Dining in Japan doesn’t have to be complicated! Use these below tips to help you navigate the food scene in Japan and you will be all set to enjoy a foodie’s dream! Here are 5 things about Dining in Japan you should know before arriving.
This is a classic, but it must be said just in case…. There is NO TIPPING in Japan. This is for restaurants as well as services like hair, nails, concierge at a hotel, tour guide, etc. There is no system like in the US of a waiter’s “section”, all of the waiters will help you if you ask for something. The waiters are paid a normal wage and are not reliant on tips to subsidize income. Don’t say “keep the change” either…. they are very particular and will give it right back to you. It’s rare, but you might see a “1 yen jar” or a “Tip jar” at the register so that is your chance to put change in if you want to.
Food is not normally customizable
If you go to restaurant in Japan and ask to substitute something that you don’t like for something else you have seen on the menu, most of the time the waiter will give you a blank look and say no…unless it is already something on the menu about choice, like in a meal set that you can choose what you want. If you ask about something on the menu, the waiters normally won’t know exactly what is in it like if there is dairy etc., unless it’s a high class restaurant. They are not trying to being mean or rude, they are just not trained or set up to do things like this. Culturally, what have on the menu for that item you ordered is what you get and that’s the way it is… I believe it is actually impolite to the chef or person who prepared your food to ask for substitutions because it means you do not like their food or the way they prepared it. In Tokyo it’s becoming more common to ask about allergies, have English menus with icons that explain if there are allergens in the food and for the waiters to know about what is actually in the food, but for the rest of Japan it is still rare. Exceptions to this are fast food chains like McDonald’s or specifically foreign food chains that already have a culture of substitutions and customization to their menus.
TIP: If you have REALLY have allergies, please take the time to research how to say your allergies in Japanese and take it with you everywhere on a piece of paper or on your phone to show a restaurant and they should help you. I helped out someone a while back with a nut allergy and here is what I told them:
DISCLAIMER: I am NOT a doctor and I am not an expert, but this translation was verified by my Japanese co-workers for ONLY nut allergies. Use this at your own risk and please do your own research to make sure what I am saying is correct yourself in case something does happen.
I have a serious nut allergy, these are the types of nuts I am allergic to below:
・カシューナッツ Cashew nut
・ペカンナッツ Pecan nuts
I am allergic to not just nuts, but also will have a reaction to nut products.
I need to have anything containing nuts prepared separately from my food or I will have a reaction.
Am I able to eat here at thus restaurant?
What am I able to eat at this restaurant?
If I cannot eat here, can you please recommend another place that I can eat at that can accommodate my allergy?
“Doggie Bags” or taking extra food home is not a thing
The portions are not big in Japan, and people eat everything on their plates because, again, it is considered rude to the people who made your food to leave food on your plate. With this, the concept of take-out and packing leftover food up to take home with you is still rare. Restaurants offer take-out separately via services like UberEats etc, or by a specific take out order, but in general the restaurants don’t want liability if the customer gets sick off of their food they took back home. In fact, most restaurants don’t even have containers to pack away food for take out unless they offer take-out, in which they will normally advertise on the outside of the restaurant.
I have two stories about this, one in 2011 and one last year in 2019, but I will tell the most recent one. Last year my mom came to Japan and took a class of college students on a course she was teaching to Japan. I arranged a restaurant for them to eat at with a set menu but a good majority of them went back to the hotel and didn’t eat everything and there was a lot of food left over. At the end when we settled the bill, I asked the restaurant if I could take a small plate of the left over food home because I knew they did take out and had containers. I had to talk with them back and forth for about 10 minutes in order to convince them to let me do it and tell them it was only for lunch the next day at work, less than 24 hours away, and I wouldn’t be complaining to them if I got sick on it, and they reluctantly let me take some of the food back.
Moral of the story is please don’t expect to be able to take extra food out if you don’t eat it all.
Be aware of “Last Order”
At pretty much all restaurants in Japan you will see on the sign with operating hours a “L.O.” that is normally between 30 minutes to an hour before closing time. That is called “Last Order” or the last time you can place an order before the restaurant closes in order for the kitchen to start to clean up. Sometimes food and drink have different last order times. This is to ensure the restaurant closes on time and people can’t come in and order right before closing time. If you are already seated at a restaurant and last order comes up, the waiters will come around and ask if you want anything else before the kitchen closes and then will ask you to leave politely once the restaurant is actually closed. So, be aware that if online the restaurant says “closes at 10pm” on google, that will probably not reflect the last order time and to make sure you come to the restaurant an hour before before closing just in case.
Eat ALL of your food you put on your plate at an all-you can eat restaurant
Japan is famous for their “Tebehoudai” 「食べ放題」or “all you can eat” restaurants. All you can drink is called “Nomihoudai”「飲み放題」。Normally they give a set amount of time to eat anything on a specific menu… but there is a catch. At these restaurants you normally have to eat everything on your plate before you can order a new plate, same with drinks. For buffet restaurants or what Japan calls “Viking”, 「バイキング」and if you leave a lot on your plate at the end they can charge you extra for that. So before going and piling your plates high to the sky with food, make sure you can actually eat all of it…. I suggest taking small trips back and forth to the buffet or ordering a few plates at a time to make sure you can eat it all. Don’t be totally freaked out though, if there is a tiny bit of food left on the plate, they won’t say anything but in general just avoid having plates full of food at the end of your meal.
And that’s a wrap! Let me know if your country does any of these things or what you think of these dining tips in Japan.