The Ultimate Guide to Sushi Etiquette


Eating sushi can be a complicated affair, especially if you are at a traditional restaurant in japan, with the dish being made by an actual sushi chef.

What are the etiquettes of eating sushi? There are many, but the main ones include eating sushi with your hands, using the right condiments, observing proper table manners, and how to treat the staff. There are also other unspoken rules such as not rubbing chopsticks together and not ordering certain beverages.

While not observing these rules are not exactly a death sentence, you would not only be ruining your own experience but that of everyone else, so you need to understand them.

Essential Sushi Etiquettes You Should Know

When it comes to eating sushi at general restaurants where other food items are on offer, there really isn’t much you need to know. As long as you eat the sushi without making a messing or bothering the other diners, you will be fine. However, it’s a different matter when you are eating at an authentic Japanese restaurant or sushi bars.

Eating at these kinds of places puts a huge burden of responsibility on you to act in a certain manner. This means watching what you do, what you say, and how you eat. Since you are a foreigner, you are not expected to master all the subtleties that the Japanese have with regards to how they dine. However, you are expected to be familiar with the etiquettes included in the table below:

EtiquetteDescription
Sushi TypesYou should be familiar with the most common sushi types, at the very least.
Hands or ChopsticksIf you can eat with your hands and fingers, that’s good, but most sushi restaurants these days don’t mind if you use chopsticks. Just don’t rub them together.
Soy SauceGo easy when you dip your sushi on soy sauce and never drizzle it on top of your sushi.
WasabiIf you don’t like wasabi, quietly inform the server or the chef beforehand. Do not leave wasabi behind.
ConsumptionYou do not take bites out of sushi. You eat it whole.
ArrangementThere is often an order to eating sushi, starting with the mildest fish to the strongest in flavor. You can try the omakase course, which is what the chef would recommend.
SpeedYou don’t need to wolf down the sushi, but don’t dawdle either. It’s rude to eat sushi slowly.
Palate cleanserYou can have tea with your sushi if you want, as well as sake. However, the best palate cleanser when eating sushi will always be the pickled ginger.
LeftoversNever leave anything on your plate when eating sushi. Other than being deathly allergic to an ingredient, you need to finish everything.
SeatingWhen eating as a group, you can use a table. When eating alone, always eat at the counter.
PhotosNever take photos of the restaurant or the staff without asking for permission first.
OutfitAlways dress appropriately. Casual outfits are fine but avoid looking like you are just eating at home.
Stay durationOnce you are done eating, leave immediately. Never stay for too long.
SmokingNever smoke in sushi restaurants.
NoisesDo not make loud noises or laugh raucously, regardless of whether the restaurant is full or empty.
Chopstick placementUsing chopstick rests when you are done eating. Never leave them on your plate.

Your journey towards an authentic Japanese sushi experience actually doesn’t begin when you sit down to eat. The moment you decided that you want to have that kind of dining condition, you are already in the field. In terms of the stages with which you need to keep etiquette in mind, the following should give you an idea:

·         When you make your reservations

·         When you enter the restaurant

·         When you speak to the staff

·         When you choose your seats

·         When you take your seats

·         When you speak to the chef

·         When you place your order

·         When you wait for your order

·         When you eat the food

·         When you thank the staff for the food

·         When you pay for the food

·         When you leave

In every single one of those stages, you are expected to act in a certain manner. This is why you need to do research beforehand so that you won’t make embarrassing mistakes.

Sushi Types

With regard to the types of sushi that you need to remember, there really are only a few that you need to keep in mind. These include the following:

·         Nigiri – rice ball or block with toppings.

·         Makizushi or maki – roll with the nori forming the outer layer.

·         Gunkanmaki – similar to nigiri but wrapped with nori.

These are the types of sushi that you are going to find at authentic sushi restaurants. The other kinds that you will find at other, less rigorous establishments are considered to be offshoots, of sorts. As such, you can’t really expect to find them at more traditional establishments.

