The Language of Eating Local

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Photo by Japanexperterna

Local restaurants can be a little intimidating for language learners. While the best restaurants are used to dealing with foreigns and often have English menus, most people will only visit them on special occasions. Instead, visitors to Japan will find that most of the best food is found in places that foreigns rarely visit. Of course, these places are often the very places that you should be visiting for good food without the ridiculous price tags.

Even simply entering the one of these restaurants can be confusing. Japanese has a lot of greetings that are simply said for the sake of politeness and at restaurants one of most common is the greeting いらっしゃいませ. Generally speaking, most Japanese people don’t reply to いらっしゃいませ, it is simply a formality.

Of course as you have the staff’s attention during the greeting, some Japanese people reply by saying how many seats they want. If you want to speed things up in this way, 二人です (futari desu) means two people and 一人です (hitori desu) is for people who are eating alone. If you don’t immediately state how many people or if it is unclear how many people are in your party, the staff will ask 何名様ですかなんめいさまですか?・How many in your party? to find out how many people you are eating with.

After that you will usually be hustled into the restaurant with the phrase こちらへどうぞ which means you should follow the staff to your seat. If you think the menu may be full of indecipherable kanji, this is also the best time to ask for an English menu with the phrase 英語のメニューがありますかえいごのメニューがありますか・Eigo no menyū ga ari masu ka.

Parents with small children should look for the word お子様 (こさま) (okosama) on the menu which tells you that the portion is child-sized. A common phrase you will see on menus is the お子様ランチおこさまランチ・Kids lunch which is a lunch set for kids that often comes in a fun dish like a bullet train or plane. Luckily for hungry adults who don’t want one of these tiny portions, the kids menu can easily be recognized by all the colorful cartoon characters that are covering it.

Once you arrive at your seat, you will usually be served a complimentary glass of water or tea. One of the interesting things about Japan is that shortly after you have started drinking this freebie, the staff will ask you if you want a drink. In this case the ‘drink’ usually implies something stronger like alcohol or coffee. The phrase the staff will use is usually お飲み物はおのみものは・O nomimono wa?

To reply, simply say the drink you want plus ~おねがいします such as ビールおねがいしますbeer please or けっこうですI'm fine thanks if you are happy with the free tea.

Once you have got over the initial formalities, the waiter will usually leave you alone to look over the menu. If the place is not busy, you can simply motion towards the staff once you have decided what to order. Otherwise expect for them to wait for a couple of minutes before asking ご注文はお決まりですかごちゅうもんはおきまりですか・Are you ready to order?. If the restaurant is busy, you are expected to shout when you want to get the serving staff’s attention. It can be intimidating for visitors to shout すみません at a reasonably high volume, but it is not considered impolite.

When ordering, you may hear the courses divided into:

前菜 (ぜんさい) – appetizer
メイン – main course
デザート – dessert

On top of this, some places will also have daily specials, so it is always worth asking 日替わり(定食)は何ですかひがわり(ていしょく)はなんですか?・What is today’s special (course)?.

Of course if you are still undecided, it is ok to dismiss the staff with もう少し時間を頂けますかもうすこしじかんをいただけますか・mo sukoshi jikan o itadakemasu ka or ask for their recommendation with お勧めは何ですかおすすめはなんですか?・osusume wa nan desu ka. Be careful when asking for recommendations in Japan as the recommendation is usually the most popular dish, not necessarily the best dish for your party.

Unfortunately, the recommendations often sell out quickly and if the place is known for a particular dish get used to the phrase ~は売り切れてしまいました~はうりきれてしまいました・~ is unfortunately sold out. Getting to a restaurant early is essential, as Japanese people often visit a restaurant for one particular dish and these signature dishes always sell out quickly.

Finally once you have finished your meal, you should say お勘定お願いしますおかんじょうおねがいします・okanjō onegaishimasu to ask for the bill. While most Japanese people know the word ‘bill’, it sounds dangerously close to the Japanese word for ‘beer’, so be careful. If you want to ask about how much specific items cost, a useful multi-purpose phrase is いくらですか which means ‘how much is this?’ At this point you may also want to get the staff to split the bill up in which case you can say 別々にお願いしますべつべつにおねがいします・betsubetsu ni onegaishimasu.

Once you get used to the words and phrases used at these smaller restaurants, it opens up a word of delicious experiences to you. Of course, you will probably still make the occasional mistake, but discovering a great restaurant you can visit time and time again is worth the temporary blushes.

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  • Alistair Howard says:

    Thanks for this post.

  • Raymond Chuang says:

    This may be less of an issue in the near future when cellphones will have programs that can read the Japanese characters and give a high quality translation in English on the cellphone display. Google is working on this, and I believe so is Apple.

  • Angelina Cortés says:

    The thing I like the most about eating in Japan is the free glass of water or tea (sometimes both) because soft drinks (water included) add very fast in my country (Mexico) and here I can save money while eating out.

  • Oscar Hernández says:

    asking for the bill isnt really something youd usually do in a japanese restaurant, its a very western custom. Theres usually a cashier near the exit/entrance of the restaurant. When youre ready to pay/leave, just go there, especially in local restaurants that foreigners rarely visit

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