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The Sashimi Code

How to eat like a Tokyoite

Author Chris Wright Illustration Marc Rosenthal


TOKYO – If you enjoy a parade, there are worse places to be than Tokyo in August. This month is chock-full of festivals, with streets awash in music and light and women in inscrutable hats. But don’t let the gaiety fool you: Japanese culture is, as ever, riddled with etiquette traps—especially in restaurants. Luckily, there are ways to have a post-festival meal without looking like a total baka.

1 Make Your Entrance
Enter soberly and smartly dressed. There may be plastic replica food on display—don’t pretend to eat it. Wait to be seated by the host, who will likely use the traditional formal greeting, “Irasshaimase.” Smile, bow your head and try to refrain from saying, “Gesundheit.”
2 Take Your Seat
This step is complicated by the fact that there may not be any seats. If there’s a zashiki setup, with pillows or mats at a low table, remove your shoes, then kneel (preferred, but painful), sit cross-legged (men) or with your legs tucked to the side (women). It is never OK to lie down.
3 Order Your Meal
Unless you speak Japanese, ordering will consist of pointing, either at menu images or plastic food. When the meal arrives, you may be surprised to find that what looked like a soufflé is really a sea urchin. Receive it with a polite “Itadakimasu,” resisting the urge to make the last syllable sound like “ew.”

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