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Learn These Japanese Kanji and You’ll Be Fine! (Restaurant Edition)

When visiting Japan, you are sure to encounter kanji (Chinese characters used in written Japanese) wherever you go. Despite these same characters being used in a number of countries, Japanese usages and nuances can be completely different, leading to difficulties. This themed selection of kanji commonly encountered at restaurants will help to avoid these problems!

1. Kanji Indicating Amounts

▼大 (Dai) / 中 (Chu) / 小 (Sho)▼
"Dai" is used at restaurants to indicate large portions, while "sho" is used for smaller portions. "Chu" represents either medium size or a standard amount. For example, a large serving of rice would be written as ライス(大) (Rice (Dai)).

▼並 (Nami)▼
This kanji means "normal". At restaurants, it indicates that a portion is generally average-sized, similar to "chu".

▼大盛り (Omori)▼
This indicates that you will get a generous portion of food. It is often used at ramen and gyudon (rice bowl dish with beef) restaurants, and like "dai" indicates that the portion size is quite large.

▼おかわり自由 (Okawari Jiyu)▼
This phrase means that refills for the same dish or drink are free of charge. Many restaurants offer things like "okawari jiyu" rice and tsukemono (Japanese pickles).

2. Kanji for Menus

▼お品書き (Oshinagaki)▼
This refers to a list of all the food and drink options available at the restaurant. It is also sometimes written as 御品書, but the meaning is identical.

▼献立 (Kondate)▼
This word describes the contents and order of dishes for things like course meals. Some restaurants use this word interchangeably with oshinagaki.

3. Kanji Expressing Ranks of Menu Items

▼松 (Matsu) / 竹 (Take) / 梅 (Ume)▼
These three characters literally mean "pine", "bamboo", and "plum", but can also be used to indicate rank. "Matsu" is the best, "take" the second-best, and "ume" is the third-best. Course options might be labelled 松コース (Matsu Course), 竹コース (Take Course), or 梅コース (Ume Course), for example.

▼上 (Jo) / 特上 (Tokujo)▼
"Jo" is a higher rank than normal, and "tokujo" is one rank above that. For example, at a yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) restaurant, a piece of meat could be written prefixed with "jo" or "tokujo", such as 上ロース (Jo Loin). Some places may also designate a standard rank with 並 (nami).

▼特選 (Tokusen)▼
This word indicates that an item has been chosen very carefully for its excellent qualities, and is also often used to prefix items, such as a special ingredient.

4. Common Kanji at Ramen Restaurants

▼替玉 (Kaedama)▼
"Kaedama" refers to a system at ramen restaurants where customers can receive a refill of noodles, but not soup or toppings. This is a great option for when you've eaten all your noodles but still want more!

▼豚骨 (Tonkotsu) / 醤油 (Shoyu) / 味噌 (Miso)▼
You will often encounter ramen menu items with a prefix, such as 豚骨ラーメン (tonkotsu ramen), 醤油ラーメン (shoyu ramen), or 味噌ラーメン (miso ramen). This indicates whether the soup base is made with tonkotsu (pork bones), shoyu (soy sauce), or miso (soybean paste).

▼葱 (Negi) / 味玉 (Ajitama)▼
"Negi" means green onions, while "ajitama" refers to an egg that has been steeped in a sauce such as shoyu for flavoring. These are both standard ramen toppings.

▼背脂 (Seabura)▼
This is fat taken from a pig's back area, and is an ingredient used to enrich the soup and add flavor.

5. Kanji for Common Seasonings

▼一味 (Ichimi)▼
"Ichimi" refers to chili pepper seeds that have been dried and ground into a powder. This seasoning is notable for its tingling spiciness, and is excellent for adding a little extra heat to dishes like udon (thick noodle dish) or gyudon.

▼七味 (Shichimi)▼
"Shichimi" is short for "Shichimi Togarashi" (7-spice chili pepper), and is made from a mixture of 7 types of ingredients and spices. These ingredients vary by maker, and can include sansho (strong Japanese pepper), sesame seeds, and chimpi (dried mikan (citrus fruit) peel). Ichimi adds a simple spicy flavor to dishes, but shichimi is known for its complex, rich scent and flavor. Choose one to match whatever you are in the mood to eat!

