Clients asked for my top Japan dining and Tokyo sushi bar tips, as they prepare for a first-time visit to Japan, so I thought this may be helpful for others who haven't been to Japan yet and are excited but also have some trepidation about how to avoid major faux pas. The Japanese are incredibly polite, and gracious about inadvertent mistakes if you're trying to be respectful.
1 Make Advance Reservations for Top Tokyo Sushi Bars, Using Your Hotel Concierge
If you love sushi, you're in for a treat. But with the increasing numbers of visitors to Tokyo and the fact that many sushi bars are tiny affairs, with just a few seats, it means getting a reservation has become harder. Keep in mind that most do not accept reservations from non-regulars more than the first business day of the month prior to when you wish to dine. So if you're visiting in April, the earliest you could make a reservation is March 1.
Be sure to enlist your hotel concierge for help, since at many of the sushi bars only Japanese is spoken, and they prefer to take reservations from a Japanese speaker.
2 Don't Expect to Get Into Jiro or a Handful of Other Top Sushi Bars Without a Connection
If you're hoping to dine at Jiro, Sushi Saito, or similar, I hope you have a Japanese contact who is a regular diner. That's because they rarely take reservations from non-regulars. Regular diners who have been coming there for years always have priority, so their reservation books fill up and no reservations are available even for the most skilled hotel concierges.
3. Expect to Provide a Credit Card Guarantee via Your Hotel
Unfortunately, some past foreign guests have been no shows after making reservations, so most top sushi bars and elite restaurants in Japan have had to institute draconian cancellation policies, such as a full meal price being charged if you cancel within a certain number of days before your reservation. Your hotel concierge will provide the cancellation policy, and require you to complete and sign a credit card authorization form, before making the reservation for you.
4. Be On Time
If you've ever taken a Japanese shinkansen (bullet train) you'll quickly understand how important punctuality is to the Japanese. So be on time for your reservation. In fact, some sushi bars have a policy that if you're more than a few minutes late, you'll both lose your spot at the sushi bar and also be required to pay the penalty specified by the cancellation policy.
5. If You Have Many Dietary Restrictions, Consider Sticking to Hotel Restaurants
While there are many restaurants in the U.S. that specialize in certain diets, from vegan to kosher to halal to gluten-free, it's really not fair to expect a sushi bar to suddenly prepare vegan creations or a small Italian place to have gluten-free options on hand. If you do have dietary restrictions, I would highly recommend sticking to hotel restaurants and even then, alerting them well in advance of your visit and planning out your meals. Also note that even with otherwise vegetarian food, many Japanese broths contain bonito (fish).
6. Don't Request Additional Soy Sauce or Wasabi
While at home you may be used to dunking your sushi heavily in soy sauce and adding additional wasabi, trust your sushi chef on the flavoring and don't ask to add additional soy or wasabi. He's already seasoned it exactly as it's meant to be tasted, and you'll be seriously insulting him if you insist on adding additional soy sauce or wasabi.
7. Don't Blow Your Nose at the Table
While slurping your udon or ramen noodles isn't rude and even conveys appreciation, don't blow your nose at the table, as this is a faux pas. You might instead want to excuse yourself to the bathroom and blow your nose there.
If you're in someone's home or a homestyle place, be sure to remove your house slippers and don the provided bathroom slippers, and of course switch back from bathroom slippers to regular house slippers afterwards.
8. Don't Stick Your Chopsticks into a Bowl of Rice
As in China, chopsticks should never be stuck upright into a bowl of rice, as this resembles the incense sticks used to mourn the dead.
9. Check Beforehand if Credit Cards Are Accepted
Perhaps surprisingly for such a modern, developed country, Japan is still highly cash-based. Although many high end restaurants and sushi bars do accept credit cards, some do not or strongly prefer cash, so be sure to find out ahead of time.
10. No Tipping
Tipping is not part of Japanese culture, and most top chefs would view it as insulting. In some hotel restaurants, however, there is a service charge added to the bill.
Have additional tips for dining in Japan? Share them in the comments.
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