What you need to know about Japanese food culture

As visitors to Japan quickly find out, people here are absolutely obsessed with food. You will find that each island and region has its own meibutsu (local specialty) which is a point of pride. Japanese cuisine is fun and diverse, with original historical origins and fascinating regional differences. There is also a label associated with consuming Japanese cuisine, ranging from giving thanks before eating to how to use chopsticks.

Lonely Planet’s new book Eat Japan is a complete companion to Japanese cuisine and culture, helping visitors get the most out of their dining experience. From essential regional specialties to the label and essential phrases, this extract from Eat Japan equips you to explore the culture and demystify the eating rituals associated with Japanese cuisine.

Japanese cuisine is on Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Japanese food culture

Japanese cuisine is known as Washoku, literally meaning “the harmony of food”. Washoku encompasses traditional Japanese dishes and recipes – food that nourishes the soul. There is variety, color, texture and subtlety. There is the exquisite marriage of form and function, the impeccable presentation. Frying ageashi-nasu eggplant zosui rice soup, succulent fresh Hokkaido salmon with fiery and fermented Okinawan tofu, comforting carbs from a bowl of loaded ramen to the refined and elegant high-end Kyoto kaiseki (Japanese Haute Cuisine) – it’s infinitely variable and always tempting. It all depends on the skills and proper knowledge of Japanese cuisine that have been passed down from generation to generation, and that is why Washoku was added to Unesco’s list of intangible cultural heritage in 2013.

A chef cooking a pancake made from cabbage and eggs on a hot plate
Foods are often light and delicate, but can also be hearty and robust © PRImageFactory / Getty Images

At its best, Japanese cuisine is very seasonal, drawing on fresh local ingredients cuddled with a light touch. Rice is central; the word for “rice” and for “meal” is the same: gohan. Miso soup and marinated vegetables, tsukemono, often complete the meal. But from there, Japanese food can vary wildly; it can be light and delicate (as is often thought), but it can also be hearty and sturdy. Low in fat, rich in minerals and vitamins, Japanese cuisine is known to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, and it is considered a major factor in Japan’s remarkable longevity rates.

A multiethnic group of friends ordering food at a counter in a Japanese Izakaya
If you can’t make up your mind, ask for the chef’s or waiter’s recommendation © JohnnyGreig / Getty Images

Restaurant label

When you walk into a restaurant in Japan, the staff will probably greet you with a warm “Irasshai! “ (Welcome!). In all but the most casual places, where you sit, the staff will then ask you “Nan-mei sama? ” (How many people?). Indicate the answer with your fingers, which is what the Japanese do. You may also be asked if you would like to sit at a zashiki (low table on the tatami mat), to a toburu (table) or the kaunta (to counter). Once seated you will receive a oshibori (hot towel), a cup of tea or water (it’s free) and a menu.

A shot of impeccably prepared Japanese food including fish, sushi, cabbage, soup and tea
Japanese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world © Aisha Yusaf / 500px

In many high-end and sushi restaurants, there are usually two ways to order: omakase (chef’s choice) and okonomi (your choice). It is common for high-end restaurants to only offer omakase – the equivalent of a chef’s tasting course – usually two or three options of different value. (More expensive doesn’t necessarily mean more food; it often means more luxurious ingredients.) Most other restaurants will hand you a menu and expect you to choose what you like. If there is no English menu (and you are a game) you can ask for the server’s recommendation “O-susume wa nan desu ka?” ” and give the green light to whatever they suggest.

Chefs in white clothes with hats work in a central kitchen.  Guests sit at counters outside
Japanese cuisine is prepared with a light touch, so don’t over-season your food © bluehand / Shutterstock

When your food arrives it’s the custom to say “Itadakimasu” (literally “I will receive” but closer to “bon appétit” in the sense) before digging. All but the most extreme Type A chefs will say that they would rather have foreign visitors enjoying their meal than worrying about having the right etiquette. Still, nothing makes a Japanese sushi chef wince more than foreigners who season their food – a little soy sauce and wasabi do a lot.

Often times, an invoice is placed discreetly on your table after your food has been delivered. Otherwise, grab your server’s attention with a “sumimasen” (excuse me) and ask for the check saying, “o-kaikei onegaishimasu”. Payment, even in high-end venues, is often settled at a counter near the entrance, rather than at the table. On leaving it is polite to say “Gochisō-sama deshita” to the staff (literally “It was a feast”; a respectful way of saying you enjoyed the meal).

Intimate noodles and vegetables make up a meal that is placed on trays at a counter overlooking a stream
Lunchtime menus are one of the best deals in Japan © Brenda Lam / Stockimo / Alamy Stock Photo

Eat etiquette

If you only remember one thing, do this: don’t stand your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice or pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another – both are reminiscent of Japanese funeral rites. But there are other lessons to be learned. When serving a shared dish, it is polite to use the back end of your chopsticks (i.e. not the end that goes into your mouth) to place the food on your own small dish . Lunch is one of Japan’s best deals; however, restaurants can only offer inexpensive lunch deals as they anticipate high turnover. Spending too much time sipping coffee after you’ve finished your meal could save the eyes of the kitchen.

Chopsticks lifting noodles above a bowl
The noodles should be eaten quickly, and it is perfectly acceptable to sip © Photos by g4gary / Getty Images

It’s perfectly acceptable, even expected, to sip your noodles. They must be eaten at full speed, before they become soggy (to let them do so would be an affront to the chef); that’s why you will hear the guests sip, inhale air to refresh their mouths. Eating and walking at the same time is considered rude in Japan, as it goes against the etiquette of “ikkai ichi dousa” – which roughly translates to “doing one thing at a time”. Finish your onigiri by standing in front of the convenience store or find somewhere to sit down to eat your bento, otherwise you might get disapproving looks.

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