Dining Out in Japan: How to Order Food in Japanese like a Pro
Japan has some of the best food in the world. I’m talking about finger-licking, lip-smacking, and spine-shivering deliciousness. However, many restaurants in Japan don’t have an English speaking staff. Sure, you could use gestures and very simple English to your point across. Or you can follow these 7 steps and you’ll be ordering like a boss in any Japanese restaurant.
7 Steps to Master Ordering Food in Japanese
Step 1: Entering the Restaurant
When you first enter a restaurant, sometimes you’ll see an area with small lockers by the entrance. These are for your shoes. So take off your shoes and put them into a locker before stepping up into the actual restaurant area. Many lockers use a big wooden block, about the size of a deck of playing cards as a key. So be sure to take this with you after putting your shoes inside a locker.
*Note: Most doors are either normal swinging or sliding doors. Once in a while you might see an automatic door with a big grey button where you normally would find the door handle. This is the button you press to open the door.
Shoe lockers are usually found in casual restaurants, like izakaya (Japanese pub/taverns), but can also be found in some upscale restaurants. Some nicer Japanese restaurants will have Japanese tables where you sit on the floor. These places will usually have lockers for your shoes.
Step 2: Getting Seated – Do I Seat Myself or Wait for the Staff?
In most restaurants in Japan, you will be seated by one of the staff members. Even many casual restaurants like ramen shops will have a staff member to direct you to a seat. Only the most casual restaurants (McDonalds, beef bowls, mom and pop restaurants, etc.) will have self seating.
Upon entering a restaurant, you’ll probably hear the staff say “いらっしゃいませ! ” (Irasshaimase). This is a greeting used to welcome customers. The staff will probably then ask you “何名さまですか ？(nan mei sama desu ka),” which means “how many in your party?”
You can either answer in Japanese using the counters for people, or simply show how many in your party with your fingers. So if you have two people in your party, you would hold up two fingers, just like giving a peace sign. Japanese people do this as well, so you can easily be seated without using any Japanese at all.
When the staff is ready to seat you, they will say “お席へ案内します。” (O-seki e annai shimasu.) which means “I’ll show you to your seat.”
Smoking or Non-Smoking? Type of Seating?
Most, but not all restaurants in Japan are non-smoking. Once in a while you may be asked if you want a smoking or non-smoking seat. There are quite a few smoke-free restaurants lately, so all you non-smokers can rejoice.
おタバコは吸われますか？–> O-tabako wa suwaremasu ka? (Do you smoke?)
Smoking Seat: 喫煙席ーきつえんせき (kitsuen seki)
Non-Smoking Seat: 禁煙席ーきんえんせき(kin-en seki)
You could just say “kinen seki“ for a non-smoking seat. Or you could add “onegai shimasu” at the end to be more polite. Example: Kinen seki onegai shimasu.
Step 3: Flagging down the Wait Staff
When you want to get the attention of your waiter or waitress, you need to say “すみません” (sumimasen) out loud. It’s the English equivalent of “excuse me.” Sometimes, there will be a button on your table that you can press to call your server over.
When your server comes over, they will probably ask, “ご注文はお決まりですか (gochumon wa okimari desu ka)?” This means, “Have you decided on your order?” Just say yes (はい – hai) and then place your order.
Sometimes your server will come over to your table to see if you are ready to order. But most of the time, you will need to call them over yourself. If you don’t, you could be waiting for an hour and half without anyone coming to check up on you (yup, that happened to me).
Step 4: Ordering Your Food
To order in Japanese, just say the name of the dish followed by how many orders of it you want. For example, if you want 3 tempura sets, you would say “tenpura setto, mittsu (kudasai).” The “kudasai“ means please, and is optional. To learn how to count in Japanese, check out the Japanese numbering chart here.
If you can’t say the name of the dish, or can’t read the Japanese but want to be adventurous and order it anyway, you can just point and say, “これをください (kore o kudasai).” “Kore” means “this,” and “kudasai” means “please,” so together it means “I’ll have this please.”
Asking for Recommendations
If you can’t read anything on the menu or don’t know what to order, you can ask your server for any recommendations by saying, “おすすめはありますか(osusume wa arimasu ka?)”
Finish Placing Your Order
When you are finished placing your order, you say “以上(いじょう-)です(ijou desu).” This will let your server know you are finished ordering.
Step 5: Getting Exactly What You Want
In most casual Japanese restaurants, you can’t, or shouldn’t ask to make special dishes. I’m not saying you can’t make special requests. It is possible, but it is not a part of the culture and will probably be considered weird/rude in many restaurants. Some smaller mom and pop shops will probably try their best if you have any special requests. But if possible, try to be adventurous and try the dishes as they are.
The exception is nicer, upscale restaurants. Since many of these restaurants have set course menus, they might ask you beforehand if there are any foods that you can’t eat. If there are any foods that you don’t like or can’t eat, use this expression:
I don’t like / can’t eat ______. – ________ が苦手です。(_____ ga nigate desu).
Example: I don’t like pork. – 豚肉が苦手です。(butaniku ga nigate desu).
Of course, if you have any food allergies, it’s important to know what is in the dish that you want to order. Use this question to ask if a certain food/ingredient is in a dish you want to order.
Does this have _______ in it? – _______ が入っていますか？ (___ga haitte imasu ka?)
Example: Does this have nuts in it? – これはナッツが入っていますか？ (kore wa nattsu ga haitte imasu ka?)
Step 6: Where’s My Order?
The service in Japan is probably the best in the world, but it might be possible that your server forgot your order, or never took down your order in the first place. Or maybe you have been waiting for a long time and are wondering if your order is coming. In either case, just use this phrase and you’ll be good to go.
Excuse me, but we haven’t gotten our _________ yet. 注文していた________がまだ来ていないんですけど。。。(Chuumon shite-ita _________ ga mada kite-inain desu kedo…)
Example: We haven’t gotten the tempura we ordered yet. – 注文していた天ぷらがまだ来ていないんですけど。。。(Chuumon shite-ita tempura ga mada kite-inain desu kedo…)
Step 7: Getting the Check, Paying Your Bill and Leaving a Tip
When you are ready to pay the bill, you need to get the check from your server. If there is a button to call your server on your table, you can use that. If not, say “すみません” (sumimasen) to call one of the servers over to your table.
To ask for the check, say “会計お願いします” (kaikei onegai shimasu). This means, “check please.” Some of the more casual restaurants will leave the check on your table after you get your order. Sometimes, there is a little shelf under or on the side of the table where the server will leave your bill. So check to see if it’s there first.
Once you get your bill, bring it to the cashier, which is almost always located near the entrance of the restaurant.
**Remember that many smaller, mom and pop restaurants take cash only. If you eat in an upscale, hotel, or department store restaurant, paying by any major credit cards should be no problem (Visa and Mastercard).
You don’t leave a tip at any restaurant. For many of you, especially from tipping countries like the USA, it might feel weird at first to not leave a tip. But tipping is not the custom in Japan. You don’t tip in restaurants, taxis, hotels, or pretty much anywhere. If you leave money on the table in a restaurant, the staff will think you forgot it there and may come chasing after you to return it. So don’t worry about leaving tips in Japan. It is becoming more common for people to give their change to taxi drivers, but they don’t expect it.
This is just a basic guide to ordering in Japanese restaurants, but the phrases taught here will enable you to eat at most restaurants in Japan. If you want to learn more and become fluent in Japanese, check out my #1 recommendation here. The online lessons there are excellent, and really took my Japanese to the next level.
If you have specific questions or advice about how to order in restaurants in Japan, leave a comment below. Cheers!