The Beauty of Japanese Dining Etiquette

To learn more about how to enjoy Japanese food the traditional way, we sought advice from the staff at Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo Ryotei Kinsui, who run classes on culinary appreciation and etiquette.

Manner Class for Japanese Dining (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

From the dishes to the utensils and the tranquil ambiance of the room in which it's served, every element is carefully considered.In Japan's culinary culture, eating a meal is an immersive experience. Recognizing the gifts of the nation's four distinct seasons, and appreciating the art of local hospitality - known in Japanese as 'omotenashi' - is as important as tasting the diverse and carefully crafted dishes themselves. To learn more about how to enjoy Japanese food the traditional way, we sought advice from the staff at Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo Ryotei Kinsui, who run classes on culinary appreciation and etiquette.

Chopsticks (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to use chopsticks

You use different chopsticks for different occasions.
The chopstick in the picture is a “Rikyū Chopstick” , which was made and used by Sen no Rikyū of the Momoyama Era (1573-1603) who had a major impact on Japanese culture and created the “Wabicha” tea format. It was created from Rikyu’s way of tea that prioritized connections with the customers, rather than the status of the tools.

Unlike ordinary chopsticks, there are “Yanagi chopsticks” and “Iwai chopsticks” which are used during events such as New Years. The length is said to be lucky. While many other chopsticks have a thick end and a narrow one, these ends are the same and are all thin. The idea is that one end is for the diner, the other for the 'kami,' god in Japanese.

When separating the chopsticks, hold them sideways and remove them carefully. Do not tear the paper bindings like the ones you see in the picture of the Rikyu chopsticks. If necessary, this piece of paper can be used as a 'hashioki' or chopstick rest.

How to Hold Chopsticks (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to hold chopsticks

While it may take some getting used to, there is a specific way to hold chopsticks. The best way to do learn the technique is first to hold the upper chopstick like you would a pencil with your grip sitting at the top third of the sticks.

The second chopstick sits on your third (ring) finger and is held with the base of your thumb. Once your grip feels comfortable, you should be able to move the top chopstick up and down - like in a pinching motion - while the bottom chopstick stays relatively stationary.

Chopsticks (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Small Plates (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to hold your plate

Carry food to your mouth by using chopstick on the plate to make them into bite sized pieces to make delivery easy.

While holding your hand under your food as a makeshift plate, instead of holding a real plate may feel polite, in Japanese dining, this move is considered a little improper.

It's best always to use a plate or a piece of paper known as a 'kaishi' (often seen with Japanese sweets) if it is available to you.

How to hold Chopsticks and Washoki (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Have you tried to pick up chopsticks with one hand? It's hard! If you're holding a small plate in one hand and want to pick up your chopsticks in an elegant fashion, there is a little tip.

Pick your chopsticks up with your dominant hand, then use your opposite hand's forefinger and middle finger to steady the chopsticks while you get a better grip like the one shown in the earlier image.

Holding Kobachi (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Pouring and being Poured Sake (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Drinking and sharing sake

While in western dining, it's seen as good manners to refill someone else's glass before you pour your own, there's no hard and fast rule to follow.

The Japanese etiquette around alcohol, however, is a lot more intricate. Many of the actions are based on the traditional ideologies of hospitality known in Japanese as 'omotenashi.' It's common for people to serve alcohol - like sake - to their fellow diners, rather than letting people pour themselves.

There's a hierarchy too; you should always be attentive and pour a drink for guests of those who may have a higher status to you (maybe a boss, for example).

Manner Class for Japanese Dining (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Owan' (Bowls) (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Admiring the tableware

In fine Japanese dining, the way the dishes are presented is as important as the food itself. Oftentimes the plates show a part of nature, whether it be plants such as plums, pines and bamboos that show the seasons, or animals that are considered to be good luck. In Japanese cuisine the restaurants entertain the customers by changing the plates based on the season.

When opening the owan, support the owan with your non-dominant hand and lift the top of the lid with your forefinger and thumb.

Owan' (Bowls) (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to open the shiruwan

The lid on the owan is to preserve heat and to enjoy the smell of the soup. When opening the lid of a shiruwan, you lift the side closest to you. That way, you show the design underneath the lid of the shiruwan to the people in front of you, while allowing the eater to enjoy the smell and the beauty of the food inside. When eating, flip the lid upside down, and place it next to the plate.

Owan' (Bowls) (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Owan' (Bowls) (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Types of Japanese bowls: shiruwan, kozuimonowan and nimonowan

The only culture in the world that eats food while holding the dishes in their hand is Japan. To hold the owan beautifully, place all fingers besides the thumb underneath the bowl, and place the thumb as support on the rim of the owan.

Holding it by using all fingers around the owan is against the manner so be careful.

