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Going to restaurants in a country where you don’t speak the native language can sometimes be a daunting experience. This is especially true in Japan, where you can’t always guarantee a given restaurant’s wait staff will have someone who speaks English. (Or even have menus in English, for that matter.)
The good news is that, if you know at least some basic Japanese, picking up what you need to order at a restaurant isn’t an ordeal. Use this short guide to get you in the door and get food in your belly.
When entering a restaurant in Japan, in the majority of cases you will be approached by a member of staff before you sit down. The first question they will ask is about the number of your group. Use the following structures below, or don’t feel hesitant about just holding up the relevant number of fingers.
Q: How many of you are there?
⇒ 何名様ですか？ (nanmei-sama desu ka?)
⇒ 1人です。 (hitori desu.) Two.
⇒ 2人です。 (futari desu.)
A2: Someone will be coming later.
⇒ 後でもう1人が来ます。 (ato de mou hitori ga kimasu.)
You can replace the number of people with any of the vocab below.
If you’ve reserved a table in advance, then feel free to tell them this along with your name.
予約をしています。NAMEです。 (yoyaku o shiteimasu. NAME desu.)
If the restaurant has a smoking area, mostly found in family restaurants but also some restaurants too, they will ask you whether you want to be seated in the smoking area or not. Non-smoking seats usually fill up faster, so for those who don’t mind cigarette smoke and are happy to sit with the smokers, even if you don’t smoke, feel free to let the server know.
Q: Would you prefer the smoking or non-smoking area?
⇒ 喫煙席、禁煙席、どちらがよろしいでしょうか？ (kitsuen-seki, kin’en-seki, dochira ga yoroshii deshou ka?)
A: Smoking, please.
⇒ 喫煙席で。 (kitsuen-seki de.)
⇒ 禁煙席で。 (kin’en-seki de.)
Either is fine.
⇒ どちらでも大丈夫です。 (dochira demo daijoubu desu.)
After this the member of staff will lead you to your table. Right this way!
⇒ こちらへどうぞ！ (kochira e douzo!)
You’ve made it in – great! Now for the next challenge, the menu. If there is not already a menu on the table, a member of staff will bring one over. However, note that at some eateries the menu is displayed on small placards on the wall. In either case, if you find yourself menu-less, flag down a member of staff and feel free to ask for one.
Do you have a(n English) menu?
⇒ (英語の）メニューはありますか？ (eigo no menyuu wa arimasu ka?)
Is there a drinks menu?
⇒ ドリンクメニューはありますか？ (dorinku menyuu wa arimasu ka?)
There may be cases where there may not be an English menu. But don’t panic. Many Japanese menus come with pictures, so feel free to look for and point out something that looks good.
When you’re ready to order you need to grab the attention of a passing waiter, or even the owner stood behind the bar. Although it’s better to catch their eye and raise your hand slightly to gesture you’re ready to order, it’s useful to note that it’s not frowned upon to call “Sumimasen!” (すみません; excuse me!) to a member of the staff to get their attention. (Unlike in the United States and some other countries, you don’t have to wait to get the attention of “your” server.)
Japanese customer service is fond of filling in any blank spaces with words, and at this point the waiter will most likely apologize for making you wait and ask if you are ready to order, お待たせいたしました。ご注文をお伺いします。 (omatase itashimashita. gochuumon o oukagai itashimasu). These phrases are mainly for purposes of etiquette, so don’t be too confused at the barrage of statements!
There are cases where the waiter may come along before you’ve had a chance to catch their attention, where they may ask you if you’ve made you’ve chosen yet.
Q: Have you decided what you would like?
⇒ ご注文はお決まりですか？ (gochuumon wa okimari desu ka?)
⇒ はい。 (hai.)
⇒ まだです。 (mada desu.)
When you’re ready to order, it’s a simple matter of reading the name of the menu item you would like and adding “kudasai” (ください; please) afterwards. If you’re uncertain of how to pronounce anything, it’s more than okay just to point and say, “this please.”
If you’re ordering multiples, or simply want to specify you only want one of something, all you need to do is add the number in between the dish name and the “kudasai.”
Three colas please.
⇒ コーラを3つください。 (coora o mittsu kudasai.)
