When you don’t speak Japanese or you’re a first-time traveller to Japan, ordering food at a restaurant can prove quite a challenge. But worry no more! When you follow these easy steps, (almost) nothing can go wrong.
1. Sitting down
When you’ve picked your restaurant, wait to be seated by the staff. They will often loudly welcome you, especially in sushi restaurants, where the entire staff chants a forceful “Welcome!” upon entrance (‘Irasshaimaseee’!). When you did not make a reservation, the staff will want to know with how many people you’d like to eat. Thankfully, this does not mean you have to memorize Japanese numbers. Instead, hold up your fingers corresponding to the number of diners. Easy peasy.
After you’re seated, you will promptly receive a complementary glass of water or (chilled) green tea. This takes the edge off any dry throats before the actual ordering of the drinks. If you would like to order a draft beer, tell the waiter: “nama biiru”. If you would like to order a beer in a cool way, tell the waiter: “toriaezu biiru” (meaning ‘first, let’s have a beer’). In establishments that don’t have a wine menu, its best to leave the house wine for what it is; standard wine in Japan is usually not very good. Rather, since you are in the country where ‘sake’ originated, why not have a cup? ‘Sake’ in Japanese means alcohol in general, so ask the waiter for “nihonshu” for a small bottle of sake. When he then draws out a ‘nihonshu’-menu, you might ask for the “osusumeh”, the recommendation.
A point-and-order menu (photo courtesy of Boteya.co.jp)
3. Where is the waiter?
Don't be alarmed when waiters don't visit your table every ten minutes to check up on you. Check the table for a bell. This is a conventional way to call a waiter, especially in restaurants that feature private dining rooms.
Time for some food! If you’re lucky, your restaurant has a fully illustrated menu which works perfectly as a kind of point-and-speak phrasebook. If not, you might try one of the following:
- download ‘Imiwa’ or ‘Aedict’, offline Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries. Since you probably cannot look up words from the menu unless you know how they’re pronounced, you can look up in English what you would like to eat and tell or show that to the waiter.
- or, remember these phrases and make your own combinations:
- ‘Onikuh’ (meat)
- ‘Osakana’ (fish)
- ‘Oyasai’ (vegetables)
- ‘Gyokai’ (seafood)
- ‘Gohan’ or ‘raisu’ (rice)
- ‘Desaato’ (dessert)
- ‘dahmeh’ (‘don’t want’, often combined with forming a cross with both hands)
- ‘oneigai shimas’ (please)
- ‘osusumeh’ (recommendation)
5. The bill
When you’re finished, you can ask for the bill by asking for “okaikei onegai shimas”. You usually take this bill with you to the cashier, located next to the exit. In more upscale places it is custom to pay at the table.
Don’t tip. Japanese are not used to this and will think you’re forgetting your change. If you’re especially happy with the food or the service, tell the cashier: “gochiso sama des. Totemo oishikatta des”.