In an average daytime restaurant, there is little in the way of atmosphere. Most people are there to eat quickly and get back to work. Often tables are shared due to the lack of space. The bill is always left on the table and it is paid at a cashier's desk. Hot green tea and a hot towel called an o-shibori are automatically served. Many times, menus are not given to each patron, but a general menu is written on boards and posted on the walls.
Typically, there is also a showcase just outside of each restaurant that displays a model of the various dishes. These plastic models make it easy to make a visual selection if you do not understand the language. The prices are written next to each dish in numerics or in kanji. People make use of toothpicks quite openly although women usually cover their mouths with the opposite hand while picking their teeth. A tip is not necessary.
Most traditional Japanese restaurants serve only a certain type of dish or dishes. Typically in a basement mall, shopping arcade, or on the top floor of a department store you would find these kinds of specialty restaurants:
. pizza or spaghetti
. traditional Japanese dishes such as sashimi
. tonkatsu (deep fried pork)
. udon or soba (noodles)
. coffee and dessert house
Evening meals have more ritual and customs. Many restaurants have traditional tatami rooms where shoes are taken off. If you have been invited out, your host will most likely pre-order the dishes and you may not even see a bill come to the table.
The Japanese food store advertises the days bargains on the cloth banners hung in the doorway.
Traditionally the Japanese staple has been rice, with side dishes of seafood, fruit, and vegetables. Elders still consider rice to be precious and it is still used in religious ceremonies. Due to Buddhist influences, the consumption of meat was prohibited until the end of the Edo period (1867). Typically each meal has many foods, each artistically arranged on individual dishes or served as different courses. The appearance of the food is just as important as the taste. Quality usually outweighs the need for quantity. In Japan, many foods are seasonal and are only available at particular times of the year for optimum freshness and quality.
Mochi is a special kind of sweet and glutenous rice that is cooked and pounded until firm, elastic, and sticky; used as the basis for sweet foods and filled with sweet bean paste; used to make snacks as in rice crackers called Sembei or candy; rice is also the basis for Japanese vinegar and a Japanese alcoholic beverage called Sake.
Sushi is the most popular kind of rice dish although it can be considered a meal in itself; typically sushi is a small handful of seasoned rice which is topped with a small piece of seafood (raw or cooked), vegetable, or egg; often the rice is rolled in dried seaweed with a variety of fillings; sushi can also be a bowl or dish of seasoned rice with a variety of toppings sprinkled on top; an important garnish is the green Wasabi which is a ground paste or grating of a kind of horseradish root; thinly sliced pink pickled ginger is served with the sushi to cleanse the palate between tastes. Onigiri is a home made rice ball and often the basis for a lunch box; the rice is usually flavoured with Japanese pickles, dried seaweed or flakes of seafood, or sesame seeds.
Shoyu is a dark brown savoury seasoning indispensable to Japanese cuisine; made from fermented wheat, soy beans, salt and water; shoyu is used in the cooking and seasoning of foods as well in the final stages of eating as a dip for sushi or sashimi.
A light or dark paste made from fermented soybeans, salt, and sometimes rice or barley; salty and savory in flavour; most well known as the basis for a soup served almost daily; also used as a marinade for fish, meat, and vegetables
Tofu is made from soy beans and considered a basic ingredient in the Japanese diet; a bland and white coloured food similar in texture to a firm custard; it is always served with shoyu or a sauce, or as an ingredient in an already seasoned dish; it is very rich in protein and low in fat
Sashimi is any kind of raw fish or shellfish that has been carefully trimmed and sliced into small bite size pieces; served with wasabi (Japanese horseradish root), vegetable or seaweed garnish, and shoyu (soy sauce); as an expensive dish indicating its freshness, a whole live fish may be sliced and served while it is still moving.
Tempura is one of the most well known dishes; slices of vegetables and seafood are dipped in a very light batter and deep fried; served with a soy sauce dip or salt and lemon
Tonkatsu is deep fried pork; a variety of cuts of pork may be used; served with very thin shavings of fresh cabbage and a sauce similar to steak sauce.
Sukiyaki is a famous dish with thin slices of beef and vegetables cooked in a pot at the table; the seasonings are soy sauce and sugar; served with raw egg as a dipping sauce.
Shabu-Shabu is another dish cooked at the table; very thin slices of beef and vegetables are cooked in broth or boiling water by each diner; the food cooked is supposed to be small or thin enough that the diner can just 'swish' the items by his or her chopsticks for a few seconds before eating; served with a soy sauce and vinegar-based sauce or a soy sauce and sesame seed mixture.
Many types of noodle dishes are eaten either hot or cold and as a whole meal in a hearty soup or as a side dish or accompaniment as in Shabu-Shabu; Soba are thin brown noodles made from buckwheat flour; Udon are fat white noodles made from wheat flour and typically used in hot soups; a noodle house is a common restaurant for lunch.
There is a certain etiquette when it comes to drinking as follows:
. do not fill or pour your own glass or cup
. always make sure your co-diners have a full glass or cup
. while another person is pouring your glass, you should raise or lift your glass.
. when you have had enough, simply leave your glass full.
Usually bottles of beer or sake (15 - 20% alcohol) are ordered for the table as opposed to each individual, so feel free to refill a companion's glass with an available bottle. As a gesture of formality, use both hands to pour or receive a drink. A quick bow of the head acknowledges the other person's kind gesture. For businessmen, the ritual and time spent drinking is a very important part of building the business relationship. It is the only time that you are excused for frank and candid opinions or that you are allowed to become quite childish in behaviour. On the surface, all is forgotten the next business day.
Japanese tea is pale green or brown and served without sugar, milk, or lemon; it originally came from China in the 12th century as a medicine; it is free in restaurants and served as generously as water in North America; it is often served automatically when people first gather together for social or business meetings.
Sake is the most famous Japanese drink; made from rice, malted rice, and water; it is clear, somewhat sweet, and often warmed before serving; it is always served in special tiny cups. Shochu is distilled from grain or potatoes; usually drunk with hot water or soda water.
Biiru is a very popular drink in Japan and is the beverage served at any group function; most beers are brewed domestically; it is considered polite to accept a small amount of beer for toasting even if you do not drink alcohol.