This “How to” series is meant for people who just arrived in Japan and do not speak the language.
We first concentrate on the most important, food. Eating out can be very inexpensive while quality is usually decent.
The following account is general and will work for the inexpensive and relatively fast range of restaurants. Rules may differ for specific types of restaurants, which will be discussed afterward.
When entering a restaurant, you have to wait to be seated. The first thing you will be asked is how many people you are. Holding up the right amount of fingers works well. A possible next question is whether you want smokers (“tabacco”) or not. Then, you will be directed to your table.
In general, you will receive a cup of tea or a glass of iced water right away (some restaurants also have water pitchers and green tea powder at the table).
Choosing and ordering
Most restaurants have lunch menus (“setto”), which include several small dishes (next to the “main dish”, you usually get rice, pickles, possibly a soup) all served together. The setto is usually a good choice (also price wise). Most restaurants have pictures on their menus, at the very least for the setto. It’s fine to just point at the one you want. Otherwise restaurants usually have plastic food displays next to the entrance, so at worst you can lead the waiter outside and point at the one you want.
The food usually arrives quickly. For Japanese food, only chopsticks are offered. We never tried to ask for knife and fork, no idea whether this would work.
Paying and leaving
With your order, also the bill will arrive at your table and be either placed face down on the table or into a small container.
When you want to leave, just take the bill and hand it to the cashier which is located next to the entrance. Never tip, it is not done here at all. You will always receive the exact change.
Types of restaurants
In Japan, most restaurants are specialized in a specific type of food. You will not find e.g. sushi and udon on the same menu. Here, I will mention a few quick and inexpensive lunch options. Vegetarians are a bit out of luck here, since there is usually no strict separation between meat and vegetarian dishes. Even vegetable dishes may contain some non-vegetarian items.
- Udon is a relatively thick type of noodles, often served in broth, both hot or cold, or cold without broth. Udon is compatible with tempura (battered vegetables and prawns deep fried) or tonkatsu (breaded and deep fried pork cutlet (Schnitzel type)) with rice.
- Soba is another type of noodles made from buckwheat. It is often served cold, but can also come in hot soup. Tempura is often served together with it.
- Ramen came originally from China. The noodles are served in soup with a few slices of pork.
- Sushi, i.e. raw fish, comes in various forms and would actually deserve a post of its own. The restaurant rules differ a bit if you go to a running sushi. Here, the sushi moves past your table on a conveyor belt and you take what you want. Pay attention, items that come on a special plate that looks noticeably different from the others might have been ordered specially by someone, those you are not supposed to take. Depending on the system, you either stack the empty plates and when you want to leave, the waitress will come to your table and figure out how much you have to pay based on what kind of empty plates you have. Another possibility is that there is a slot to put the empty plates through and they get counted automatically. Even if the waitress had to come to your table, you still have to take the bill (or in the automatic system, something that just says your table number) yourself to the checkout counter.
- Curry does not mean Indian curry here. It’s actually supposed to be a Western dish. You get a plate with half rice, half small pieces of beef in a brown sauce. There are specialized curry places, but also many generic places have it on their menu, along with other generic things like omurice (rice covered with an omelet) or tonkatsu.