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May 21, 2008 10:40 AM

Eating Japanese without Speaking Japanese?

Some food places I have planned on my itinery for my upcoming Japan trip are those which I have learned of from, such as Kawazakanaryori hayakou (unagi), Tempura Iwa-i, and Tokudawara (Izakaya). Problem is, I don't speak Japanese and these places seem to be more popular amongst Japanese natives than your average non-foody tourist. Would this be very much of a problem?

I have thus far learnt my hiragana and katakana so I should be able to read off a simple menu, and will learn basic restaurant phrases for getting the menu / bill / lunch set etc. I can also speak Mandarin, so I should be able to communicate to a waitress if she is Chinese. Will this be enough for me to survive in such places?


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  1. I hope others can chime in with advice on this topic, since it's really important.

    For your specific case, I would offer the following comments:

    Knowing hiragana/katakana is certainly better than nothing, but of course you need to know what the meaning is. That said, the reality is most menus are written in kanji, with use of kana where appropriate. If you can read Mandarin or any Chinese characters, you are definitely at an advantage in deciphering Japanese kanji. Probably best to learn some of the standards beforehand such as beef, pork, poultry, fried, grilled, raw, etc. In my experience, the reverse of yours, knowing Japanese, I've found reasonably good success applying myself to Chinese menus.

    And, all things considered, you're proabably better trying your luck with English to Japanese servers. There really aren't that many Chinese speakers, native or otherwise, compared to English.

    Having traveled to many countries, my overall advice is to do as much research as you can before you go to the restaurant so you know what/how to order. It's possible to use online menus and translation websites to great advantage these days. Also, absolutely learn the local phrases for "what do you recommend", "what is in season" and "can you show me".

    My two yen's worth.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Silverjay

      You will probably be ok, as Silverjay mentioned it's great to be able to ask for recommendations when the menu is indecipherable. Recently I went to Kaasan's to show a visting friend some sake. I know nothing about sake, I just asked for recommendations and we ended up sampling quite a few different kinds.

      Being able to read Kanji will be a help, my brother came here last xmas and had been studying Chinese in college and was relatively talented when it came to the menus.

      Leaning how to ask for 'this' and 'that' will be good for menus with pictures. Categories might be helpful as well, such as learning the words for fish/chicken/etc...

    2. Just returned from Japan and had a similar challenge. I learned 'survival' Japanese but my biggest challenge was even finding the restaurants in the first place as VERY few had outside signs in English. Once inside there was usually someone who could help - the challenge was finding the restaurant in the first place!
      In Tokyo a good bilingual map helped immensely. Outside Tokyo relatively few street names existed!
      But other than once being served Shochu instead of sake I was always able to stumble through, although I'm sure I probably missed a couple of specialties along the way. If the place has a website, print out the page including the kanji characters and allow a little extra time to find it. I eventually found every place I wanted to, and in all cases achieved sufficient communication to eat well.

      1. Not speaking Japanese is not really an issue if you go about things in a planned manner. Speak clearly and slowly in English, the average Japanese person has a fair bit of English from high school and many have invested the time and money to learn English as a hobby. Often the younger the service staff, the easier to communicate as they are fresher from the school yard. Their hearing is better than their speaking in general. Speak slowly, if they seem to not get it on the first try, speak slowly again the EXACT same phrase, do not change anything. Do not speak louder, they are not deaf and this is not a Fawlty Towers sketch. Allow the server time to digest what it is you are saying, they often need to hear the English, translate it to Japanese and translate it back to English. You speak Mandarin, you know the drill and you have experience.

        Sometimes the meals are simply written on a menu board or piece of wood. It is then you will need to rely on a mime routine. Menus can also have photos included along side the description. Some places have English menus if you ask. Often the dishes are reproduced in plastic in the display case just outside the restaurant, the waitress will come out front and you can point to what it is you want.

        It is a blast eating in Japan, one tends to get way over the top service and attention. Remember while tipping is not expected, it is appreciated and leaves a good impression on the staff. They gave you more attention than a Japanese customer, I figure it is only fair to tip.

        Try all the "interesting" foods you can find. I never thought about having corn on a pizza pre Japan, now I know it works as a topping. Try it all, the stranger the better.

        Cheers, KK

        2 Replies
        1. re: KamakuraKid

          Tipping is not a part of Japanese dining culture. Do NOT do it while you are dining in Japan. Do NOT leave a percentage gratuity of your bill. Do NOT tip for drinks. Do NOT leave the change from your bill while eating or drinking. Do NOT tip in Japan.

          There is no culture of tipping in Japan at restaurants and bars. Servers are paid a wage in Japan and this is based on hourly service.The business models of restaurants and bars do not consider gratuity at all and therefore base their wages to staff on sales. Do NOT tip at these places.

          I have sometimes been with foreigners who tip in Japan. Inevitably, when the tip is left, we are chased down the street by a server trying to return it. Then there is always the embarrassing explanation I'm stuck with in Japanese and it NEVER goes over well. Every Japanese I know in the U.S. categorically complains about the custom of tipping.

          PLEASE. Do not tip for food and beverage while in Japan... The only exceptions might be foreign run bars...

          1. re: Silverjay

            Thanks Silverjay--and I'm not going to say anything about corn on pizza.