Eating Sushi In Japan: Everything you Need to Know

Eating sushi in Japan is a dream for many but there are a lot of behaviors and subtle expectations in terms of how you act that will need to be observed.

How do you eat sushi in Japan? Firstly, you really need to mind your manners here because the Japanese have a lot of subtle and nuanced rules that are observed but never spoken about. In sushi bars, for example, it is extremely rude to refuse the dish that is served to you by the chef so unless you are allergic to it, you need to eat it.

There are many expectations of diners when in Japan including minding other diners, and that’s just the beginning.

Sushi Etiquettes in Japan

There are certain etiquettes that you will need to observe while you are in Japan and it is worth noting that these etiquettes are not just for show. Most of it is all about maintaining harmony and enjoyment in the dining establishment, both for the diners and the staff. After all, the Japanese place a lot of emphasis on courtesy.

Unlike in the West, where customers can act like complete jerks all they want and only the staff are held responsible for keeping the peace, this is not the case in Japan. You will basically be setting yourself against everyone else if you ruin the mood, especially if there are a lot of diners there. Not that they will take drastic measures if it isn’t yet necessary.

What you will want to remember, though, is that Japan values:

·         Tradition

·         Respect

·         Courtesy

·         Quality of service

·         Quality of food

·         Pride in their accomplishments

·         Social harmony

From those alone, you can probably already see how eating in a traditional Japanese restaurant can come with certain stipulations that might have never even crossed your mind. This is why it is important for you to make sure that you are actually informed about how you should act. You don’t want to start causing offense without even knowing it.

To that end, as long as you keep to the etiquettes included in the table below, you should be just fine. After all, the Japanese do tend to leave some leeway for foreigners, so you don’t need to know all of the rules.

Be friendlyAs you enter a sushi restaurant, you are expected to greet the staff after they greet you, so don’t be afraid to be friendly and nod your head or say a greeting
Speak with courtesyWhen asking questions, suggestions, or placing your order, you must always speak to the staff with courtesy, preferably with a smile and while looking them in the face
No loud noisesYou should not make loud noises in the sushi restaurant or bar, either via talking or laughing since this is rude to both the other customers and the staff
Know what to order whereIf you are at a sushi restaurant with a bar, the tables are where you can order other food items while the counter is only meant for ordering sushi
Don’t question the freshnessNever ever ask if the food is fresh either to the staff or the chef serving you at the counter since they will take offense to this
Be informedBeing familiar with the different kinds of sushi that you can get and know which you can eat will help you avoid leaving food on your plate
No leftoversThe Japanese are a very conscientious people when it comes to food and they think that it is highly offensive when you leave food uneaten
Use a wash towelIn many sushi places in Japan, you will be offered hot towels to clean your hands with, so use those and then fold them afterward
No rubbing of chopsticksYou might have seen it done on TV or in movies, but you must never rub chopsticks together in a sushi restaurant because this would imply that you think their chopsticks are cheap
Seasonal sushiIt is encouraged for you to order the seasonal or special sushi that is available in the sushi restaurant for that day simply because the staff would have put in more effort for it
Hands or chopsticks?You must only ever eat sushi with your hands or chopsticks, with hands being encouraged for sushi and chopsticks being required for sashimi
Hands to yourselfTry to avoid getting food that is already on someone else’s plate and instead wait for them to offer you the plate itself
Pickled ginger cleanserYou should not place a piece of pickled ginger on a piece of sushi and eat them together because you are meant to eat the pickled ginger after every bite of sushi
Offer a drink to the sushi chefWhen ordering sake at the bar, it is considered a good thing for you to offer a cup to the sushi chef that serving you to show your appreciation for their efforts
Plate when sharing, not a pieceIf you are the one who wants to share food with others, you must do so by offering the plate and not by picking up the food with the chopsticks and offering it to them that way
No chopstick stickingIt cannot be said enough times that sticking your chopsticks in rice or any food items if you are having trouble using them correctly is considered to be highly offensive
No belchingWhile other Japanese restaurants might consider belching to be a sign of gratitude and appreciation, this is just not the case in a sushi restaurant and must be avoided at all costs
Show gratitudeWhen you are done with your meal, it is very important to thank the sushi chef and the staff for their service and to leave a tip if you can manage it

The number of items on that list might seem intimidating, but they are really no more strenuous than what you would normally be doing. If you are any kind of a civilized human being, you are already conducting yourself in an upright manner through way more rules and practices than listed there. Once you get used to them, you will be doing them unconsciously.

The important thing is to just remember that be nice. Then again, this is easier said than done, so let’s look into all of those points one at a time, shall we?

Courtesy – Courtesy is a big part of Japanese culture and not just in a shallow, superficial, or empty way like it can be in many other places. It is deeply ingrained into who they are as people and extends to pretty much every facet of their lives. This is why it is to your advantage to greet the staff after they have greeted you and to be as nice to them as possible.

