EATING OUT IN JAPAN?
5 Things you should know:
Following my recent blog post related to the 5 Things you should absolutely know when visiting Japan for the first time. I have written a follow-up article about the 5 things you should absolutely know when Eating out in Japan. Eating out in Japan is one of the main reason people travel to the country of the rising sun (at least in my world!). Besides the amazing cities, the crazy things to do, the beautiful landscapes or the kindness of Japanese people. Japan is renowned for being the ultimate island of Foodie. Blessed with lots of delicious dishes, superb local ingredients and dedicated chefs. Eating out in Japan is often referred to as a unique uplifting experience, “how the hell is it possible that i didn’t know about all these good delicacies before?” Yes i know…! In this unique country, you will be confronted with many cultural differences, sometime chocking, often pleasing. You need to be aware of some of them in order to ensure a pleasant stay. When it comes to food and restaurants, here are 5 things that you must know to avoid any confusion or bad experience when eating out in Japan.
One thing i need to mention before jumping to these five points is that i won’t be talking about etiquette while eating out in Japan. I will dedicate another blog post on this topic (if not 10! because of the complexity of the subject…).
1- CARRY CASH
As mentioned in my previous article, carrying cash in Japan is something important, especially if you are eating out. I wanted to highlight this rule again as it is one of the first things to remember when eating out. Don’t be that guy aka your dear Blog Author, who considers that the greatest invention in life is the credit card or Apple Pay. It is fine to think that the contactless payment is the seamless way of payment, but sometimes you have to play by the rules. In Japan the rules are super simple, the more traditional the restaurant, the more chances you have that they won’t accept payment by card. The more you are lost somewhere far away in the countryside of Japan, the more chances you have that they won’t accept payment by card. And so on, and so on,… You get the idea.
Tourists-oriented restaurant (i hate this appellation) and fast food chains will usually offer card payment. However the more “authentic” or Japanese restaurant you go to (It is especially true with Izakaya) the more chance you have that they will have a cash-only policy.
Be super cautious about that when you are visiting food markets or food festival in Japan. If you are a food enthusiast, you don’t want to be going from food stalls to stalls and be deceived by the fact that you can’t try anything because you don’t have any on you.
2- ORDERING AT A RESTAURANT? DON’T RELY ON ENGLISH, LEARN SOME JAPANESE FIRST!
I am sure you have been warned about this one before. While the service industry in Japan is an impeccable example of what impeccable would mean in an impeccable world (yes i am fond of their Impeccable high-standard). The only weakness (if we can call that a weakness) is the lack of ability for the Staff to speak proper English. It sounds super cliché i know, but in overall it remains true. It follows the same rule as for the payment by card, the more traditional/authentic/far away from big cities you are, the less chance you have to find someone speaking proper English to take your order
My suggestion, learn some basic vocabulary to manage your order in Japanese. It won’t save you from the
hyroglifics impossible to read Japanese written menu. However, it will help you explain what you wish to order or what you would like to eat.
If you are staying in Tokyo for the whole length of your holidays it should be fine as more and more stores are accustomed to dealing with foreigners (read the 5 reasons why you shouldn’t spend your whole holidays in Japan in Tokyo only!). However, If you intend to travel outside of Tokyo you should learn some simple sentences that will make your life much easier. In all honesty, it is not that complicated and it can save you a lot of misunderstanding and troubles. Speaking a bit of Japanese at a restaurant will also open you many doors, the first one will be the overused “Jouzu desu ne!” with a friendly smile. You can also end up being served extra freebies on the house. It happened to me several times from proud chefs super glad to see a foreigner speaking some Japanese and enjoying local Japanese specialities “What, you can eat raw chicken? Here are some more!”.
3- BE AWARE OF THE OTOSHI AND FORGET ABOUT TIPPING
Picture this scenario: You notice a nice restaurant you want to visit, you enter and are kindly seated at the table, you didn’t ordered anything yet but the staff kindly brings you an appetizer with a lovely smile. Don’t be surprised you’ve just been Otoshised. This small appetizer often comes as a surprise for many foreigners visiting Japan. What is that? I haven’t ordered anything yet, is it on the house or do i have to pay for it?
Well, the Otoshi お通し (or Tsukidashi 突き出し in the Kansai) is an appetizer that the staff will bring you at the beginning of your meal. It is not free, it works as a cover charge and usually costs around a few hundred yens. The Otoshi is imposed on you and simply can’t be refused (don’t even try to argue with the Staff).
Most of the time, you will be faced with Otoshi when eating at Izakaya. There are many reasons behind the Otoshi custom. One of them is related to the people who used to visit Izakaya ordering only a drink and then they would occupy their seat for hours. Izakaya restaurants are small places with limited seating capacity. A seat occupied by someone who slowly seeps on the same beer for hours was a serious loss of profit for the restaurant. It was a way to ensure you would at least order and pay for something to eat (not that you had much choice though). Now the Otoshi has become a general practice that you will experience many times in Japan. Just don’t be surprised.
