pointed it out to you. Start your adventure there. At least you’ll have an idea of what food you’ll get.
The menus are usually displayed outside restaurants. Some might have signboards. Many display plastic imitations of their food. It’s normal to scan the offerings and the interior of the restaurant before you enter.
Entering the Restaurant
When you enter a restaurant, the servers will greet you with an “Irasshaimase!” (Welcome). This is a generic greeting to customers of restaurants, coffee shops, or even stores. If you’re entering a traditional restaurant, there might be a set of small lockers or cubicles by the entrance. This means you’ll need to take off your shoes and put on slippers before you go inside.
A server will be assigned to you. The first question you’ll be asked is “Nanmei-sama desu ka” (How many people). You can answer with your fingers or you could answer with any of these phrases:
|Hitori desu||Just one.|
|Futari desu||Two people.|
|San nin desu||Three people.|
|Yon nin desu||Four people.|
|Go nin desu||Five people.|
|Roku nin desu||Six people.|
|Shichi nin desu||Seven people.|
|Hachi nin desu||Eight people.|
|Kyuu nin desu||Nine people.|
|Jyuu nin desu||Ten people.|
Generally, customers are seated by servers. Even casual family restaurants follow this system. Only fast-food restaurants, pubs, and some small eateries follow a self-seating system.
Then the server will lead you to a free table with a “Kochira e douzo” (Please sit here) or an “Oseki e annai shimasu” (I’ll show you to your seat). But there might be times when there’s no table available. In this case, you’ll see a queue you have to join. Many restaurants don’t allow smoking these days. But a few, especially izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs), still allow it.
If there is a smoking section the server will ask “Otabako wa suwaremasu ka” (Do you smoke?). Depending on your preferences, you can answer “Hai” (Yes) or “Iie” (No). If you want to give a more detailed answer, you either say “Kitsuen seki onegai shimasu” (Smoking Section, please) or “Kin-en seki onegai shimasu” (Non-Smoking Section, please).
When you’re seated, the server will give you a menu and say “Menyuu ni narimasu” (Here is the menu). Most of the time, you’ll also be given an oshibori (a small wet towel). You use this to wipe your hands. Don’t use it to wipe your face. Say “Arigatō gozaimasu” (Thank you) for the courtesy.
Some restaurants have special menus. You can check if there’s one by saying any of these phrases:
|Ei-go no menyuu ga arimasu ka?||Do you have an English menu?|
|Okosama menyuu wa arimasu ka?||Do you have a children’s menu?|
|Bejitarian menyuu wa arimasu ka?||Do you have a vegetarian menu?|
Ordering a Drink
The Japanese generally start the ordering process with a drink. Here’s a Q&A that might be useful:
|Onomi mono wa?||Would you like a drink?|
|Onomi mono wa ika ga itashimasu ka?||What would you like to drink?|
|Mineraru Wota||Mineral Water|
|Aka Wain||Red Wine|
|Sake||Japanse Rice Wine / Alcohol|
Now, the Japanese have a different numerical system that’s used for this:
|Ninsu Bun||One for everyone.|
Using this system, here’s an example order: Biru futatsu o kudasai (Three beers, please).
Placing your Order
Take note that many Japanese dishes come in small servings. Be sure to take this into account when you’re deciding on how many of an item to order. Also, remember that many small establishments only accept cash. Make sure you will have enough to pay for the entire meal. When the server delivers your drink you’ll be asked: “Gochuumon wa okimari desu ka” (Have you decided what you want to order).
If you aren’t ready yet, you can say “Mou sukoshi jikan o itadakemasu ka” (Can I have a little more time). Then, when you’re ready, get your server’s attention by raising a hand and saying “Sumimasen” (Excuse me). Some restaurants have a button near the tables to call servers. Don’t be afraid to ask “Kore wa nan desu ka” (What is this).
Other restaurants have tablets that double as a menu, caller, and ordering system. If you’re lucky to have this system, all you need to do is tap the picture of the dish you want then tap Order and you’re good to go. No need to talk with a server unless you need help with the tablet.
Other ways to place an order are the following:
- If the regular menu has pictures, you can point to one or more pictures, hold up your fingers for how many you want of the item, and you’re good to go.
- A modification of this method is to add the words “kore” (this) and “to” (pronounced as “toh”; means “and”). Example: “Kore [point to picture] to kore [point to picture] kudasai.” (This and this, please).
- Using the numerical system mentioned above, you can say, “Kore [point] o hitotsu to kore [point] o futatsu.” (One of this and two of this).
- If you know the name of the food you want, then give the name then follow the numerical system. For example, “Maguro o mitsu to sāmon o futatsu kudasai.” (Three tuna and two salmon sushi, please). Some of the common dishes and ingredients you’ll come across are:
|Gyudon||Rice bowl topped with beef|
|Miso||Soup made from miso (fermented soy paste)|
|Ramen||Wheat noodle dish|
|Sashimi||Slices of raw fish and seafood|
|Shabu Shabu||Hot pot|
|Soba||Buckwheat noodle dish|
|Sushi||Slices of raw fish on rice|
|Tempura||Deep-fried breaded seafood and vegetables|
|Udon||Thick wheat noodle dish|
If you have no idea what you want to eat, you can be adventurous and ask “Osusume wa nan desu ka” (What do you recommend) or “Osusume wa arimasu ka” (Do you have recommendations).