Owan' (Bowls) (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

When drinking soup-like foods, hold the bowl up with both hands, and after you have enjoyed the scent, drink while being careful of making a lot of noise. When using a chopstick, put the chopstick directly into the soup and take turns eating the ingredients and drinking the soup.

Sashimi (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Eating sashimi

Fresh sashimi is one of Japan's most exquisite dishes and one you'll often see in high-end dining. Some people may get confused by the difference between sushi and sashimi. Sashimi, to clarify, is fresh raw fish or meat sliced into thin pieces, while the latter features vinegared rice.

Most sashimi dishes are served with sides like soy sauce 'shoyu,' wasabi, and perilla leaf 'shiso leaf,' and shredded white Japanese radish, 'daikon,' which helps with digestion.

Sashimi (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to prepare sashimi sauce

Often sashimi is presented with shiso flowers, sometimes known as Japanese basil. It's a fragrant purple flower-like herb that's not just lovely decoration but is also said to prevent food poisoning.

Hold the stem part and use your chopstick with the chopstick to squeeze the Shiso into your soy sauce. Eat the sashimi with this soy sauce and a part of the shiso and you will feel an elegant and lively taste spreading throughout your mouth.

When you eat sashimi, don't mix the wasabi into the sauce but instead apply it to each piece of sashimi. To prevent the soy sauce from dripping off of the sashimi, you can raise the small soy-sauce plate up as you eat the sashimi.

Condiments (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to eat the chrysanthemum flower

We’ll introduce another way to eat garnish. If you know this you’re sure to be a Japanese food expert. They are the chrysanthemum flowers next to your sashimi. This is not just for decorations but can also be eaten with sashimi. Chrysanthemum flowers have the ability to kill bacteria and also to raise Glutathione levels. Take off the petals, put them in the soy sauce and eat them with the sashimi. It looks better and you get a more diverse aroma and texture.

They are the ultimate sidekick to a main dish, and were used back when refrigerators were not common, in order to kill bacteria.

Yakimono (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to eat cooked fish

Eating cooked fish may seem difficult but once you get the hang of it, it will become very easy.

When it is a fish with a head and tail, the head is served on the left. Put your chopsticks along the backbone of the fish and make small cuts to separate the meat from the rest. Eat the top half of the meat from the right side (tail side) all the way to the head. Once you have done the same with the bottom half, remove the inner bones.

Chawanmushi (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to enjoy chawanmushi

When eating chawanmushi, eat them one bite at a time with spoons. They are served hot so be careful. You can enjoy unique colorings, flavors and scents that are unique to steamed foods.

Tempura (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to eat tempura

In the Edo period, tempuras were eaten at food carts. In order to enjoy the texture and the aroma of the crispy outer coating, eat ones that are freshly fried.

Similar to sashimi and other Japanese foods, whe multiple tempura are served, the least flavorful ones are placed in the front, and the most flavorful tempura are placed in the back. Eat them from least flavorful, to most flavorful. Salt and tsuyu are common additions to tempuras.

Wagashi (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

How to eat Japanese sweets (wagashi)

Synonymous with the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, 'wagashi' are Japanese sweets that are beautiful but typically simple in ingredients.

The three typical ingredients that go into 'wagashi' are 'mochi' (pounded rice), 'anko' (azuki, aka red bean paste), and sugar.

An embodiment of the delicate nature of Japan's culinary culture, these sweets are often intricate in design and are reflective of the seasons.

Wagashi are an integral part of tea time and next to them are toothpicks called Kuromoji. Use the Kuromoji to cut the wagashi into bite size pieces to eat.

Mrs. Shinmori, the Head of Hotel Tsubakiyamasou Tokyo (2020)Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

There's something so immersive about enjoying a traditional Japanese meal. From the art and precision that goes into the dishes, to the way each plate varies depending on the passing seasons.
Born from the art of the traditional tea ceremony and developed over centuries, the Japanese dining experience is imbued with so much meaning.

In Japan, there is a word that describes the preparation for hospitality, known as “Shitsurai.” Shitsurai can be written in two different ways, both of which means “to decorate and prepare the atmosphere.” This doesn’t just mean to decorate the place, but wash the front gates with water, taking care of the gardens and arranging the room, dishes and flowers according to the seasons. These are all in place to think about the customers and to assure a pleasant experience.

They say the best way to experience a culture is through its food, and this couldn't be more true in Japan. From the ideologies of 'wabi-sabi' - an appreciation of the delicate fleetingness of life and seasons - to the proud 'omotenashi' style of hospitality, experiencing a Japanese meal is a precious lesson in culinary culture and excellence.

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo Ryotei Kinsui

Photos: Mitsugu Uehara
Text: Lucy Dayman
Text & Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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