Other more familiar seasonings include 塩 (shio), or salt; 胡椒 (kosho), pepper; and 砂糖 (sato), sugar. Learn these characters and you will have a good sense of dishes' flavors when reading a Japanese menu.

6. Kanji Indicating Flavor Intensity

▼濃いめ (Koime) / 普通 (Futsu) / 薄め (Usume)▼
Dishes noted as "koime" will have a strong flavor. Medium intensity is designated as "futsu", while even milder flavors will be labeled as "usume". Some ramen places offer customers the option of choosing if they would prefer their soup as "koime", "futsu", or "usume".

7. Kanji Indicating Spice Levels

▼ピリ辛 (Pirikara)▼
This word refers to the tingling spicy sensation on your tongue when eating pepper or chili peppers. Spice levels vary from restaurant to restaurant, but generally this word means "slightly spicy".

▼中辛 (Chukara) / 大辛 (Okara) / 激辛 (Gekikara) / 超激辛 (Chogekikara)▼
These kanji represent spice levels, with spiciness increasing from left to right. "Gekikara" and "chogekikara" will be extremely spicy, so be careful if you don't handle spice well!

8. Kanji Used When Choosing and Ordering Food

▼料理 (Ryori)▼
This word can mean dish, cuisine, or cooking in English. "Ryori" is combined with names of ingredients, countries of origin, or place names to express a certain kind of food. For example, food centered around meat is 肉料理 (niku ryori), while distinctly Japanese food is 日本料理 (Nihon ryori).

▼食べ物 (Tabemono) / 飲み物 (Nomimono)▼
These words respectively mean "food" and "drink" in English. For example, 飲み物メニュー (nomimono menu) would be a drink menu. Furthermore, 食べ放題 (tabehodai) and 飲み放題 (nomihodai) mean all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink.

▼注文 (Chumon)▼
This word means to order food and drink. Some restaurants have a touch panel at each seat or a button labeled "chumon" that is used to summon the staff when you want to place an order.

▼定食 (Teishoku)▼
This is a set meal that combines a main dish with sides like rice and soup. "Teishoku" is often used as a suffix, such as 焼肉定食 (yakiniku teishoku).

▼名物 (Meibutsu)▼
This word indicates that an item is a well-known local product. Some restaurants may also use this word to indicate particularly popular dishes. Be sure to order anything labeled "meibutsu" that you encounter on a menu!

▼お薦め (Osusume)▼
Some restaurants' menus may have a section labeled "osusume", and it may also appear in front of a name of a dish. This indicates that this food or drink is recommended by the restaurant, and will also help guide you when ordering.

9. Kanji Used When Paying the Bill

▼会計 (Kaikei)▼
This is the amount due. If an area in the restaurant is labeled "kaikei", then this is where you pay.

▼お釣り (Otsuri)▼
This is the change you receive when you overpay. You are probably quite used to seeing this on receipts.

▼両替 (Ryogae)▼
This word means to have a given amount of money converted into different sized bills or coins. For example, asking to have a 1,000 JPY bill broken into 10 100 JPY coins would be "ryogae".

▼無料 (Muryo)▼
This means that you don't have to pay anything! For example, ドリンク無料 (drink muryo) means that drinks come free of charge.

10. Other Kanji

▼お手洗い (Otearai)▼
This means "bathroom". 化粧室 (keshoshitsu) and 便所 (benjo) can also be used to mean the same thing.

▼喫煙席 (Kitsuenseki)▼
This word means that smoking is allowed in these seats. Non-smoking areas will be labelled 禁煙席 (kinenseki).

▼税込 (Zeikomi)▼
This means that consumption tax is included in the price. It might appear as a suffix, such as "... 円 (税込)" (... JPY (incl. tax)). When consumption tax is not included, an item's price will be noted either as 税別 (zeibetsu) or 税抜 (zeinuki).

Be sure to study these kanji when visiting Japan to ensure a smooth, enjoyable trip!

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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