Generally, Japanese customers don’t like to request special dishes. It is in their culture to avoid bothering people. Making special requests to the chef could be considered rude. But if you have allergies, it would be better to learn the Japanese term for it.
You can ask if a dish has a something you can’t have by saying “Kore wa ___ga haitte imasu ka” (Does this have _______ in it). Example: “Kore wa ebi ga haitte imasu ka” (Does this have shrimp in it). Then you can request the ingredient off the dish by saying “Ebi o nuki ni shite moraemasu ka” (Can I have it without shrimp).
Note, though, that the server might not know the ingredients of a dish so be patient if your server needs to ask the chef. Also, if you’re ordering a noodle dish, know that the broth has a lot of ingredients in it. So, even if you take out the toppings from the dish, the broth might have something you’re allergic to.
When you’re done placing your order, say “Toriazu, ijyo desu” (That’s it for now) or just say “Ijou desu” (That’s it).
When you’ve completed your order, the server will say “Hai, shoushou omachi kudasai” (Okay, please wait).
You can heave a small sigh of relief. You’ve made it through one of the hardest hurdles. But wait, what if what you ordered isn’t available?
Your server will come back to your table and say apologetically “Moushiwake arimasen ___ wa honjitsu urikire te shimaimashita. Menyuu kara hoka no mono o oerabi itadakemasu ka?” (I am terribly sorry, but the ___ has sold out. Would you like something else from the menu?).
Don’t panic, you just need to go through the same procedure again. You’ve done it before, you can do it again.
And when you’re done, you can sit back and enjoy your drink.
If you’re drinking beer and are in a group, it’s polite to wait for everyone to get their drinks before starting on yours. Don’t forget the standard “Kanpai!” (Cheers!) the locals say when they drink together.
Now, the Japanese pride themselves on high-quality service no matter what industry they’re in. But once in a while, especially when the restaurant is packed, your server could forget to give your order to the chef or the waiting time could be too long. You can follow up on your food with “Chuumon shite-ita ___ ga mada kite-inain desu kedo…” (Excuse me, but we haven’t gotten our ___ yet). Example: “Chuumon shite-ita tempura ga mada kite-inain desu kedo…”
When your food arrives, say “Itadakimasu!” (Let’s eat) and dig in.
Getting the Bill and Paying
If you’re in a restaurant with a tablet, lucky you. You just need to tap the touchscreen to get your bill. If you’re in a regular restaurant, get your server’s attention. Say, “Okanjou o onegai shimasu” or “Okaikei o onegai shimasu” (Can I have the bill, please?).
Some restaurants place the bill on your table. Or they will leave the bill on a shelf on the side or under the table. Others motion you to the cashier immediately without giving you a bill.
If it’s placed on the table, don’t just leave your money with the bill. Take the bill to the cashier, which is usually near the entrance.
Now here’s an unwritten Japanese public etiquette: don’t hand over the money directly to the cashier. There’s a small tray by the cashier. Place your money there. Your change will also be placed on the tray.
And this has been mentioned in various articles on this blog but just to reiterate: there is no tipping in Japan. Don’t leave money on your table or by the cashier. Restaurant staff will most likely run after you with your money thinking that you forgot it.
If you want to express your satisfaction, you say “Gochisousama deshita” (Thanks for the food) or “Arigatō gozaimashita” (Thank you very much).
If you have slippers on, don’t forget to change your footwear before you leave the Restaurant.
Congratulations! You’ve successfully ordered and enjoyed food in a Japanese restaurant.
Eating at a ramen-ya (ramen restaurant)
I’ve talked extensively about ramen in this article. I mentioned that many ramen-ya use a ticket vending machine for customers. Since ramen is a very popular dish in Japan, you’ll probably want to try it. In case you come across a ticket vending system, here’s what you should watch out for.
The vending machine is by the entrance, possibly beside the menu or signboard. Make your decision before going to the machine, especially if there’s only one there. If you take too much time at the vending machine then you’ll probably find a queue behind you when you’re done.
Vending machines come in two types: button or touchscreen. Regardless of the type, each button or touchscreen option indicates a dish. A restaurant might have a specific procedure but generally, you make your order like this:
- Insert your money in the slot like what you do with a normal vending machine.
- Push the button or tap the picture for the dish you want. If there are no pictures, don’t be afraid to ask a staff to help you. You can either say what dish you want (including your preferences for toppings, noodle firmness, broth, and side dishes) and ask which button you need to push. Or you can ask for a recommendation.
- Your ticket (or tickets if you make several purchases) will fall into a tray. Some machines give the change at the same time as the ticket. Some machines need an additional push to give the change.
- Give your ticket to the staff and say “Onegai shimasu” (Please). You’ll get half of the ticket. Keep this safe.
- Join the queue if there is one. If you’re lucky and there’s no queue you’ll be escorted to the counter right away. Display your ticket on the table until your order is delivered to you.
The phrases I’ve shared will allow you to eat in a lot of restaurants during your visit to Japan. Be sure to remember them, or bookmark this page so that you can refer to it while at a restaurant! If you have additional advice or questions, talk to me in the comments section below.