Japan has a large selection of restaurants of an almost endless variety. While every place is different, the following points will help make dining out in Japan a smooth and enjoyable experience.
Entering the Restaurant
Many restaurants in Japan display plastic or wax replicas of their dishes in a window near their entrance. These replicas serve both to entice and inform patrons of the restaurant's menu and tend to offer an accurate, visual description of the style and price of meals found inside. The displays are especially helpful for foreign tourists who do not read and speak Japanese. For if all other forms of communication fail, you can go outside and point to what you want to order.
Upon entering a restaurant, customers are greeted with the expression "irasshaimase" meaning "welcome, please come in". The waiter or waitress will ask you how many people are in your party and then lead you to your table. Only in rare cases are customers expected to seat themselves.
While a majority of restaurants in Japan provide Western style tables and chairs, low traditional tables where you sit on pillows on the floor are also common and referred to as zashiki. Many restaurants feature both, and you may be asked which you prefer. In case of zashiki style seating, you should remove your shoes at the entrance to the restaurant or before stepping onto the sitting area.
Smoking is permitted in many restaurants in Japan. Some restaurants provide both smoking (kitsuen) and non-smoking (kinen) sections, while others are fully smoking or non-smoking. If there is a choice, the waitress will ask you about your preference before seating you.
Ordering and Eating
After you are seated, each diner is usually served with a free glass of water or tea. If it is not served, free water or tea is usually available for self service somewhere in the restaurant. Everyone will also receive a wet towel (oshibori) which is used to clean your hands before eating. If chopsticks are not already set, you can usually find some in a box on the table. Most often, they are disposable wooden chopsticks that need to be separated into two before use.
While many restaurants provide illustrated menus, other restaurants may only have Japanese text based menus, or the restaurant's offerings may instead be posted on the walls. If you are ever in doubt on what to order or find that you cannot read the menu, try asking for the recommendations (osusume) or the chef's choice (omakase). The latter will often get you some surprisingly good, prix fix style meals, but be prepared to be adventurous and do not expect it to be cheap.
Once you are ready to order, you can signal the restaurant staff by saying "sumimasen" (excuse me), or if available, press the call button at the table. Once you have finished ordering, the waitress will often repeat your order back to you for confirmation.
At some restaurants, such as izakaya, it is common for everyone in the party to order dishes together and share them. At other establishments, however, each diner is expected to order individually.
The bill will be presented face down either as you receive the meal or after you have finished eating. In most restaurants you are supposed to bring your bill to the cashier near the exit when leaving, as it is not common to pay at the table. Paying in cash is most common, although more and more restaurants also accept credit cards or IC cards such as Suica.
Some restaurants, especially cheaper ones, have slightly different systems for ordering and paying. For example, in many ramen and gyudon restaurants, "meal tickets" are bought at a vending machine near the store's entrance and handed over to the staff who then prepare and serve the meal.
It is not customary to tip in Japan, and if you do, you will probably find the restaurant staff chasing you down in order to give back any money left behind. Instead, it is polite to say "gochisosama deshita" ("thank you for the meal") when leaving.