Without even considering the cuisine, dining in a Japanese restaurant is an experience in itself. Laden with mysterious rules and an etiquette that no gaijin will ever really understand, and will always be exempt from, my best advice is to look around and mimic behavior as best as you can. And be prepared for the most impressive service and attention to detail on the planet.
Become slipper-aware. We’ve all heard the “I wore the wrong slippers into the bathroom”. Some restaurants have communal slippers you must wear inside (and little lockers with funny-shaped wooden keys for your shoes), and some have separate toilet slippers. And some let you wear your dirty shoes inside. My philosophy is, if unsure, go barefoot. I have walked into a restaurant, flip flops in hand, only to see the waitresses giggling behind their hands, and then point to their own shoed feed. Consider the reverse; I could have flip-flopped my way onto a restaurant tatami mat and ruined my cute-gaijin-in-a-Japanese-restaurant routine. Not cool.
Download Google Translate. Ordering can be fun, especially if there are no pictures and everything looks like chicken scratchings. This is when the Google Translate app is your personal god-send. It may take half an hour to take photos and read through one page of a menu, but it’s worth it if you don’t want the curry udon topped with mashed potato and ebifurai. Or do you?
Clear your throat. When you are ready to order, do as the others do – raise your hand and call out SOO-MI-MA-SEEEEEEN. This is not rude. Also, look out on your table for a call button – especially if you are at a sushi-train restaurant (which will invariably be one of the first places you will gorge yourself) . These buttons call the waiters over to count your pile of sushi plates, or to take your order in other restaurants.
Here are some common phrases you will need when dining out:
A table for one/two please
Do you have an English menu?
Eigo no menu wa arimasu ka?
Can I have a fork please (though sometimes this is offered without asking)?
Can I have some water please?
Can we please have the bill?
Okaikei onegai shimasu
I am so sorry, there is no table available now. We will have to ask you to wait.
Sumimasen, tadaima Manseki nanode, omachi itadaku koto ni narimasu.
OK, how long is the wait?
Machi-jikan wa dore kurai desu ka?
There is a waiting time of 220 minutes or so (if you are going to a restaurant on the weekend, or anywhere in Nagoya Station).
Machi-jikan wa nihyaku-nijuppun hodo ni narimasu.
Sorry, we don’t accept payments by credit card (always take cash with you).
Sumimasen, Card deno Oshiharai wa uketamawatte ori masen.
Hack your life
This one needs to stay within the gaijin community because it’s pretty embarrassing, but damn handy. If you have just finished your sando, venti Starbucks coffee or have a bag of wrappers from a recent conbini binge – how do you get rid of your rubbish when there is not a trash can in site? Simply turn around and there will most likely be a policeman, or police station behind you. Ask them “Gomi wa doko desu ka?” (Where is a rubbish bin?) The policeman will bow, then take your rubbish from you. This may be because they do not want to speak English, or because they are helping out the silly gaijin. – Lauren Ottaway