The entrances of many places like shops, restaurants, or public baths are covered by short curtain-like fabrics called noren. They are usually divided into few vertical slits and bear the logo or name of the place. The main purpose of them is to protect the entrance from rain, wind, or to shade sunlight in the hot summer days. In the Edo period (1603 – 1868), they were often used as tissues and people would wipe their fingers when leaving the restaurant. The dirtiness back then was a sign of successful business. Nowadays, however, the restaurants take proper care of this rectangular signboards as it’s cleanness and compelling design is a token of presentable business.
Many restaurants have plastic imitations of the food they serve exposed at the window next to their entrance which makes it a lot easier for tourists who can’t speak any Japanese. The menu at the tables usually includes pictures and in the tourist areas English menu is available.
Most of the time after you enter the Japanese restaurant, you should wait until the staff welcomes you. You will be then asked with how many people are you coming and the number is usually gestured on hands of the leading person (one from the group who enters the restaurant first) and the waiter, as well. Then you will be seated and the whole staff will loudly welcome you with the phrase “Irrashaimase!” (loosely translated as “Welcome!”).
Before you start eating, you are supposed to clean your hands with oshibori. It is part of a Japanese hospitality which I really enjoy. Customarily it should be a wet and hot towel which gives you a refreshing feeling, however, some restaurants operate with cheaper option and the oshibori is only a moistened tissue wrapped in plastic.
What I was surprised the most is that the food does not have to be served at the same time. So you can end up having a plate in front of you while other people sitting by the same table have to wait. In Europe it is a must that everyone gets to eat all at once. Turns out in Japan it doesn’t bother anyone. Maybe except for tourists.
As a part of Japanese hospitality, or sābisu (from English word “service”), you might also get a cup of free coffee or rarely some dessert. It is quite nice especially if you are used to having coffee after lunch. Moreover, Japanese restaurant offer water and some places alternatively also green, or jasmine tea free of charge.
When all of the ordered food arrives, the waiter usually brings receipt either folded into square roll at the tableside or clipped onto clipboard facing down. If you need to call for the waiter, either shout “Sumimasen.” or there might be a button at the table to the job for you. As a rule, when you wish to pay, you should take the receipt from your table and wait at the cashier by the entrance, however, if you don’t receive it you will have to ask the waiter for “okanjō”. But in most cases, you are to pay your bill at the entrance.
It might be very surprising for many tourists to hear that there is no custom of tipping in Japanese restaurants, cafés, or bars. The staff will probably try to chase you and give you the change back if you try to leave some tips. So, avoid any misunderstanding and don’t be pushy even though it might feel strange for you at first.
Even though dining sounds like a universal thing for humans, Japanese restaurants have some common practice that you should follow as a visitor. I hope this article might help you understand how it works in Japanese restaurants and you won’t be confused next time you visit one.