The Hand/Chopstick Dilemma

The matter of having to choose between the chopstick or your hands when eating sushi is something that is a bit complicated to tackle. The best way to decide is to simply stick to your preference. However, if you want the more purist route in enjoying sushi, using your fingers is the way to go.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that the more traditional the restaurant you go to, the less this becomes an option. Some of the best sushi masters in Japan will expect you to eat with your fingers, but they won’t go so far as to reprimand you if you don’t. You simply want to do this to show your respect and appreciation of their craft.

In less rigid establishments, you can eat with chopsticks. However, already mentioned, you must not rub them together after breaking them apart. Doing so will signal contempt at the staff since you are basically telling them that their utensils are cheap and dirty.

Also, after you are done eating, place the chopsticks on the chopstick rest. This is similar to how you should place your glass on a coaster when you are a guest at someone else’s house. It’s a show of respect.

Condiments/Sides

You will inevitably be given condiments and sides when you are eating sushi. The most usual of these are soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger. Eating them properly is extremely important in making sure that you are getting the etiquette right.

In the case of soy sauce, you need to dip each sushi lightly so that it doesn’t overwhelm the taste of the rice, fish, and other ingredients. You must never drizzle soy sauce on your plate of sushi either unless you want to experience major passive-aggressiveness.

As for wasabi, you must tell the staff or the chef that you don’t want it on your sushi beforehand. They will understand and would much prefer that you do this rather than you leaving leftovers on the plate. With regards to the pickled ginger, you should eat it in-between each bite of sushi. This will cleanse your palate so you can enjoy the next bite.

Eating Sushi

When you have finally sat down to eat and placed your order, your first concern must be to eat every single piece of the whole. You do not nibble on sushi. You do not take small bites out of them either. This is considered unsightly for the chef and the other diners.

You must also make sure to eat every piece as they are given to you. This is especially important in traditional sushi bars where you are given every piece individually by the chef as they form them. The previous piece must not be there by the time the next piece is ready for serving.

Finally, once your orders are complete and you are done eating, you must settle your bill and leave immediately. Do not hang around since there could be others waiting for their turn to sit in your place. In many cases, locals will be ready to leave just as the last piece is served.

Entering Sushi Bars

If you know ahead of time that you are entering a traditional sushi bar, you must prepare accordingly. First off, you should call ahead of time and see if you need to make a reservation. Do not assume that you can just get in, especially if it is a popular establishment.

You must also pay attention to your appearance when entering a sushi restaurant. This means dressing up in a manner that shows respect to the establishment. So no cargo shorts and sleeveless shorts, please. You might also want to do some grooming, while you are at it since filthy hair and beard can ruin other people’s dining experiences.

You must also not wear overpowering cologne or other scents. In sushi dining, the sense of smell is an incredibly important part of the whole experience. Your odor could interfere with that enjoyment and you don’t want to bother other diners, do you?

When coming in as a group, you should sit at a table. When coming in alone, you should sit at a bar. This is only polite since you don’t want to occupy one table that is meant for four and deny group diners space they could have used. This is highly frowned upon in Japan and is considered one of the worst types of discourtesies.

Finally, you should neither smoke nor make loud noises in the restaurant. Smoking might be fine in Japan, but this doesn’t mean that you should do it where fresh food is being served. You should also be mindful of other diners who can hear you talking loud or laughing.

Photos and Videos

Sushi restaurants are well-aware that this is the age of social media and rampant self-promotions via photos or videos. As such, virtually all sushi establishments allow you to take pictures or stream your experiences via Facebook and the like. However, you must ask the staff beforehand if this is okay.

If you are eating at the counter, you should ask the chef if it’s okay for you to take photos or videos, especially if their faces are going to be included. You should know that there are extremely traditional establishments that don’t allow this practice, as well. If you choose to eat at one of those, just forget about being able to take photos.

Should Sushi Be Eaten with Hands?

The matter of eating sushi with your hands has already been briefly discussed before, but it is worth diving deeper into this topic so that you understand what it is about. Simply put, when sushi was first invented back in the late 1800s, it was considered finger food.

