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:
“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.
“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.
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.
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.