Fact: The Otoshi appetizer charge is the most common “special” charge that you can encounter in Japan. However, you can also be faced with other charges like the Sekiryou 席料せきりょう literally Seat Charge, or other surprising ones…
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Japan has a strict no tipping policy. You will never be required to tip the staff whether it is while eating out or taking a Taxi. Your tip will be refused, and don’t even try to insist because you had an amazing time, it will be considered really rude.
There is an exception to this rule however it is a very specific and organised custom, it is not something you should worry about for your first time in Japan.
4- YOU CAN BE REFUSED THE ENTRY TO SOME RESTAURANTS
I hear you scream already… What’s that? Yes, As crazy as it sounds, in Japan, some restaurants have a strict policy and if you are not a regular or look like an ill-behaved foreigner you will be refused the entry.
There are several reasons explaining why some restaurants refuse the access to unknown foreigners or have a regular-only policy.
For the most simple yet confusing reason, it is all about harmony. Traditional joints or small Izakaya will refuse you the access to avoid unnecessary troubles. What I mean by that is that they are afraid of not being able to serve you right as they don’t speak English and anticipate that you don’t speak Japanese. Also one of the reason could be that they don’t want the regulars to feel stressed out by foreigners who might not know how to behave… It happened to me several times. What usually happens is that they will politely tell you with a friendly smile that a) they are closed even though you can see many customers being served food b) they are closing soon and can’t take any new orders (yes, even when you have checked the opening time prior visiting…). It happens and it is annoying but we just have to deal with it. It is not discrimination, it is Harmony they say…
Some high-end restaurants also forbid the access to first-timers whether you are a foreigner or a Japanese. It means that if you are not a regular, or if a regular does not introduce you, you won’t be able to access nor booke a table at the restaurant.
Amongst many reasons, one of the explanations for this is because of some bad behaviours in the past. People would get a booking for a high-end restaurant with little seating capacity and they wouldn’t show up. It is rude for the staff and also means that someone else could have benefited from this seat or table (think about restaurants with a waiting list of a few months if not years…).
To prevent this type of behaviour many restaurants decided to refuse the access to non-regular.
Nowadays, you can try to use a special concierge service or the reception of your hotel (preferably a renowned one) to book a seat in one of those restaurants. You will find specialised websites such as Pocket-Concierge or Tableall who can book tables for certain restaurants on your behalf. However, some restaurants will simply refuse you the access if they don’t know you well enough or if you haven’t been introduced by a regular. In the end, unless you know the right people, it will be you and your luck.
One last point is related to your knowledge of Japanese cuisine and customs. Let me explain: Feeling nervous about eating sushi in front of Kobayashi Jiro? Think about how you would feel and behave yourself at a two hours length Kaiseki meal, eating in front of one the best and most demanding chefs in Japan. You will probably have no ideas of what ingredient is being served to you or how this dish is supposed to be eaten, and so on… Sometimes you are just not ready for the experience yet.
Think of it as enjoying something like the Opera. You need to be a connoisseur to be able to truly appreciate and understand the three hours long La Traviata. It is the same here. Some restaurants will want to serve their food to savvy eaters who will know how to savour their cuisine. Sadly for us, these high-end restaurants are often cited as la creme de la creme of Japanese food and Kaiseki cuisine. The kind of restaurants who refuse Michelin Star to remain true to their spirit and cooking.
As frustrating as it might seem, it is a good reminder that, in Japan, food is not only seen as a Business; It is sometimes something more profound where the dedication of a skilful chef meets the expectation of really demanding food enthusiasts.
5- QUEUEING IS THE NATIONAL SPORT WHEN EATING OUT
Queuing in Japan is considered an Olympic sport. Your patience will be tested on many occasions from shopping to eating out. If you target a famous or well-rated restaurant you can already expect a queue upon arrival. It is some king of holy principle dictated by the God of food in Japan: Thus shall queue where good food is. Everybody knows that. Once you have visited Japan for the first time, you will be familiar with that too.
Don’t get me wrong, we are not talking about a ten-minute queue. In fact, it starts usually from fifteen to twenty minutes (if you are super lucky) to more than two hours. The worst part is that you will probably play the game as everyone else. Queuing has this group “snowball effect” where everybody follows everybody, people queuing in line attract other peoples in search of a promising place for delicious food.
This phenomenon is not reserved for a specific type of restaurant or any kind of food in particular. From high-end restaurants, cheap Udon joint, sweets shop or bakery. Where good food is served you can expect to queue. In cities like Tokyo with a population over 13 million inhabitants and a strong culture of eating out, there are no shortcuts when it comes to mouthwatering food.
The good news is, 99.9% of the time queuing will be worth it and you should be blown away by the quality of the food.