Japanese Restaurants: How Do They Work?

Spicy Ramen

This isn’t an etequitte lesson. This driving school, how to get in and out of a Japanese restaurant with no problems. Problems, after all, can spoil a good meal, and we want to enjoy our food without worrying about procedure. Japanese restaurants aren’t as strict as the soup Nazi–no soup for you!–but they are different.

One of my first experiences at a Japanese restaurant went like this:

I enter.

“Nanmeisama deska?” the waitress asks. How many guests?

I know the word for one, even with the appropriate counter for people. But I’m still not confident in my Japanese, so I just hold up one finger.

“Tabakowo suwarimaska?”

“Ie.” No, I do not smoke.

She leads me to the bar, which isn’t so much a bar as a shelf attached to the wall, a cot against a ship’s hull.

Having chosen the restaurant because of nothing more than what I thought was the “authentic Japanese” architecture, I open the menu to see what kind of place I had walked into. Judging by the pictures I guess it is an everything restaurant. (It was an Izakaya, which is like a pub.)  Besides sushi I’m in complete virgin territory regarding Japanese food, but before I can decide the waitress returns with a hot hand towel. I accept and she goes away.

After a few more minutes of flipping through the menu I choose and wait for her to return to take my order.

Ten minutes later she still hasn’t come. This is an hour break in my initial training, so I wait five minutes more and decide I don’t have time for this. I get up and leave, angry, because I didn’t know that I was supposed to:

1) Ask to place your order. When you come in waiters will either show you to your seat or just make a vague gesture and tell you “sukina o-seki dozo” (please take the seat you want.) After offering you a warm hand towel, or not, they will then leave you alone.

A “sumimasen” (meaning excuse me, in this case, though it usually means sorry) is needed to bring them to your table. Many restaurants also have buttons to press for service.

Japanese Restaurant Button

Others, using typical Japanese efficiency, don’t even waste time taking your order, not when there’s a convenient ticket-vending machine outside. Many of these machines look pretty shoddy, but don’t let the cheapness of the hardware turn you off. Some of the best meals in Japan begin with the push of a button. Remember, you came for the food, not the technology.

Japanese Restaurant Ticket Machine

2) Tell the staff when you are finished by saying either “Gososamadeshta” (a polite, ritualistic expression meaning roughly “thank you for the meal/it was satisfying”) or “Sumimasen, O-kaikei kudasai” (Excuse me, check please.) Because while many major restaurants lay your receipt on the table before you finish you’re meal, some local ones don’t. Either way, you have to… 

3) Go the register to pay. I’ve never been somewhere they took care of the check at the table. So take your receipt and bring it up to the front. After that…

4) Don’t Tip. For anything in Japan. Ever.

Bonus! Larger restaurants have smoking/non smoking sections, but many smaller ones don’t. This doesn’t mean the whole restaurant is smoke free, quite the opposite. Smokers can smoke wherever they want. This may be good or bad, depending on your preference.

So now you that know how-to, you can avoid those “what now?” moments. Well, it’s Japan, and you’ll have some anyway, but at least not with this. Good eats.

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12 Comments on “Japanese Restaurants: How Do They Work?”

  1. Artemis
    July 1, 2013 at 1:30 am #

    I think I had a slight advantage as a newbie in Japan when it came to restaurants, since some of the same rules apply in New Zealand (specifically you always pay at the cash register and we don’t have a tipping culture). The vending machine ticket thing threw me at first, although thinking about it now, I’ve had some of the best ramen in my life from these places.

    • introvertnathan
      July 1, 2013 at 2:04 am #

      I didn’t know that about NZ. I’ll remember that when I eventually make a trip there. But yeah, I think vending machine=great ramen.

  2. samokan
    July 1, 2013 at 2:07 am #

    I remember the time, my friend and I felt adventurous and tried one restaurant underneath the railway in Ueno. There were no menu except the ones on the wall, of course everything was in Kanji, so we drag the waiter( a very nice old lady) outside the restaurant where they have the food display and pointed at it. The old folks were very curious with, 2 foreign girls and they tried to explain the menu with their broken English.

    • introvertnathan
      July 1, 2013 at 2:15 am #

      Lol. I guess that’s one way to do it!

      • samokan
        July 1, 2013 at 7:16 am #

        yes, it work really well. they are much forgiving to us foreigners. I did again, a few months ago lol …

  3. AnnaSan
    July 1, 2013 at 2:33 am #

    I’m totally down with the no tipping! Ordering however is going to be quite an adventure… Maybe I’ll just stick to vending machines. ^^; *wears chicken hat*

    • introvertnathan
      July 1, 2013 at 2:41 am #

      Haha, got some bad news for you there. Most vending machines use kanji, so it can be quite difficult to order if you can’t read it. Most (but not all) menus though, have pictures, so you can just point. It’s actually pretty easy!

  4. rose2852
    July 1, 2013 at 3:24 am #

    We baulked at the first vending machine because we weren’t sure what we were ordering, let alone knowing how much to pay for it. Eventually plucked up the courage to try one at Kyoto Station and passed the audition. We did walk out of one restaurant, however, in Matsue because there were no pictures and no English spoken. Next time I visit I will come armed with a) more Japanese words in my vocabulary and b) a translater machine!

    • introvertnathan
      July 1, 2013 at 3:58 am #

      Haha. Yeah, menus with no pictures can be a challenge. I speak a decent amount of Japanese, but don’t know much kanji. I often have to interrogate the servers about what’s on the menu. “What’s this say? What’s that say?” But they’re usually quite nice about it.


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