Two curries please.
⇒ カレーを2つください。 (karee o futatsu kudasai.)
When you’re done tell the waiter 以上です (ijou desu) to let them know that’s everything.
There may be a few other questions you may want to ask. You may want extra napkins (ナプキン; napukin), ketchup (ケチャップ; kechappu), chopsticks (お箸; ohashi) or a knife and fork (ナイフとフォーク; naifu to fooku). There’s a handy one-size-fits-all expression for this.
Can I have XX, please?
⇒ XXをもらってもいいですか？ (XX o morattemo ii desu ka?)
If you’re in need of the bathroom, feel free to ask お手洗いはどこですか？ (otearai wa doko desu ka?).
Asking For The Check
Once you’ve had your fill of food, it’s time to get the check. Beforehand, a waiter may come over to collect the plates. They will ask お皿をお下げしてもよろしいですか？ (osara o osage shitemo yoroshii desu ka?). There’s no set response to this, so feel free to just say “hai!” (はい; yes). Once you’re ready to get the check, simply tell a waiter you would like to pay by saying, お会計お願いします。 (okaikei o onegai shimasu).
It is important to note that there is no set rule as to whether a restaurant will have the prices listed with or without consumption tax. As tax in Japan gets changed relatively frequently, many places will opt to list prices without tax so as to avoid reprinting menus. Tax is currently 8% (and likely being raised to 10% in October 2019), so don’t be surprised if the overall price is a bit higher than expected.
In Japan, you do not need to tip. However, one thing to bear in mind, is that some places will charge a service charge, or an お通し (otooshi). This is more common in izakaya and Japanese style restaurants, so keep an eye out for otooshi on the check as you get your money ready. This charge is usually justified by a small dish at the beginning of the meal, so don’t be too shocked if you’re served some edamame beans before you’ve even had a chance to order. Whether a place will give you an otooshi or not is not always listed on the menu, but the common etiquette is to pay, although there is constant debate about its utility online.
Depending on the type of restaurant you go to, you either pay at the table or at the till. As a general rule, at restaurants, sushi places, and bars, you pay at the table, but at chain restaurants and larger establishments, you will go up to the till to pay.
If you came as a group, you need to then decide whether you’re paying separately or individually – everyone’s most hated part of the evening. The person at the till will ask お支払いはご一緒ですか？個別ですか？ (oshiharai wa goissho desu ka? kobetsu desu ka?) If one very generous person is paying for everyone, or a representative has collected all the money for everyone, tell the server you want to pay it all together, 一緒でお願いします。 (issho de onegai shimasu). If everyone is paying separately, say 別々でお願いします。 (betsubetsu de onegai shimasu). Next up, you’ll be asked whether you want to pay by cash or by card.
Q: How would you like to pay?
⇒ お会計はどうなさいますか？ (okaikei wa dou nasaimasu ka?)
A: By cash please.
⇒ 現金でお願いします。 (genkin de onegai shimasu)
⇒ By card please. カードでお願いします。 (kaado de onegai shimasu)
If you’re paying by card, they may ask for your PIN or for you to sign.
Please enter your PIN.
⇒ 暗証番号を入力してください。 (anshou bangou o nyuuryoku shite kudasai)
Please sign here.
⇒ こちらにサインをお願いします。 (kochira ni sain o onegai shimasu)
Take note that as cash is favored, not all places will be happy with splitting the check among many customers all paying by card.
Despite the lack of contactless card payment, more places are moving towards using LINE Pay or Apple Pay, so it’s worth seeing if they have stickers put up saying that these payment methods are accepted.
With that, everything is done! You have successfully made it to the end. If you have particularly enjoyed your meal, you can tell the staff ごちそうさまでした (goshisou sama deshita), “Thank you for the meal”, as you leave. The servers will thank you and ask you to come again.
ありがとうございました。またお越しください！ (arigatou gozaimashita. mata okoshi kudasai!)
Other Helpful Resources for Japanese Restaurant Ordering
Japanese dialogue – eating at a restaurant. Video from the Victoria State Government in Australia that demonstrates the basics of ordering.
Guide to Eating Sushi in Japan – Etiquette and More. A thorough guide to the sushi experience.