Dining out in Japan
Basic Japanese meal
The basic Japanese meal stars with soup which is followed by raw fish; the entree is next (grilled, steamed, simmered or fried fish, chicken or vegetables), and ends with rice and pickles and possibly fruit for desert along with a cup of green tea.
This is the basic sit-down type of meal, of course. You can also get what is called a bento box which is basically a box-lunch type of meal with various items (excluding drinks) packed in a wooden or even fancier box. These are often cheap and are sold at railway stations and other places.The bento will consist of rice, pickles, grilled fish or meat and vegetables.
Three basic principles of a Japanese meal (1)absolute freshness, (2)simplicity, and (3)beauty.
These are referred to as o'hashi. Not every single place you eat at will offer Western eating utensils so a general knowledge of how to use chopsticks is essential. There are three kinds of chopsticks: ones made of natural wood (waribashi which are the kinds you will usually encounter in restaurants; ones made of heavy plastic or ivory (used in Chinese restaurants) and ones which are made of plastic or lacquered wood and used primarily in private homes.
Some general rules to follow when eating with chopsticks include:
- Don't stick the chopsticks into the bowl and leave them there. In Japan custom this represents death.
- Don't scrape off rice that adheres to the sticks; nibble it off instead.
- Don't push dishes around with chopsticks
- Don't pick up a bowl or dish with the same hand your chopsticks are in
- Don't stab the food with your chopsticks, and don't poke around in the bowl seeking a particular morsel.
- Don't point or gesture with the chopsticks.
- Don't lick the ends of your chopsticks.
- When not in use chopsticks are laid across on a chopstick rest or leaned against your plate or tray.
- When being served extra helpings lay your chopsticks down.
- When eating food from a common dish use the end of the chopsticks that you are not using to eat with.
- Generally people will also pick up a rice bowl or soup bowl and bring it close to your mouth and eat directly from it.
Many restaurants do not automatically give water to the customers so you may have to ask for it.
Whereas in the U.S. we are used to cooked foods served hot this is not always the case in Japanese restaurants so some re-ordering of your eating tolerances may be in order.
If you are going to a restaurant that does not have Western-type tables and chairs then you will need to watch the types of clothes you wear. Tight dresses, for example, can be a problem in trying to sit on the floor at a traditional low Japanese-style table. Sitting for a long time on the floor can become tiresome, but some restaurants have special chairs called zaisu which is a floor seat with a backrest.
If rice is being served then stop drinking the sake while it is being served.
It is good manners to wait until the oldest or highest-ranking person at the table starts to eat before you do.
It is perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodle soup.
When drinking with a friend you don't pour your own. You pour for the other person.
Sauces are not poured on rice in a traditional meal.
You don't walk and eat at the same time in public.
Types of restaurants in Japan include:
- Kissa ten: coffee shops that serve pastries, light sandwiches and the like
- O'soba-ya: restaurants specializing in hot- and cold-noodle dishes
- Restoran: regular Western-style restaurants
- Shina ryori-ya: Chinese food restaurants
- Shokudo: a cafe-type restaurant with a mixed Western/Japanese offering
- Yakitori-ya: restaurants specializing in barbecued chicken or other meats on sticks
Various other kinds of restaurants also exist specializing in one Japanese food or the other.
Although much is said about the ultra-high prices in Japan common sense applies there just as it does anywhere else. Before going out to eat check the types of restaurants available and their prices. As in the U.S. there will be a wide variety of types of restaurants, running from very expensive ones right down to the "greasy-spoon" type. Don't go to a restaurant without having at least some idea of the types of food and prices.
Most eating places of the "non-greasy-spoon" variety will have plastic models of the food being served so you can point to a model and indicate what you want to order.
Still, eating in Japan will often be somewhat higher than in the U.S. Even fast food is no exception. At Wendy's, for example, chicken nuggets will be about $2.60 for five. A baked potato will be $2.80 and a bowl of chili $2.60. At Subway you can get a turkey combo sandwich for $6.90, a BMT for $8.60, or a meatball sandwich for $7. McDonalds has a $2.80 Big Mac, a $2.70 double cheeseburger, and a plain hamburger will be $1.30. At Kentucky Fried Chicken you will pay $11.80 for half a dozen pieces of chicken, $1.80 for a serving of cole slaw for one person, and small fries will be about $1.40.
Notice, though, that those are all traditional Western-style fast food places and are not necessarily indicative of the typical Japanese "fast-food" establishment.
The expense of food comes, of course, form the cost of the raw ingredients. Instead of buying food for a week or two ahead Japanese often buy their food fresh that day and then fix their dinners. At the market they will find that one lemon costs $1. Lettuce goes at about $2 a head and carrots are about eighty cents each.
One pound of hamburger will be about $3.98 (compared to about $2.50 or less here). One 12-oz. can of Coca Cola will be $1.10. A dozen eggs goes at $1.89, a loaf of bread with six or eight slices goes at $1.80. All this arises, of course, from the fact that the Japanese have to import a lot of their food.
The top ten imported foods for Japan as of 1993 were shrimp, pork, beef, corn, tuna, soy beans, wheat, salmon/trout, crab and cooked eel. Most of these have seen steady increases in the amount imported from year to year.
Dining out was the top leisure activity of Japanese in 1993. This was followed by driving, domestic travel, karaoke, zoos/botanical gardens/aquariums, watching videos, bars/pubs, listening to music, amusement parks and bowling in that order.
Japan is a country in which cleanliness is of very high importance so there should be no problems with sanitary conditions in the restaurants and other places you might eat.
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