Ordering -- The biggest problem facing the hungry foreigner in Japan is ordering a meal in a restaurant without an English-language menu. This guide alleviates the problem to some extent by recommending sample dishes and giving prices for restaurants throughout Japan; we've also noted which restaurants offer English-language menus.
One aid to simplified ordering is the use of plastic food models in glass display cases either outside or just inside the front door of many restaurants, especially those in tourist areas and department stores. Sushi, tempura, daily specials, spaghetti -- they're all there in mouthwatering plastic replicas along with corresponding prices. Simply decide what you want and point it out to staff.
Unfortunately, not all restaurants in Japan have plastic display cases, especially the more exclusive or traditional ones. In fact, you'd be missing a lot of Japan's best cuisine if you restrict yourself to eating only at places with displays. If there's no display from which to choose, the best thing to do is see whether the Japanese-language menu has photos or to look at what people around you are eating and order what looks best. Or, order the teishoku, or daily special meal (also called "set course" or simply "course," especially in restaurants serving Western food); these fixed-price meals consist of a main dish and several side dishes, including soup, rice, and Japanese pickles. Although most restaurants have set courses for dinner as well, lunch is the usual time for the teishoku, generally from 11 or 11:30am to 1:30 or 2pm.
In any case, once you've decided what you want to eat, flag down a waiter or waitress; they will not hover around your table waiting for you to order but come only when summoned. In most restaurants there are no assigned servers to certain tables; rather, servers are multitaskers, so don't be shy about stopping any who pass by.
Hours -- In larger cities, most restaurants are open from about 11am to 10 or 11pm. Of course, some establishments close earlier at 9pm, while others stay open past midnight; the majority close for a few hours in the afternoon (2-5pm). In big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, try to avoid the lunchtime rush from noon to 1pm. In rural areas and small towns, restaurants tend to close early, often by 7:30 or 8pm. Traditional Japanese restaurants hang a noren (split curtain) over the front door to signify they're open.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the closing time posted for most restaurants is exactly that -- everyone is expected to pay his or her bill and leave. A general rule of thumb is that the last order is taken at least a half-hour before closing time, sometimes an hour or more for kaiseki restaurants (staff will usually alert you they're taking last orders). To be on the safe side, try to arrive at least an hour before closing time so you have time to relax and enjoy your meal.
Taxes -- Keep in mind that first-class restaurants will also add a 10% to 15% service charge, as do most hotel restaurants.
Upon Arrival -- As soon as you're seated in a Japanese restaurant (that is, a restaurant serving Japanese food), you'll be given a wet towel, which will be steaming hot in winter or pleasantly cool in summer. Called an oshibori, it's for wiping your hands. In all but the fancy restaurants, men can get away with wiping their faces as well, but women are not supposed to (I ignore this if it's hot and humid outside). Sadly, some cheaper Japanese restaurants now resort to a paper towel wrapped in plastic, which isn't nearly the same. Oshibori are generally not provided in Western restaurants.
Chopsticks -- The next thing you'll probably be confronted with is chopsticks (though knives and forks are used in restaurants serving Western food). The proper way to use a pair is to place the first chopstick between the base of the thumb and the top of the ring finger (this chopstick remains stationary) and the second one between the top of the thumb and the middle and index fingers. (This second chopstick is the one you move to pick up food.)
The best way to learn to use chopsticks is to have a Japanese person show you how. It's not difficult, but if you find it impossible, some restaurants might have a fork as well. How proficiently foreigners handle chopsticks is a matter of great curiosity for Japanese, and they're surprised if you know how to use them; even if you were to live in Japan for 20 years, you would never stop receiving compliments on how talented you are with chopsticks.
Chopstick Etiquette -- If you're taking something from a communal bowl or tray, you're supposed to turn your chopsticks upside down and use the part that hasn't been in your mouth; after transferring the food to your plate, you turn the chopsticks back to their proper position. The exception is shabu-shabu and sukiyaki.
Never point at someone with your chopsticks, and never stick them down vertically into your bowl of rice and leave them there, and never pass anything from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks -- both actions have origins relating to funerary rites but are now mostly considered bad manners.
Eating Soup & Noodles -- You don't use a spoon with Japanese soup. Rather, you'll pick up the bowl and drink from it, using your chopsticks to fish out larger pieces of food. You should also pick up a bowl of rice to eat it. It's considered good taste to slurp with gusto, especially if you're eating hot noodles. Noodle shops in Japan are always well orchestrated with slurps and smacks.
Drinking -- Women should hold their glass or cup with both hands, but men do not. If you're drinking in Japan, the main thing to remember is that you never pour your own glass. Bottles of beer are so large that people often share one. The rule is that in turn, one person pours for everyone else in the group, so be sure to hold up your glass when someone is pouring for you. As the night progresses Japanese get sloppy about this rule. It took me awhile to figure this out, but if no one notices your empty glass, the best thing to do is to pour everyone else a drink so that someone will pour yours. If someone wants to pour you a drink and your glass is full, the proper thing to do is to take a few gulps so that he or she can fill your glass. Because each person is continually filling everyone else's glass, you never know exactly how much you've had to drink, which (depending on how you look at it) is either very good or very bad. If you really don't want more to drink, leave your glass full and refuse refills.