Basically, it was treated the same was as onigiri, which is the famous Japanese rice balls that are wrapped with nori and can come in many versatile flavors. In any case, it was basically intended to fulfill the same purposes and as such, it was eaten with the hands.

Eventually, when sushi became more popular worldwide, the trend of eating sushi with chopsticks began to catch on. This was largely due to foreigners who believed that all foods made by the Japanese are supposed to be eaten with the utensils. Even now, there are still many who are under the impression that the Japanese don’t use spoons or their hands to eat.

On that note, this practice has also become normalized, even in Japan. While most chefs would admit that they would prefer if diners ate sushi with their fingers, this is not strictly enforced. Rather, it is up to the diner to make it a point to follow this traditional practice when eating sushi. Of course, this would require you knowing about the etiquette beforehand.

With regards to the actual experience, you might be thinking if there is any difference between eating with your fingers or eating with chopsticks. The answer is yes, but only in how they are done. For example, when eating with your hands, you must use the towel given to you to wash your fingers. Once you are done, you are supposed to ask for another towel.

As for the chopsticks, the no rubbing rule was already discussed and the same goes for putting the chopsticks on the chopstick rest rule. However, you should also avoid making noises with your chopsticks by beating them together or hitting them on a surface.

If you are not used to using chopsticks, you might be tempted to skewer the sushi with them, but you should never do this. As far as food crimes go, this is one of the most serious in Japanese culture. If it comes to the point where you can’t pick up the sushi with the sticks, just use your fingers instead. You would be making the far safer choice by doing so.

At this point, you might be wondering if you can eat sushi with a spoon and fork, and I can tell you that this would be completely unacceptable when you are at a traditional restaurant. Even assuming that such utensils are even available for you to use, the disapproval would be palpable.

You might be able to get away with this in less rigid establishments where the money is the main concern for the staff and owners. However, most traditional sushi bars or restaurants are often run by people who are obsessed with their craft and practices. They will not tolerate any shenanigans.

Are You Supposed to Put Wasabi On Sushi?

In most high-class sushi restaurants, the chef will put a little bit of wasabi in each and every piece of sushi unless told otherwise. As such, if you don’t want wasabi on your sushi, you will need to tell the chef in advance. On that point, however, are you supposed to put wasabi on sushi? The answer is yes, and here’s why that is.

Simply put, wasabi is a condiment that will make the various flavors that can be found in the sushi much more pronounced. It does this by basically stimulated all of your senses, including your taste, feel, and smell. This green paste also makes you salivate more, does increase the level of intensity of the sensations.

On that note, you do have to be careful with the amount that you use. Wasabi is incredibly strong even when you just have a few pinpricks, so don’t even think about trying a finger width’s worth if you know what’s good for you. With the right amount, though, your sushi dining experience can be enhanced significantly and you will enjoy the act of eating the traditional dish even more.

There are also other benefits to eating wasabi such as good digestion, excretion, and even fighting infections. However, the main reason for eating it with sushi has to do with the enjoyment of the dish. Once you get used to wasabi, you will also start craving it if you are eating sushi.

It’s a bit like scotch or whiskey in that it is an acquired taste. Once you do get a taste for it, you are going to want to have it every chance you get. This is why the Japanese like to add wasabi in a variety of different dishes that might not be known among western diners who are familiar with only a few dishes from the country.

On that note, if you really don’t want wasabi on your sushi or served alongside your plate, then you need to tell the staff or the chef in advance. Try to do it as quietly as possible, as well, because it’s just good manners to do that.

In some cases, the staff will also recommend some alternatives to wasabi such as a weakened combination of horseradish and mustard. However, if you insist on enjoying your sushi as is, they won’t pester you. At the end of the day, sushi restaurants want you to enjoy their products and they won’t impose any unreasonable conditions on you so that you will be able to do so.

Related Questions

How to Eat Ginger with Sushi

The pickled ginger that usually comes with sushi is an excellent side item that you absolutely have to eat if you are going to have multiple servings of the dish. It’s basically a palate cleanser and you will be able to appreciate each piece more if you eat a slice of ginger for every piece.

Should You Use Chopsticks to Eat Sushi?

