Japanese food is renowned for comprising one of the most healthy diets in the world. The Japanese diet promotes good health and an often surprisingly long life. The foods in Japan are lean, wholesome, and embody many more nutrients than the often over-processed diets of Western cultures. Japanese dining customs are as much a part of every meal as the food is and make up a strong component of traditional culture here. You'll see many of these customs practiced in traditional restaurants in Japan, as well as in homes across the country. Dining in Japan can be a delight, especially in cosmopolitan cities such as Tokyo where the array of restaurants can be dazzling.
There is a long list of Japanese food that has become well-known internationally. Sushi and sashimi—bite size rice and seaweed wraps coupled with vegetables and raw fish—hit a longstanding trend and is still popular around the globe. Miso soup, green tea, tofu, and soba (buckwheat) noodles are some of the other popular staples of Japanese food. Tempura is another of the well-known foods in Japan. Lightly deep fried and battered, this dish can encompass almost anything, from shrimp to vegetables. It is often served with a side bowl of soup or rice.
Another familiar Japanese food is the traditional stew or sukiyaki, prepared and served in a way that is unique to each region. In larger cities like Tokyo and Okinawa, these stews are often served in local restaurants and by street vendors. The savory concoction is often made with beef and vegetables such as shiitake mushrooms, green onion, and shungiko, or chrysanthemum leaves. Add some noodles and tofu and a sauce of soy, sake, and sugar, and simmer.
Anyone on Japanese vacations should familiarize themselves with main Japanese dining customs. Anyone enjoying dinner cruises, visiting for Christmas, staying at resorts, or accepting an invitation for dinner—among the countless other scenarios that involve eating—should know the basics; which include paying and tipping practices, ritual expressions, using chopsticks, pouring drinks, and more.
Before each meal, it is customary to say "Itadakimasu!" which means "I humbly receive this meal" and expresses appreciation for the generosity. Proposing a toast is another of the regular Japanese dining customs, said "Kan-pai." It can be translated as "cheers." Complimenting your host's food is common, as it is around the world. This is said "Oi-shii de-su!" meaning "This takes great!" Post-meal customs include an expression to thank the host for the tasty meal you have eaten, and is pronounced " Go-chi-so-sama de-shita!"
There are numerous other notable Japanese dining and eating customs. Walking and eating on the street or on any trains in Japan is considered rude, but it is acceptable to stand and dine at noodle and sushi stands. When having drinks in a social setting, it is customary to pour drinks for one another. So, in essence, never leave your drinking partner to pour his or her own drinks.
It is paramount to use specific table manners while eating Japanese food in the country. In some restaurants, shoes are removed when sitting down at low tables. Before eating foods in Japan, especially at restaurants, guests use the "oshibori" or hot towel offered to wipe their hands. Most people eat with chopsticks in Japan and there are manners to observe with them as well. Do not wave them around, point with them, or using them to pass food around the table. It is also widely considered to be very bad luck to stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice and leave them there. These are essential Japanese dining customs in every situation. To take food from a common dish, flip your sticks around and use the wide end that points toward you when eating. When eating miso, it's the norm to drink the broth directly from the bowl and eat solid ingredients with chopsticks.
Getting on well in Japan only takes a little bit of preparation. The more Japanese dining customs you know, the better you'll get along and the more you'll impress with your prowess. Though many of the food names might be unfamiliar, be sure to try out a wide variety of the foods in Japan you encounter. Dishes differ regionally too, so try things more than once to experience the distinct flavors and cooking styles of each region.