Tipping is not customary in Japan. If you feel compelled to tip or grateful for exceptional service, provide the gratuity in a discreet manner, and do not be surprised if your gesture is met with confusion. You might notice a 10% service charge is added to your bills in restaurants, especially higher-end restaurants.

Sushi and Sashimi

Though it’s an oversimplication, the easiest way to remember the differences between sushi and sashimi is to recall that sashimi is generally sliced, raw fish. Sushi is prepared with sticky, vinegar-enhanced white rice. While some Americans are squeamish about eating raw fish, we’ve found the biggest problem is knowing when to stop.

As always, a few guidelines will enhance your sushi-eating experience:

  • Sushi is finger food. Yes, you read that right. You can safely ditch your chopsticks and pick up the sushi with your hands. Each piece is generally consumed in a single bite (if you’ve ever tried to break your sushi down into several bites, you know why). Before your meal is served, you will be offered an oshibari (hot or cool towel, depending on the season) to clean your hands.
  • While the rice is designed to stick together, it’s wise to dip the fish, not the rice in the soy sauce. The absorbent quality of the rice means the soy will overwhelm the delicate, sweet flavor of the rice.
  • In fact, use soy sauce sparingly. Its strong flavor can detract from the more subtle flavors of fish and other ingredients in the dish.
  • In American sushi restaurants, it’s traditional to mix wasabi with soy sauce. The Japanese method involves asking the sushi chef to add extra wasabi to the sushi. With sashimi, it’s fine to mix the wasabi with the soy sauce. Confused? Well, you won’t be thrown in jail for breaking wasabi rules.
  • Sushi chefs prepare and serve sushi. The waitstaff at the restaurant will handle beverages, additional non-sushi dishes, extra napkins, and any other needs you encounter. However, when it comes time to ask for the bill, you inform the sushi chef as he’s tracked your consumption. The actual financial transaction will be handled by the waitstaff.
  • If you’re sharing sushi, flip your chopsticks and pick up pieces with the end that hasn’t been in your mouth.
  • Ginger is considered a palate cleanser, not a condiment.

Soup and Noodles

The easiest way to deal with soup is to pick up the bowl and drink from it. It’s possible you will be provided a spoon, but don’t count on it. Your chopsticks can be used to pick up solid food such as tofu, meat, or vegetables. Be careful when drinking your soup — it’s kept hot by bowl covers.

You might notice that those around you are slurping their soup and noodles — go ahead and join in. Some say that slurping makes the food taste better. Part of the fun of traveling is trying new things.

Oshibori (Wet Towels)

In most Japanese restaurants you will immediately be presented with a hot (or cool in the summer) wet towel. Oshibori should be used to wipe the hands clean before dining. Some also use the towels to wipe their faces. This is a great way to refresh yourself, especially if you’ve been walking through the city.

When the oshibori is presented, unfold the towel, use, and then fold and replace the used towel in the basket that accompanied the towel.

Chopsticks (Hashi, Waribashi)

Chopsticks (waribashi, hashi) are used everywhere. If you’ve never used chopsticks, we would humbly suggest practicing before landing at Narita. While we frequently encountered restaurant staff who accurately assessed us as clueless gaijin, we just as frequently encountered chopsticks-only establishments.

Once you learn the basics, chopsticks are easy to use. That’s the good news. The bad news is that chopsticks come with their own etiquette. Here are few suggestions to make things easier:

  • Don’t store your chopsticks vertically in your rice bowl (or any other food). This is only done at funerals as part of a ritual.
  • Don’t pass items between people using only chopsticks; and when taking food from a communal dish, turn the chopsticks upside down and use the part that has not been in your mouth to select items. Think of this as not double-dipping.
  • Don’t engage in elaborate and vigorous rubbing chopsticks together. Though it should go without saying, this implies that the establishment has provided inferior, splinter-ridden chopsticks. If you do encounter splinters, be discrete about rubbing the sticks together to remove them.
  • Don’t cross your chopsticks on your plate. Place them side-by-side at the bottom of your plate. If you remember, try to point the tips to left if you’re right-handed; vice versa if you’re left-handed. As general rule of thumb, chopsticks should not be placed directly on the table or counter.
  • Since soup is generally not served with a spoon, you can use chopsticks to remove solid foods such as tofu or meat.
  • Waving your chopsticks around is like waving your knife around — someone is bound to get hurt, and it’s generally not good manners.
  • Chopsticks should not be used to spear food.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable with chopsticks, don’t be afraid to ask for Western-style utensils. While they may not be available, asking never hurts.

Alcoholic Beverages & Drinking Rituals

Yes, there are even rituals surrounding drinking. Japanese people tend not to entertain in their homes. Alcohol consumption is part of the Japanese culture and a specific etiquette has grown up around the practice.

  • Do not drink directly from the bottle. Use the provided glass.
  • When drinking in public, always allow someone else to fill your glass (tricky if there are just two of you), and never allow the glasses of your companions to become completely empty.
  • While the Japanese have reputations as heavy drinkers, we noticed a behavior we call the “one-drink maximum”. Parties would enter an establishment, have a drink, and then move on. It is appropriate to exercise moderation (and, oddly, to have some beverage remaining in your glass when you’re ready to leave the establishment).
  • Drink only after everyone in your party has been served. If you’re in a business situation, you are expected to wait until the “head” person in the party starts drinking.
  • The traditional salute is “kampai” (kahm-pie). Chin chin refers to male genitals. Just a warning.
  • If you don’t drink, and are in a situation where it is expected, have a plausible excuse handy (medical reasons, perhaps).