You can but you can also use your fingers if you want to. Most people who use chopsticks to eat sushi either don’t know that they can use their hands or simply don’t want the smell to stick to their fingers. However, in traditional establishments, the hand rule is often observed more.

Are You Supposed to Eat Sushi in One bite?

Sushi is basically bite-sized finger food, which means that you don’t have a reason not to eat it in just one bite. You have to be able to do this if you are going to eat sushi since you can’t bite into every piece for several reasons:

·         It’s frowned upon

·         It ruins the structure

·         It affects the flavor

The biggest reason why you want to eat sushi whole is that this is how it is supposed to be done. While the staff, the chef, and the other diners might not say anything about you nibbling on a piece of nigiri, they will look at you with distaste.

This is just one of those Japanese things that makes a lot of sense to them but might not be that obvious to foreigners. Among the other dining etiquettes that are expected of people in Japan is saying “Itadakimasu” before eating, slurping noodles noisily, burping after a meal, and eating everything on the plate.

On that note, even if you are having sushi at a restaurant that has no such rules, you still don’t want to take a bite out of sushi because it will compromise its structure. You have to remember that sushi is a formed food. This means that it requires the maintenance of the form’s integrity to maintain its shape.

If you take a bit out of a rolled sushi, it could fall apart. This would then result in a messy sushi experience that is contrary to what the chef wanted you to have. If this happens, you could end up with an angry chef who believes that you are trying to insult them and their craft.

The higher the prominence and prestige of a sushi restaurant, the higher the expectation for diners to behave accordingly. Making a mess and having your sushi fall to pieces is not something that Japanese sushi chefs look on fondly.

As the one who is eating, you might not like doing that either since you would only be embarrassing yourself. So why not try to avoid that altogether?

Finally, sushi is meant to be eaten whole because you are meant to enjoy all of the flavors all at the same time. If you nibble on it, you might end up missing out on some flavors with the first bite and the rest with the second.

There is also the matter of the condiments. You would have to dip the sushi again in the soy sauce or add more wasabi than you should. It would just end up ruining an experience that should have been amazing. So just do yourself a favor and eat the sushi whole.

Do You Need to Observe Sushi Etiquette Every Time?

Now that we have gone through the full list of sushi etiquette that you are supposed to observe when you are at a traditional sushi restaurant, are you supposed to do that every time you eat sushi? The answer is no, you don’t.

To say that you need to strictly adhere to the rules, traditions, and practices of the Japanese when it comes to eating sushi is mostly a form of not being rude. There is nothing compelling you to do any of the things that were mentioned above. At worst, you might get the stink eye from the staff and the other customers, but if you don’t care about that then there’s really nothing to it.

Then again, if you are going to be intentionally rude like that, then you might as well just have the sushi delivered to your house or pick it up at the restaurant to bring home. There is absolutely no reason for you to subject other diners to an awful experience just because you could not be bothered to follow a few simple rules.

More than that, there are also cases where there are no etiquettes involved at all. Take for example sushi that you can buy at convenience stores, kiosks, and the like. You can eat them however you want and with whatever kinds of utensils that you want. There would be nothing stopping you from doing so, except perhaps the fear of looking like an idiot.

Then there’s the matter of a dish like a hand roll sushi, which is basically like maki but is shaped liked a cone and is rather huge. This is actually a case where the etiquettes really don’t apply. To start with, you can eat it on the go, so you don’t have to deal with tables and spacing.

You will also be eating it with your hands, so you won’t have to worry about choosing between your fingers and a chopstick, along with all of the rules that govern them. Considering the size of this type of sushi, you also can’t expect to be able to eat it in one bite. Fortunately, its form does accommodate you nibbling on the food item.

The cone shape allows you to eat it from the top down. As long as you don’t do something foolish like taking a big bite from the side, you won’t have much of an issue eating it cleanly. Speaking of which, there is also the condiment to consider.

Since you can’t dip this kind of sushi in soy sauce, they will inevitably need to be drizzled on the food item. This is definitely not part of the sushi dining etiquette but that’s okay.  

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