How to Eat in Tokyo Without Embarrassing Yourself
This piece originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.
With more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, Tokyo might be the world's most coveted dining destination. Travelers often visit hoping to enjoy a high-end omakase (chef’s choice meal), but navigating the waters of Japan’s sushi restaurants can be daunting. Below, everything you need to know on the unwritten rules of sushi-ya etiquette.
1. Don’t Set Yourself Up for Disappointment
Start by choosing a restaurant from Tabelog’s list of Tokyo’s top 50 sushi restaurants. The discerning diners of Japan’s version of Yelp rate the restaurants and document their meals with extreme detail. Perusing Google-translated reviews and flipping through photos will help you pinpoint a restaurant with a price point and style that matches your preferences. The Michelin guide is also a useful point of comparison for potential options. Don’t discount a place that’s not on the list, though—select Japanese restaurants have been known to refuse stars in the past.
2. Nab a Seat in Advance
Some who are serious about tasting the best of Tokyo book their flights around their reservations, not the other way around. Even if you’re not quite as obsessive, it’s best to make reservations at least a month or two out.
3. Know When To Ask For Help
Upscale sushi restaurants frequently turn down reservations from non-Japanese speakers and foreign visitors. If you can’t make your own reservations in Japanese, reach out to your hotel or credit card concierge with your availability and several picks. If you’re not set on dinner, check if your selected restaurants serve lunch. Where dinner is typically in the ¥20,000 range, a lunch omakase set can start at ¥5,000, and reservations are easier to come by.
4. Show Up—or Get Charged
Because many sushi restaurants have only 6 to 10 seats, in some instances restaurants will request a deposit via your concierge or charge a cancellation fee—up to 100 percent of the cost of the meal.
5. Share Restrictions Early
Since chefs select and prepare seasonal ingredients daily for the evening’s omakase, never wait to spring a dietary restriction on the chef when you arrive.
6. Don’t Be Late
Set the right tone with the chef and show up a few minutes early.
7. Ask Before You Shoot
Politely check with the host or chef before taking photos, and even if the restaurant allows it, focus on the meal, not the documentation of it.
8. Follow the Rules
When you’re seated, you’ll receive an oshibori, or wet towel. Cleanse your hands with the towel and fold it back up neatly, using it to wipe your fingers between nigiri.
9. Trust the Staff
At the start of the meal, you can simply order ocha, biru, or nihonshu (tea, beer, or sake), and leave it to the staff to make a selection for you.
10. Eat Up
Finally, sit back and let the chef drive the meal. As soon as the chef serves you, pick up the nigiriwith your hand and place it fish side down in your mouth (this ensures the fullest flavor on your tongue.) Don’t wait for others to be served, since the fish and rice are served at just the right temperature.
11. Leave a Good Impression
Even if you can exchange only a few words with the chef in each other’s languages, express your appreciation for your favorite courses (saying “arigato”—“thank you” in Japanese—goes a long way). And if you’ve done well, the chef might enjoy your visit just as much as you do.