Noise – You should keep your noise levels to a minimum when you are eating at a Japanese sushi restaurant or bar in Japan. This is to ensure that when you are going to have a pleasant time along with the other customers and the staff. Do not talk too loud, do not laugh out loud, and you should certainly avoid raising your voice at either the staff or other people.

Order – When you order, you have to do so in the right places and to the right people. You do not go up to a sushi bar and order ramen if they are offering such an item. This is what the waiting staff is for and you are likely to get a nasty stare for your troubles. The sushi bar is only for sushi and liquor, which is pretty much true to its name.

Fresh Questions – It is only natural for you to be concerned about freshness when you are eating at a place that serves raw food. However, you must never ever ask the chef at a sushi bar if the food he just served you is fresh. In Japan, they pay particular emphasis on that kind of thing and the chefs there are known for being quite particular in maintaining the quality of their food.

Knowledge – Then we have the question of knowledge, which is important for you to have when you are going into a sushi restaurant. At the very least, you should conduct preliminary research into the types of food that are served in the establishment that you are thinking of going to. Ideally, you should be aware of what types of sushi are served in which area.

This will save you the trouble of popping something in your mouth only to find that you are either allergic to it or that you find it repulsive. Both cases are certainly not ideal.

Leftovers – One of the worst things that you can do in a Japanese restaurant is to leave leftovers regardless of the reason for it. This is because the people in the Asian are culturally sensitive to food and sustenance, in general, which explains the phrase “itadakimasu” that they say before eating. It basically means thank you for the meal and conveys their gratitude for the food.

If you have leftovers, this means that you didn’t appreciate the food enough to finish it or enough to consider just how much you are going to order. To really express your gratitude and avoid offending the restaurant staff, order only what you can finish or finish the food that you ordered.

Wash Towel – It is a fairly common practice in the food industry to provide diners with a hot towel to wipe their hands and fingers with, and this is done in sushi restaurants as well. You need to make sure that you actually fold the towels once you are done, though, since this will be easier to collect and will involve less of a mess.

Rubbing Chopsticks – While it has been shown in movies, TV shows, and even described in literary works, rubbing chopsticks together can be quite the rude gesture. This is one of those things that you might have gotten the habit of doing in Asian restaurants in the west, but it should be avoided at all costs in Japan.

When you rub chopsticks together, this is to remove splinters that might have occurred when you split it. However, such an occurrence is only common among cheap chopsticks. Most sushi restaurants in Japan will have excellent chopsticks that you would be able to safely use. There is no need for you to rub them together since there will be no splinters to remove.

Seasonal Items – When eating at an authentic sushi restaurant in Japan, don’t be afraid to order for the season special items. There are certain fruits, vegetables, and fish that are only available during certain times of the year where they will be at their best quality. Chefs take great pride in being able to serve these types of food items so you are encouraged to ask for them.

Hands or Chopsticks – On the matter of chopsticks again, you should know that most traditional sushi chefs in Japan insist on the use of your fingers when eating sushi. This applies mostly to nigiri and hand rolls, but maki sushi is consumed in the same fashion. On the other hand, if you are going to eat sashimi, you should only use chopsticks and never your hands.

In both cases, it is advised that you avoid using spoons and forks.

Hands to Yourself – It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is that you avoid getting food from other people’s plates. Even if you say that you are a paying customer and you have every right to act as you please on your table, this does not work that well in Japan as it does in the west. You must wait for others to give you food and it must be given to you on a plate.

Pickled Ginger – A lot of people don’t really understand what the pickled ginger is about and this is not necessarily unexpected. After all, pickled ginger is one of those exotic food items that are not regularly consumed in the west. For the right way to consume this particular food item, you eat a piece of it after every piece of sushi.

It will cleanse your palate, thus making you ready to sample the next piece of sushi. You will then be able to appreciate the taste of the sushi better.

Chef Toast – When you are eating at a sushi bar, you may notice that the chef making the sushi is able to drink sake or other types of alcohol from time to time. This is basically a way to connect with the chef and to express your appreciation for their work. It’s equivalent to giving them praise or to share your blessing with them by buying them a drink.

Sharing – Speaking of sharing your blessings, you are allowed to share your food with your fellow diners, but there are rules to follow. First, it must be given to them on a plate, preferably one that you have not been eating out of. Secondly, you should avoid sharing food with diners who did not come with you into the restaurant. That will just make them uncomfortable.

Chopstick Sticking – From there, we have the dreaded issue of sticking your chopsticks into your food when you can’t really use chopsticks properly. This might look cute in TV programs where the main character doesn’t know how to use the dining tools, but it will not come off that way in real life.

If you are eating sushi, it is infinitely preferable that you use your fingers when you can’t use sushi. If worse comes to worst, you can ask for a fork, but you should only do this in restaurants where they already offer such utensils. Try to avoid doing this in a traditional sushi bar.

Belching – the matter of belching is a complicated affair in Asia where it is a compliment in some places while a rude gesture in others. In Japan, belching is divided between types of restaurants. In places where the food includes ramen, grilled meats, and the like, belching is a sign of appreciation.