Paying the Bill -- If you go out with a group of friends (not as a visiting guest of honor and not with business associates), it's customary to split the dinner bill equally, even if you all ordered different things. Even foreigners living in Japan adopt the practice of splitting the bill; it certainly makes figuring everyone's share easier, especially since there's no tipping in Japan. But it can be hard on frugal diners on a budget. If you're with friends who do wish to pay for only what they ate, tell the cashier you want to pay "betsu, betsu."
Other Tips -- It's considered bad manners to walk down the street eating or drinking (except at a festival). You'll notice that if a Japanese buys a drink from a vending machine, he'll stand there, gulp it down, and throw away the container before going on. To the chagrin of their elders, young Japanese sometimes ignore this rule.
How to Eat Without Spending a Fortune
During your first few days in Japan -- particularly if you're in Tokyo -- money will seem to flow from your pockets like water. In fact, money has a tendency to disappear so quickly that many people become convinced they must have lost some of it somehow. At this point, almost everyone panics (I've seen it happen again and again), but with time they slowly realize that because prices are markedly different here (steeper), a bit of readjustment in thinking and habits is necessary. Coffee, for example, is something of a luxury, and some Japanese are astonished at the thought of drinking four cups a day. Here are some tips for getting the most for your yen.
Breakfast -- Buffet breakfasts are popular at Japanese hotels and can be an inexpensive way to eat your fill. Otherwise, coffee shops offer what's called "morning service" until 10 or 11am; it generally consists of a cup of coffee, a small salad, a boiled egg, and the thickest slice of toast you've ever seen for about ¥650. That's a real bargain when you consider that just one cup of coffee can cost ¥250 to ¥500. (Except at most hotel breakfast buffets, there's no such thing as the bottomless cup in Japan.) There are many coffee-shop chains in Japan, including Doutour, Pronto, and the ever-expanding Starbucks (854 in Japan at last count).
Set Lunches -- Eat your biggest meal at lunch. Many restaurants serving Japanese food offer a daily set lunch, or teishoku, at a fraction of what their set dinners might be. Usually ranging in price from ¥800 to ¥2,000, they're generally available from about 11am to around 2pm. A Japanese teishoku will include the main course (such as tempura, grilled fish, or the specialty of the house), soup, pickled vegetables, rice, and tea, while the set menu in a Western-style restaurant (often called set lunch) usually consists of a main dish, salad, bread, and coffee.
Cheap Eats -- Inexpensive restaurants can be found in department stores (often one whole floor will be devoted to various kinds of restaurants, most with plastic-food displays), underground shopping arcades, nightlife districts, and in and around train and subway stations. Some of the cheapest establishments for a night out on the town are yakitori-ya, izakaya (Japanese pubs), noodle and ramen shops, coffee shops (which often offer inexpensive pastries and sandwiches), and conveyor-belt sushi restaurants where you reach out and take the plates that interest you. Restaurants serving gyudon (beef bowl) are also cheap, with Yoshinoya the largest chain. Japan also has American fast-food chains, such as McDonald's (where Big Macs cost about ¥320) and KFC, as well as Japanese chains -- Freshness Burger and First Kitchen, among them -- that sell hamburgers.
Ethnic restaurants, particularly those serving Indian, Korean, Chinese, Italian, and other cuisines, are plentiful and usually inexpensive. Hotel restaurants can also be good bargains for inexpensive set lunches or buffets (called viking in Japanese), while inexpensive drinking places are good bets for dinner.
Street-side stalls, called yatai, are also good sources of inexpensive meals. These restaurants-on-wheels sell a variety of foods, including oden (fish cakes), yakitori (skewered barbecued chicken), and yakisoba (fried noodles), as well as sake and beer. They appear mostly at night, lighted by a single lantern or a string of lights, and most have a counter with stools as well, protected in winter by a wall of tarp. These can be great, cozy places for rubbing elbows with the locals. Fukuoka, in Kyushu, is famous for its yatai, but you may find them also near other cities' nightlife districts. Sadly, traditional pushcarts are being replaced by motorized vans, which are not nearly as romantic and do not offer seating.
Prepared Foods -- You can save even more money by avoiding restaurants altogether. There are all kinds of prepared foods you can buy; some are even complete meals, perfect for picnics in a park or right in your hotel room.
Perhaps the best known is the obento, or box lunch, commonly sold on express trains, on train-station platforms, in food sections of department stores, and at counter windows of tiny shops throughout Japan. In fact, the obento served by vendors on trains and at train stations are an inexpensive way to sample regional cuisine since they often include food typical of the region you're passing through. Costing between ¥800 and ¥1,500, the basic obento contains a piece of meat (generally fish or chicken), various side dishes, rice, and pickled vegetables. Sushi boxed lunches are also readily available.
My favorite place to shop for prepared foods is department stores. Located in basements, these enormous food and produce sections hark back to Japanese markets of yore, with vendors yelling out their wares and crowds of housewives deciding on the evening's dinner. Different counters specialize in different items -- tempura, yakitori, eel, Japanese pickles, cooked fish, sushi (sometimes made by robots!), salads, vegetables, and desserts. Almost the entire spectrum of Japanese cuisine is available, as are numerous samples. There are also counters selling obento box meals. In any case, you can eat for less than ¥1,200, and there's nothing like milling with Japanese housewives to make you feel like one of the locals. Though not as colorful, 24-hour convenience stores and grocery stores also sell packaged foods like sandwiches and obento.