Washoku (traditional Japanese food) has a beautiful appearance and often is made using seasonal ingredients. It's received lots of attention in recent years thanks to its health properties, and was even registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural property. Here are some tips and etiquette to know when eating washoku.
Basic etiquette: hold your bowl when you eat
In Japan, eating while sitting up straight is etiquette, so it's fine to hold your plate or bowl (unless it's quite large) in your hand as you eat. Actually, not holding your rice bowl or soup bowl when you eat is poor manners. Instead of eating like a dog (bringing your face close to the table) or eating with a hunched back, please eat with a lovely straight posture while holding your dishes.
Basic etiquette: how to use chopsticks
Of course, to eat washoku, the standard utensils are chopsticks. Washoku is made to be eaten only using chopsticks. At first, it may be difficult to master, but it would be great if you learned how to properly use them.
How to hold chopsticks
The top chopstick should be held fast like a pen between your pointer finger and middle finger. The bottom chopstick rests on your ring finger and is held at the base of your thumb. When you eat, you're only supposed to move the top chopstick to grab food with it. You're only meant to use the bottom 3cm of the chopsticks, so please try not to dirty above that.
What not to do with chopsticks
Licking your chopsticks, holding them in your mouth, using it to stab food like a fork, or using just one to cut food are all poor manners. Stabbing your rice with your chopsticks or passing food to someone else from your chopsticks to theirs all hearken back to rituals performed in Buddhist funerals, so those behaviors should be avoided at all costs. Being able to properly use chopsticks is so important that there is a phrase that says that washoku etiquette begins and ends with chopsticks.
How to handle a soup bowl lid
Soup bowls with lids are called "wan." Sometimes the lid and the bowl fit so perfectly that it's kind of hard to open. When that happens, hold the bowl with your left hand so that it doesn't move, and turn the lid clockwise so it will come off. Then hold the lid diagonally over the bowl until the drops of moisture from the inside falls, and then put the lid upside down on the table. When you're done eating, put the lid back on the bowl. Please don't put the lid on upside down. Sometimes people are very surprised by how difficult it is to open the bowl, so please remember this information.
How to eat
No matter what type of food one is eating, in Japan all meals start with the phrase "itadakimasu," said with one's palms pressed together in order to show gratitude towards the food and the people who made it. If, as in the photo, everyone has their own separate set, you can eat in whatever order you'd like. However, if it's a large shared platter, please put your serving on a smaller plate first. Be aware that it's against etiquette to eat directly from the platter.
In the case of rice bowls and other meals where rice is served with toppings, just eating the ingredients or just the rice is called "bakkaritabe" and is an unpleasant behavior. Please eat the toppings and rice together. If they are served separately, you can take one bite of each at a time. You shouldn't place food on top of the white rice as it will dirty it.
Also, please eat every last grain of rice. Japanese people believe leaving rice is wasteful, and eating it all is a sign of gratitude towards rice farmers. When you're finished with your meal, please put your palms together and say "gochisousama deshita," another phrase signifying gratitude.
Etiquette for non-beginners
During your stay, you might have the chance to eat kaiseki ryori (traditional Japanese course meals) at formal restaurants like ryotei. It's a very different experience from a casual restaurant, and there is a standard of etiquette expected. Kaiseki ryori starts off with an appetizer meant to make alcohol more enjoyable, then followed by dishes that will slowly fill you like tempura, followed by courses like rice or sushi, and topped off with dessert or tea.
Generally, you eat them in the order that they are served, but make sure you bring only a bite-sized piece to your mouth. Most of it can be eaten in just one bite, but if not, please use your chopsticks to break it. Please do not bring it up to your mouth as-is if it is bigger than a mouthful. Also, you might be unsure how to eat the beautifully plated food. Usually it's plated so that the flavors get richer from left to right, so you can start from the left. Tempura is usually plated so that you should eat in order starting from the piece closest to you for maximum deliciousness.
Washoku is made using seasonal ingredients and served in beautiful dishware. Please try to eat without ruining the aesthetics of the meal.
Watch this video What not to do with chopsticks
These high-level manners are for high-class restaurants like ryotei. While eating with a beautiful posture is good manners no matter where you're eating, it's okay to relax during your meal at a casual restaurant. Being so invested in your manners that you don't enjoy your meal is a waste. Please enjoy your meals comfortably.
*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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