The Japanese approach dining with the same care and attention to detail that one might expect from such an orderly culture. Not to say that a meal is hard work, but it reinforces the common theme in Japanese culture that if you’re going to do something, you ought to do it to your very best abilities. Meals are a social activity, and simple considerations for your dining neighbor can make the experience surprisingly rewarding. It is easy to find advice on table manners in Japan, as the traditions are quite specific and simple. It actually may seem daunting at first, but with a little practice (and maybe some alcohol) actions become easy and even fun.
Our first true Japanese dining was in Notojima. We’d been to plenty of fast noodle places on our own up to this point, but at the Enome-Sou dinner (prepared next to the warmth of a sunken charcoal brazier), we had the chance to sit down with our tour group for a traditional experience and education while cold ocean winds knocked against the windows. In situations where I lack knowledge I tend to take the route of waiting, listening and watching. Dish-wise, we enjoyed a wide range; seafood for the ladies, vegetables and tofu for me, and we all shared rice, miso soup, grain tea, and Asahi. Drinks were poured, and as a thirsty bicyclist, I quickly made it to the bottom of both my cups. My thirst was still unquenched, but I discovered that it was frowned upon to pour your own drink while dining with others. Desperate situations yield the quickest results, so as my thirst built up, I did the only thing I knew about: I offered to pour one of my companion’s tea, and success – they saw my glass, and offered to fill it back up – crisis averted.
I then realized the game as it ensued although it seems tedious to have to pour the glass of your neighbor, paying attention to their glass brings camaraderie and laughs to the table for no other reason than doing something simple and nice for a compatriot. When you relinquish the duty of pouring your own glass, it can foster a type of mutual trust with your companions and allows you to score points easily with current and future friends.
We used table and chairs in many places, but traditionally, many restaurants in Japan have you sitting on a floor cushion. Dinner progressed as plate after plate of delicious local vegetables and freshly caught gifts from the sea were presented to the table. As our hostess prepared each course in the center of the private room, we talked the night away about Japan, California, and cycling. In this style of enjoying a bountiful meal, food is brought until you refuse more, and the end is signaled by the arrival of Onigiri (rice balls) to the table.