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Dine Like a Local: 5 Tips for Eating Out in Japan

To make the most of your dining experience, we've put together essential tips for eating at a restaurant in Japan—whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler.

By 5 min read

Japan is one of the greatest countries in the world for foodies—Tokyo alone has the most Michelin stars in the world. Thus, eating out is a big part of any travel itinerary in Japan.

But dining out in Japan isn’t always easy. It’s not unusual to run into confusing situations if you aren’t prepared. For example, you might have to ask for an English menu or experience the always surprising otoshi (table charge).

To make your trip as smooth as possible, here are some key tips to make your dining experience in Japan memorable (and delicious).

1. Make a reservation

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Did you call ahead?

Walking into a restaurant is sometimes impossible because they’ll be booked up for the entire evening. With that in mind, if you have a restaurant you are really dying to visit, it wouldn’t hurt to call ahead and book a table or see if you can make a reservation online—especially on the weekend.

If you can, have your hotel make the call for you. If you want to give your Japanese a try, you’ll call, greet the speaker as a hello (“moshi moshi”) and ask to make a reservation (“yoyaku o shitai”).

If you want to go to a place that doesn’t take reservations but that you know is popular or Instagram-famous, be prepared to wait. Lining up for a restaurant is not unusual in Japan. Come prepared with some line activities. Also, bear in mind your hunger levels—if you feel confident there will be a line, get there with a little buffer time so you don’t risk getting “hangry.”

Here is a quick list of phrases you use when trying to make a reservation over the phone. Your mileage may vary, but it’s a good starting point.

Japanese English
Yoyaku wo shitai no desu ga. I would like to make a reservation.
Daijoubu desu ka? Is it okay?
Watashi no namae wa… My name is…
Gatsu ~ nichi no ~ ji wa daijoubu desu ka? Is [month] [day] [time] okay?
~ nin de onegai shimasu. [number] people, please.

2. Dietary restrictions and menu requests

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The seven ingredients manufacturers are legally obligated to list.

Dietary restrictions are nothing to trifle with, but unfortunately, it isn’t so easy in Japan. If you have a dietary restriction, it is recommended that you carry a card explaining your allergies or restrictions in English and Japanese so the staff can understand what you need. Here are a few from Just Hungry.

However, restaurants will not or cannot always accommodate your dietary needs. This is especially true if you follow a vegan diet. Still, veganism and gluten-free lifestyles are growing in Japan, so if you research before your trip, you’ll find the restaurant for you.

If you have a food allergy, there are seven foods (see below) that manufacturers must list on their labels. Still, you should definitely ask before ordering at a restaurant. Don’t get your hopes up for menu requests—in Japan, when chefs prepare a menu, they expect you to eat what you ordered with no changes.

But you can always ask. A simple phrase to remember is “[food]~nuki de kudasai” or “no[food], please.” Take a look at our guide to food restrictions for more information and helpful words for those with dietary needs.

English Japanese Pronunciation
Buckwheat 蕎麦 soba
Crab kani
Egg tamago
Milk 牛乳 gyu-nyu
Peanut i落花生 pinatsu
Shrimp 海老 ebi
Wheat 小麦 komugi

3. Ask for the recommendation

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So many choices…

Now that you have your menu, what do you order? If you’re lucky, you might have pictures on the menu or spot shokuhin sampuru (plastic food models outside some restaurants). But maybe all you have is an extensive list of Japanese words. There is one phrase that can shine a light through all the confusion:

  • Osusume wa nan desu ka? (定番/人気)”

This translates to “What is your recommendation?” and is a common question in Japanese restaurants. Sometimes the restaurant’s recommendation is even noted on the menu with a ranking of the top dishes.

If you’re unsure what to order, ask your server this simple question and try their specialty. After all, it’s recommended for a reason.

4. Basic manners

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Be nice to the staff!

It’s normal in Japan to call your waiter over to you. A brisk “sumimasen!” (excuse me!) will notify the staff that you’re ready to order or collect your bill. Don’t hesitate to flag someone down—usually, all the waitstaff tend to tables equally, so you don’t have to hunt down the person who sat you at your table. Still, don’t be rude. It might be packed!

Other important tidbits: Use the chopstick holders provided, or lay chopsticks across a bowl or plate when not used. Whatever you do, do not stick your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice. Called tsukitate-bashi (standing chopsticks), it reminds Japanese people of funerals, where bowls of rice are left with two chopsticks standing vertically. On the other hand, slurping (especially soups and noodles) is normal and tells the chef you think their food is delicious. When in doubt, just do what the locals do.

5. Settling the bill

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Credit cards are accepted more, but plan for cash-only.

At the end of the meal always comes the question of how and where to pay. In Japan, you can call the server to ask for the check with okaikei, kudasai (check, please!) Whether you pay at the table or the register (usually by the front door) depends on the restaurant, but if you see a register, it’s likely the latter.

If you want to split the bill, ask:

  • betsu betsu kudasai” (“separately, please”)

Keep in mind many restaurants in Japan still only take cash. More places are accepting cards or cashless apps, especially in touristy spots, but you should keep a bit of cash on hand, just in case,

Finally, don’t leave tips! Japan is a tipless country. If you try to leave a tip, the waitstaff might assume you’ve forgotten your money.

Have any other tips for tourists looking to dine out in Japan! Let us know in the comments!

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