In sushi restaurants, however, such a gesture is not advised. It will be taken as an uncivilized behavior and will not be appreciated by the staff. Just to be safe, just don’t belch. Just leave a generous tip.

Gratitude – Finally, you must always express your gratitude to both the staff and the chef when you are done eating. On top of saying thank you, it also never hurts for you to praise their food by saying that it was delicious. Even if you were not that impressed by it, such a gesture would be highly valued by the workers.

Why Eat Sushi in Japan?

With sushi being pretty much everywhere these days and even the smallest cities in the least industrialized countries have some form of sushi or another, why go to Japan? Why would you bother flying or cruising all the way to this country only to eat a dish that can be found practically all over the world? This would be like asking why to go on a Safari or why to go to beaches in Hawaii.

The answer has to do with experiencing something great for yourself.

Yes, sushi can be found in many places. There are even some sushi restaurants outside of Japan that can compete with among the best that the country has to offer. However, by and large, the sushi that you will find in this dish’s country of origin will still be better.

Even in sushi bars that are not considered high-class in Japan would serve sushi dishes that could put most sushi restaurants in the west to shame. A lot of this has to do with authenticity and the quality of the ingredients used. Pretty much everything that the chef puts on the plate is quintessentially Japanese, which helps with the taste, texture, aroma, and mouthfeel.

When you eat sushi in a sushi bar in Japan, you don’t even have to wonder if what you are eating is actually sushi. You just know that it is and you can revel at the moment. In the west, there can be that voice at the back of your mind telling you that you are not actually eating the thing that you think you are eating.

There is this palpable sense of wonder and relief that comes with being able to eat something that you won’t have to second guess.

Why Observe Sushi Etiquette in Japan?

If you are eating sushi in Japan, you will need to observe the appropriate etiquettes but as someone who is coming from the west where capitalism trumps traditionalism, why even bother? Why would you go through the trouble of observing behavior that isn’t even yours instead of just eating sushi however you please?

Well, apart from the fact that this would be incredibly rude, you need to understand that part of enjoying the sushi experience has to do with the atmosphere. It is as much about the moment as it is about food. This is why sushi chefs and sushi bars bother with the pageantry of assembling the sushi right in front of you.

It can almost be considered a communal event where you eat and enjoy the dish in a place where you are allowed to do so without prejudice. You don’t really even need to talk to anyone during that time. You are just in the moment to enjoy the quality of the food you are eating.

From beginning to end, the pleasant atmosphere is maintained and once you are done, you can walk away with a good memory of your time there. Of course, this is provided you are not a complete psychopath who revels in pissing people off by ridiculing their customs and their efforts.

Related Questions

Does Wasabi Kill Bacteria

Wasabi is a known antiseptic and antibacterial substance, which can help reduce bacterial infection and even inflammation in the gut. This is why it is often considered a healthy food item that can help regulate your digestion and bowel movement. Just don’t apply it to your wounds, though.

Is It Rude to Mix Wasabi and Soy Sauce?

Those who love to eat sushi and have done so in the west have developed the habit of mixing wasabi with soy sauce. However, this is simply not done in sushi restaurants or bars in Japan. Wasabi is instead added to the sushi during the assembly or you can add it to the sushi before eating.

Is Sushi in Japan Better Than Sushi Abroad?

Sushi has already reached worldwide acclaim with the traditional Japanese dish finding a home in the hearts of many food enthusiasts all over the globe. It is popular both among the rich and the poor, though there is still the matter of accessibility to consider. What you really need to consider, however, is authenticity.

While there are many examples of sushi restaurants abroad gaining quite a bit of acclaim, the very best sushi restaurants are still found in Japan. This is because of the simple fact that the chefs who work or own these restaurants have spent a significant part of their lives honing their craft. The products they put on the plate are the results of decades of practice.

So, if we only regard skills, quality of ingredients, authenticity, and presentation, it can be safely said that the very best sushi in Japan is still better than the very best abroad. There is just no getting around that and this is without becoming too strict when it comes to the definition of the dish. Of course, the taste is always subjective so it is up to the consumers to decide this.

How to Find Good Sushi in Japan?

You might think that it would be challenging to find good sushi in Japan, but unlike many other places, quality can be found in pretty much any corner of this country. In major cities, for example, some of the very best restaurants can be found in train stations or airports. As soon as you disembark, you are within walking distance of some truly delicious sushi dishes.

On that note, if you are more interested in specific areas where you can find truly amazing sushi, you will want to go to a few places. You want to go to Tokyo for accessibility, Okinawa for actual authenticity, and Kyoto for some interesting local twists. These three places will change how you think of sushi, especially if you visit them all one after the other.

Just remember that even in Japan, there can be many interpretations of sushi. Some go all the way on the raw fish part while others prefer the smoked, cured, or cooked kind. The point is that no matter where you go, you are experiencing real Japanese sushi. For sushi lovers, there can be no better experience than that, which makes visiting Japan worth it.

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