Japanese dining etiquette (Part 1)

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Whenever you travel to a country, it is important to learn somethings about their culture, lifestyle, traditions. Here are some basic etiquettes when you have a meal in Japan.

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Tables and sitting

Many restaurants and homes in Japan are equipped with Western-style chairs and tables. However, traditional Japanese low tables and cushions, usually found on tatami floors, are also very common. Tatami mats, which are made of straw, can be easily damaged and are hard to clean, thus shoes or any type of footwear are always taken off when stepping on tatami floors.

When dining in a traditional tatami room, sitting upright on the floor is common. In a casual setting, men usually sit with their feet crossed and women sit with both legs to one side. Only men are supposed to sit cross-legged. The formal way of sitting for both sexes is a kneeling style known as seiza. To sit in a seiza position, one kneels on the floor with legs folded under the thighs and the buttocks resting on the heels.

Seiza position via Reddit

When dining out in a restaurant, the customers are guided to their seats by the host. The honored or eldest guest will usually be seated at the center of the table farthest from the entrance. In the home, the most important guest is also seated farthest away from the entrance. If there is a tokonoma, or alcove, in the room, the guest is seated in front of it. The host sits next to or closest to the entrance.

Itadakimasu and Gochisōsama

In Japan, it is customary to say itadakimasu (“I [humbly] receive”) before starting to eat a meal. When saying itadakimasu, both hands are put together in front of the chest or on the lap. Itadakimasu is preceded by complimenting the appearance of food. The Japanese attach as much importance to the aesthetic arrangement of the food as its actual taste. Before touching the food, it is polite to compliment the host on his artistry. It is also a polite custom to wait for the eldest guest at the table to start eating before the other diners start. Another customary and important etiquette is to say go-chisō-sama deshita (“It was a feast”) to the host after the meal and the restaurant staff when leaving.

A Japanese meal via www.sumiyoshi-ryokan.com

Hot towels

Before eating, most dining places provide either a hot or cold towel or a plastic-wrapped wet napkin (o-shibori). This is for cleaning hands before eating (and not after). It is rude to use them to wash the face or any part of the body other than the hands, though some Japanese men use their o-shibori to wipe their faces in less formal places. Accept o-shibori with both hands when handed the towel by a server. When finished, fold or roll up the oshibori and place it on the table. It is impolite to use o-shibori towels to wipe any spills on the table.

Bowls

The rice or the soup is eaten by picking up the bowl with the left hand and using chopsticks (hashi) with the right, or vice versa if one is left-handed. Traditionally, chopsticks were held in the right hand and the bowl in the left. Japanese children were taught to distinguish left from right as “the right hand holds the chopsticks, the left hand holds the bowl” – but left-handed eating is acceptable today. Bowls may be lifted to the mouth, but should not be touched by the mouth except when drinking soup. The Japanese customarily slurp noodle soup dishes like ramen, udon, and soba. When slurping noodles quickly, the soup clings to the noodles, making the dish more flavourful.

(to be continued)

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