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Japan - Food and Drink
With such a varied and interesting range of quality foods on offer, Japanese restaurants are worth the expense. However, in addition to an unfamiliar menu, you will find the etiquette of restaurant dining is different too.
Firstly, you will notice replicas of food dishes or posters of food on display near the entrance. These are there to entice customers, but can also be a helpful aid if your Japanese is not up to the task of ordering.
At cheap eateries you may find a ticket machine at the entrance. You choose your meal, insert cash, and receive a ticket which is used to order your meal.
Do not seat yourselves at a table. The waitress will greet you and take you to an available table should there be one.
The traditional way to eat food in Japan is sitting on floor pillows around a low table. You find this zashiki arrangement in most restaurants, even those which also have the traditional Western style high table and chairs. Sometimes you will come across a sunken table, so your legs can rest down in the well under the low table.
If you are eating zashiki style, remove your shoes. This is not required for sitting at a Western style table.
A glass of cold water or hot tea will be served to your table or available at a self-service point. You will be given a hot towel to clean your hands before eating.
Your chopsticks will either be in a box on the table or brought to you by the staff. Usually they are disposable chopsticks, which make a satisfying sound as you snap them in two.
Whether you order your own individual dish or a selection for everyone to share depends on the type of restaurant, so glance at the tables around you to work out the etiquette for where you are.
Good Table Manners
In a society which values respect, good manners at the dinner table are important. Avoid blowing your nose, burping or making any other unseemly noises. Eat quietly with your mouth closed.
Before anyone at the table takes the first sip of a drink, a quick salutation is shared and all the glasses are raised together.
You drink miso soup as though it is from a cup. There will be solid items in the bottom which you eat using your chopsticks.
If you are eating from a small bowl, pick it up in one hand and bring it close to your mouth so you do not drop food. Use your chopsticks with your other hand. If you are eating from a larger bowl, you must keep it on the table, but do should still take care not to drop food.
If you are sharing big plates of food with other people, you must firstly scoop food from the big plates onto your own bowl or plate. You won’t be given serving spoons, and using the same end of the chopsticks you have been eating with is seen to be unhygienic and rude. Instead, use the top end of your chopsticks each time to take a serving, and then turn them round to the regular end for eating.
Meanwhile, your companions will pour your wine and you should do the same for them. Do not pour your own drink.
Once you have finished, place your chopsticks back in their holder.
Paying Your Bill
Be aware that waiting staff do not want to interrupt your conversation. Therefore, if you need another drink or are ready to pay the bill, your signalling must be clear.
Your bill will be brought your table, but you won’t pay there. Instead, head over to the cashier near the exit.
Credit and debit cards are used in Japan, but not as widely as in many other countries. As a result, you may need to pay for your meal in cash.
Customers normally thank the restaurant staff for a lovely meal on their way out. However, Japan does not have a tipping culture, so you don’t need to leave one.
2018 was a significant year in Japan, as the country’s national ban on indoor smoking was announced. The important revision to the Health Promotion Law will be introduced in stages, to be completed by April 2020.
However, the revision faced significant political opposition in a country where liberal attitudes about smoking prevail. Furthermore, the Japanese government and politicians have a number of financial links to the tobacco industry.
As a result, the ban has a large number of exemptions which will allow many restaurants and bars to offer indoor ventilated areas dedicated to smokers. Small, established premises serving alcohol or food only to adults over the age of 20 will be exempt from any change at all as long as a notice by the door warns customers that smoking is permitted on the premises.
To make the situation even more complicated, local authority regulations also affect smoking areas. For example, Tokyo bans smoking on all premises where the business owner has one employee or more.
All of this means you will need to check the situation with each restaurant and bar you visit if you want to avoid smoke, which is no mean feat if you do not have a grasp of the Japanese language.
Meanwhile the national ban applies to the indoor areas of schools and hospitals, but allows outdoor smoking areas to be set up in these same public facilities.
Vaping is treated the same as cigarettes. This means you can vape wherever smoking is allowed, but not where it is banned.
Food in Japan isn’t cheap, but it is usually of good quality. The dishes are different to the Western diet and for most expats are very much part of the adventure.
The country is blessed with fertile soil in a varied environment which allows all sort of produce to flourish. The long coastlines, large rivers and plentiful lakes provide a bounty of fresh fish of every description.
As a result of this, fish, soybeans, rice and vegetables are at the core of the Japanese diet. And with people in Japan living longer than anywhere else in the world, the diet is thought to be particularly beneficial to human health, as we explored in our article Why Moving To Japan Will Probably Make You Healthier.
With street foods, cheap eateries, high class restaurants and good home cooking, as well as a huge range of regional specialities, there are many variations of traditional food as well as delicious modern recipes absorbed from international dishes to enjoy.
In fact, there is so much variety on offer that we recommend you spend a few minutes reading some of our articles on the subject and enjoying the accompanying pictures.
Alcohol In Japan
Alcohol in many forms is widely enjoyed across Japan. However, if you don’t drink alcohol, you will not cause offence in a home or restaurant by asking for a soft beverage instead.
Festivals are an important aspect of Japanese community life, and alcohol is part of the celebration. UK expat Jonathan suggests that you: “always take the opportunity to join the festivals; someone will come up to you and offer you a beer and a smile.”
Drink driving in Japan is both illegal and culturally unacceptable, meaning people tend to plan ahead. As Portugese expat André Moreira explains: “Although Japanese people drink a lot of alcohol, there is quite a strong sense of responsibility when it comes to driving after drinking. There is a service of professional substitute drivers who you can call to drive you (in your car) home, from the place you had the party, for example. This would be completely unthinkable in Portugal.”
Vegetarian And Vegan Eating In Japan
New Zealander Annabelle now living in Tochigi, enjoys the delicious Japanese dishes, but warns that it can be tough eating outside the home if you don’t eat meat. “Alternative diets aren't big in Japan, and I'd suggest people with allergies be very careful and specific, as Japanese people often have different ideas of things such as what qualifies as meat, at least compared to my Western ideas,” she explains.
Wendy, writing for her blog the Nomadic Vegan recounts the problems she had finding vegan food in Japan and the solutions she came up with. While she was a traveller rather than an expat, the blog demonstrates that the concept of veganism isn’t on the Japanese cultural radar at the present time.
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