One of the first ‘ehh?’ feelings you’ll experience shortly after arriving in Japan is the anticipation of smoothly navigating a simple dining experience. Yes, feeding oneself does seem to be a common necessity.
To ease the unease of approaching dining-out as a total amateur of day-to-day Japanese interaction, read on.
Step 0: choosing a restaurant
Whilst I don’t recommend always limiting yourself, a nice comfortable starting point will likely be a restaurant that at least has some pictures of the dishes or plastic replicas. Yes, you can google-translate menus with your handy-dandy mobile app, but save yourself the unnecessary work at this point.
Don’t expect restaurants to have English menus (though some chains will), do expect to rely on pointing and some basic phrases to get you through.
*HOT BOYFRIEND TIP*: If the restaurant has plastic replicas out the front, and you see a dish you’d like to order, take a picture with your phone and use this to show the staff when ordering if you can’t navigate the menu well.
Step 1: getting seated
When you walk into your dining establishment of choice, the first thing that you’ll hear is ‘irrashaimase‘, although it may sound unrecognisable due to the sing-song nature of the call, or how much the staff members emphasise the ending. Regardless, it means ‘welcome’.
Number of People
Following this, you’ll be asked ‘nanmei sama desu ka?’, (how many people to be seated?). Of course, you’ve already learnt your super-easy basic Japanese numbers, so using this knowledge, add the suffix mei onto the number of people to be seated (this is pronounced similarly to the month, ‘May’). Note that you don’t say sama back to staff, as this is an honorific term for ‘customer’ that you don’t use when referring to yourself.
one person: ichi-mei
two people: ni-mei
three people: san-mei
four people: yon-mei
Have you booked a table?
Sometimes the staff will ask if you have a reservation: yoyaku ga arimasuka?
Pfft! Of course you don’t have a reservation! You just got here! The idea of you having any sort of phone conversation in Japanese makes you want to giggle with the absurdity of it all! Keep your snort-laugh to yourself and reply with arimasen. The literal translation of arimasen is ‘doesn’t exist’, but think of it more so as ‘I don’t have one’.
Smoking and Non-Smoking
At this point, it’s worth noting that smoking inside is only slowly being phased out in Japan, and is still permitted in lots of restaurants. Bigger restaurants or chains will have smoking and non-smoking areas divided. If this option exists, you’ll be asked:
‘Kitsuen-seki, Kinen-seki no dochira ni?’
This roughly translates to ‘would you like a seat in the smoking or non-smoking area?’
You can respond with your choice of:
non-smoking: kinen-seki de onegaishimasu
(I remember this by remembering kin, which also means gold, and en, the currency of Japan, and then thinking of the non-smoking seats as being super-valuable, like gold and money. Use your nicotine-infused brain to get creative and come up with your own mnemonic if you’ll be using the one below.)
smoking: kitsuen-seki de onegaishimasu
Step 2: menus
Once you’re seated, the menus will probably already be on the table, or your highly intelligent waitstaff will be on their way to bring one to you. If you think there’s a chance that your dining-locale has an English menu you can ask:
Eigo no menyu ga arimasu ka?
Is there an English menu?
Once you have perused the menu and decided upon what you’ll be ordering, YOU need to call over the waitstaff.
Check that your table doesn’t have a call button before doing your best to summon a semblance of confidence to call out at an easily audible level ‘sumimasen‘. Volume is necessary!
Step 3: ordering your food
The literal translation of ordering looks a little something like this:
This, one, please
This, two, please.
Instead of using normal numbers, you’ll be using the Japanese counter used for ‘things’
Hitotsu – one thing
Futatsu – two things
Mittsu – three things
Yottsu – four things
Other helpful language at this stage:
‘To’ (pronounced ‘toh’) – and
‘Ijo desu’ (like the ‘i’ in ‘igloo’ and the ‘jo’ in ‘jocks’) – that’s all
So, if you’re pointing at a picture of what you’re after, go ahead and order:
Kore ga hitotsu
Between each item that you’d like to order, use ‘to’ (toh). Once you’ve ordered what you’re after, you can finish by saying ‘ijo desu’.
To see an example of what this sounds like in action, check out the superbly concise video below.
Step 4: ordering more food and drinks
Do you want another beer? Another serving of kara-age?
The word for ‘another’ is ‘mou’ もう so to order another beer, you can say
biiru o mou ippai kudasai
(beer, another glass please)
ippai is ‘one’ in the counter used for drinks/things in glasses or cups. Go ahead and use the counters below to order your drinks, but if you’re just starting out, using the above-mentioned counters (hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, etc) will be perfectly understandable too.
Counters for drinks, things in cups and glasses:
ippai いっぱい – one glass/cup
nihai にはい – two glasses/cups
sanbai さんばい – three glasses/cups
yonhai よんはい – four glasses/cups
To follow the same pattern, another serving of a given menu item would be as follows:
*item* o mou hitotsu kudasai
or, if you want the same again and it’s a labelled bottle or at least obvious to the staff what it was, you can order ‘another of the same’ (whilst gesturing to the relevant object).
onagi (‘oh-nah-gee‘) mou hitotsu kudasai
step 5: asking for the bill
If you’ve dined at a place that doesn’t provide your bill once they’ve served your order (as is the case with chain restaurants like Ootoya, or Tendon Tenya) then you can ask for the bill by saying ‘okaikei kudasai’. Don’t make the mistake I used to by saying ‘o-kay-kai’. It is NOT OKAYkei to say it in that order…thinking ohk-hi(there, how’s it going, I’d love the bill thanks, is that o)kei? might help you remember it. Or not.
step 6: paying and leaving
If you’re dining with other people, you can usually choose to pay separately or together:
Separately: betsu betsu de onegaishimasu
Together: issho de onegaishimasu (this doesn’t necessarily have to be specified)
Near the register, you will usually see some sort of tray to place your bill and money.
Try to remember to put your money in this rather than handing over the cash by hand, lest you awkwardly touch each other’s skin 😱. You can signal that you’ve finished searching for the correct change and want to pay with whatever money you’ve placed in the tray by sliding the tray towards the cashier and saying ‘onegaishimasu‘, the neatly bundled word for ‘please and thank you’.
So long and thanks for all the fish
When you leave the restaurant, it’s polite to thank the staff for the meal, don’t chu know?
‘Gochisôsama’ (gochi-saw-sama) and ‘gochisôsama deshita’ (more formal) are the best ways to thank any of the staff members for your meal. Walk out feeling like a total pro at this whole ‘ordering-food-at-a-restaurant’ thing, because you’ve just shown that you’ve bothered learning a handful of the most useful phrases to get by in Japan that most foreigners won’t even bother with. Yay, you!