Nihon Zatsuroku
An Online Japanese Miscellany

= Dining =

by Anthony J. Bryant

Dining and drinking etiquette

      Dining is done in whatever room serves the purpose; there are no set dining rooms or banquet halls in Japanese homes or estates. Each place setting is prepared on an individual table slightly some eighteen inches square. Rather than a single large plate, each item of food gets its own plate. Often, the plates have specialized functions; this plate is used only for fish, that plate exclusively for pickles, etc. Also, unlike in the West, food is typically not served in courses; everything appears at the same time, unless the intention is for a long evening's banquet, in which case some empty plates may periodically be taken away and replaced with new ones with a new food.

      Dining is done with hashi (chopsticks — it is often written with an honorific preceding it, as “o-hashi”). Bowls and plates of food are brought close to the mouth and food is delivered with the hashi. There may be a small ornamental chopstick rest (hashi-oke) on the table or tray. If not, it is customary to place the hashi across a bowl when they are not being used. One should never, ever stick one's hashi into the rice bowl so that they are standing up. That is how one offers rice to the dead and is an omen of very bad luck.

      While spoons exist, soups are drunk from the bowl rather than ladled out a mouthful at a time. If there are small chunks of anything in the soup (e.g., bits of tôfu, seaweed, mushrooms, etc.) they are fished out using the hashi. I have seen people who, while drinking their soup, hold the hashi in place to keep the chunks from flowing into their mouths and causing a spill or choking them. This makes sense, and I do this, too.

      A servant or a neighboring companion pours the drinks. One should as a rule never pour one's own. Is it rude to pour your own? No; it's Just The Way Things Are. Only those who are crude and crass, drunk, or just truly at ease with each other, will dispense with the pouring rituals. It is also a sign of great favor from one's lord to be given a drink from his own cup.


Food and drink

      Rice accompanies every meal. This bowl may be refilled from a large tub as many times as required.

      Sake is the omnipresent beverage, and there is a bewildering variety of types. There are sweet sake, thick sake full of lees, dry sake, etc. Contrary to popular opinion, not all sake is meant to be drunk warm; some sake are actually better — and should be served — chilled.

      Sake is drunk out of low, broad cups, although more than one serious drinker of sake, when he has finished his soup, has converted the soup bowl into a sake cup. It is considered very poor taste to drink directly from the sake flask or jar.

     Tea is a common beverage non-alcoholic beverage (given that the usual choice in Japan was either sake or water), and is served in larger cups, piping hot. Note that this is different from the tea used in the Tea Ceremony. Common tea is just a warm beverage; that is a ritual. The teas are also different. The beverage is the product of shredded leaves infused with hot water, while Tea Ceremony tea is powdered and whipped into the hot water.

Online resources

Tokyo Food Page. In English. Links to recipes and other yummy things. Not all of it is period, but it's nice.

Recipe Source Japan. One hundred-twenty-plus recipes, mostly for tasty side dishes.

Sake World. You want to know about sake (tasting, varieties, brands, etc.)? Go here.

The Sake Web Site. Or you could go here. Including sake recipes for the adventurous. Wow...

How to use chopsticks. A video that shows you the basics of using chopsticks.

Wiki-How's Onigiri Page. This will start you on the way to making riceballs you can actually enjoy eating.

Osechi page at This starts you on the road to traditional New Year's food.

Japanese food glossary. Thank you, Kikkoman.



This page last modified on 3/24/04

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