x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

How to eat in Japan

Protocol Japanese cuisine is among the best in the world, but the trials and tribulations of consuming it are not to be underestimated.

With its famously fresh fish, love of seasonal ingredients and enough Michelin stars to light up an entire city, Japan revels in its status as a nirvana for foodies. But although Japanese cuisine is among the best in the world, the trials and tribulations of consuming it without offending your host, fellow diners or even the souls of the deceased is not to be underestimated. Eating in Japan can easily slip into a disorientating quagmire of rules and rituals for the uninitiated - from whose glass to fill (any apart from your own), whether to slurp (only when eating noodles) to what to tip (nothing) and whether to eat with your hands (large sushi rolls only).

Firstly, a pre-dinner sock check is recommended to make sure they match: in many traditional restaurants, guests are required to remove shoes before sitting at low tables on tatami mats. Next, prepare for a quick clean-up. A white towel that is steaming hot or ice cold depending on the season will be presented to each guest in order to clean hands (as opposed to face, neck, or feet). Japanese meals almost always consist of sharing multiple small dishes and it's often best to leave the selection to your host, particularly as many restaurants do not have menus in English.

For solo diners who find there are no English menus available or plastic food models in the window - a popular trend in many restaurants - it is advised to simply smile, point to the next table and say: "Onagi mono o kudasai" - roughly translated as "I'll have what they're having". The most useful word to memorise in the world of Japanese dining and drinking accompanies raising a glass for a toast: "Kanpai!"

But the trickiest problem is yet to come - the dizzying world of how to use chopsticks. The number one rule is to always use the opposite (thicker) end when taking food from communal dishes; you should not use the end that you put into your mouth in communal bowls when helping yourself to food. Attempting to stab, pierce or skewer food with chopsticks is a no-no: instead, it is best to break up larger pieces in the bowl before transporting to the mouth. Pointing, waving or crossing chopsticks is also frowned upon. Never stick chopsticks vertically into your bowl, particularly if it contains rice, as this is an action reserved for funerals. Passing food from chopstick to chopstick between guests has similarly morbid connotations and is not recommended if you are keen to avoid offending the souls of the deceased.

Slurping noodles, however, is positively encouraged and it is not considered rude to raise the bowl directly to your mouth to drink up the final remnants of the dish. To obtain the bill at the meal's end, simply say "okanjo kudasai" before most commonly paying at the till at the restaurant's entrance. Some more exclusive western hotel restaurants aside, tipping is never expected. If diners do insist on leaving some money on the table, they should not be surprised to find themselves being chased down the street by staff determined to return the "forgotten" money.

Japan is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, but despite the litany of rules, there is one final point to remember. Your Japanese hosts will be more surprised if you don't break these rules than if you do, so it's best to relax and tuck in. travel@thenational.ae