5 Steps To Ordering a Meal in Japan

I live in Japan, but barely speak Japanese. I can’t help you with verb conjugation or passing the JLPT. But I have managed to eat!

Restaurants in Japan are a culinary and cultural adventure. Knowing how to act is crucial to speaking the language. They’re also great places to practice many facets of conversational Japanese!

So, here are 5 steps to ordering food in Japan.

Find a Place to Eat

Most foreigners know about sushi and ramen. But there are many things to eat and it’s hard to list them all so here’s just a few of the more popular meals:

Yakitori Yakitori
  • Udon (うどん), a noodle usually served in soup
  • Soba (そば), a thin buckwheat noodle (which is sometimes served cold)
  • Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), a vegetable-meat-and-egg pancake with a sweet brown sauce
  • Yakitori (やきとり), a kebab usually on a stick
  • Yakiniku (焼き肉), where you grill your own meat at your table
  • Yakisoba (焼きそば), a stir-fried noodle dish with barbecue sauce and pork

You’ll see plastic replicas of the food outside of most restaurants, so even if you can’t read Japanese, you’ll have some idea of what to expect.

The food will be softer, though, and the chopsticks won’t levitate.^^

Get A Table

The greeter will ask how many people there are – 何名さまですか。 (Nan-mei sa-ma de-su ka?)

Japanese Restaurant Back Street Japanese Restaurant

You could shout “3″ at them (“San!”) which is sort of as wrong as shouting “Number Three!” in English. The server might think you are very proud of your placement in a recent race.

Here’s how you count people:

English Hiragana Kanji Romaji
One person ひとり 一人 hi-to-ri
Two people ふたり 二人 fu-ta-ri
Three people さんにん 三人 san-ni-n
Four people よにん 四人 yo-ni-n
Five people ごにん 五人 go-ni-ni
Six people ろくにん 六人 ro-ku-ni-n
Seven people しちにん 七人 shi-chi-ni-n
Eight people はちにん 八人 hachi-ni-n
Nine people きゅうにん 九人 kyu-u-ni-n
Ten people じゅうにん 十人 ju-u-ni-n

Most of these are the Japanese number followed by the word “nin”. If you have three people in your party, you say “san-nin”.

The exceptions: One person (ひとり – hitori) and two people (ふたり – futari). Everything else (yes even 178 or 352) is the normal Japanese number plus “-nin”.

You’ll be seated and given a cloth – cold in summer, hot in winter – called an oshiburi. Guidebooks will tell you to only use these on your hands. But if it’s a lunch-cart or fast food place, rub that thing wherever you want.

Order Your Food

If you have been a kind person all your life, you might be offered an English menu. You can ask for one by saying, “英語のメニューがありますか。” (pronounced roughly as Eh-go no men-yu ga aree-mass-ka?)

Kanji Kana Meaning
英語 えいご English language
None メニュー Menu (Loan word in Katakana Why? → )

But mostly you’ll only have a Japanese menu. If the kanji makes your eyes bleed, look at pictures. You can point to a picture and say “kore (w)o onegaishimasu” (koh-ray-oh on-nee-gai-she-mass) – “That one, please”.

No pictures? Get crafty.

Do you have a digital camera? Sneak outside, find a yummy plastic sculpture of the food you want and photograph it. Then show the picture to the waitress with the old “Kore (w)o onegaishimasu”.

Plastic Food Plastic Food Display

If you know what you want – say, udon – you can order it by saying, “Udon onegaishimasu”. (ooh-don on-nee-gai-she-mass). If you want many things, you can list them all by saying “to” in between: “うどんとラメんとハンバーガーおねがいします (Udon to Ramen to Hambaagaa onegaishimasu”. (“Udon, ramen and a hamburger, please”)

What if you want more than one of something? You need to use a different set of number-counters.

If you want two bowls of udon, you can’t say “udon futari,” that means “two udon people”. The waitress might wonder, “Where are the udon people? Did they beat him in that race he was talking about?”

Instead, you should say “Udon (w)o futatsu onegaishimasu”. Can you guess what the counter is for food items? It’s “-tsu”. That “ts” should sound a tiny bit like a soft “z”. Like the staccato ‘z’ in pizza…. “pizzu!”

So where you said “futa-ri” for two people, you would say “futa-tsu” for “two plates”.

Just to clarify the w(o) I have used above. をis a Japanese particle whose job it is to mark the direct object you’re talking about eg Udon. So on your hiragana chart it is “wo” but the sound is “o” confusing hey? ^^

These are standard counters for objects in any situation, so they’re worth memorising.

English Romaji Hiragana Kanji
1 Thing hi-to-tsu ひとつ 一つ
2 Things fu-ta-tsu ふたつ 二つ
3 mittsu みっつ 三つ
4 yottsu よっつ 四つ
5 itsutsu いつつ 五つ
6 muttsu むっつ 六つ
7 nanatsu ななつ 七つ
8 yattsu やっつ 八つ
9 kokonotsu ここのつ 九つ
10 too とお

Notice the “little tsu” in the hiragana column eg やっつ? The “little tsu’s” job is to double the sound of the next consonant. So the “t” from “tsu” gets doubled by the “little tsu”. Read more about it here →

Eat Your Food

The staff won’t bother you unless you call them over. This requires a polite “Excuse me,” or in Japanese, “すみません (su-mi-ma-se-n)” pronounced su-mee-mah-sen. Until I figured this out, I thought Japanese service was awful.

Food will not come out at the same time. Start eating as soon as you get it. It’s standard to say “itadakimasu” (ee-tah-dak-ee-masu) and give a little nod to the food, or quickly put your hands together like a prayer.

Three quick rules on chopsticks:

  1. Don’t rub them together. It implies you have cheap, splintered chopsticks.
  2. Don’t pass food between chopsticks. They do this with bones at funerals. (Really).
  3. Don’t stick your chopsticks straight up into a bowl of rice. Unless you are at a funeral.

Basically, don’t bum everyone out by acting like you’re at a Japanese funeral.

Pay Your Bill

When you’re finished, take your bill to the front of the shop. There are two ways to pay: “べつべつ (be-tsu-be-tsu)” – separate – means everyone pays for what they ordered. “いっしょ (i-s-sho)” meaning “together” – the meal is evenly divided by the number of people.

Most Japanese people default to “issho,” whereas most Westerners default to “betsu-betsu”. So make sure you tell the host “betsu-betsu” if you only want to pay for what you ate.

But, you have to choose one or the other. Most Japanese people will ask for “issho” and, frankly, you should follow along if they’ve invited you out.

If you love the food (or despise it, it doesn’t really matter) express your gratitude by saying “gochisou sama deshita” (go-chee-soh-sama-desh-ta) – “Thanks for your role in preparing this food”.

Another good phrase for the chef is “おいしいです (o-i-shi-i de-su)”, pronounced oy-shee-des, which means “It’s delicious!” or “おいしかった (o-i-shi-ka-t-ta), meaning “That was delicious!”.

Enjoy your meal!

New To Japanese?

Eryk is a former newspaper editor from Maine now teaching English in Japan with the JET Program. Find his excellent posts on all things strangely Japanese at www.thisjapaneselife.org He can also be found on Twitter – @owls_mcgee

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GreenGlobalTrvl 5 pts

Great advice for getting a tasty meal. We've haven't been to Japan yet, but we love Japanese food. - Mary @ Green Global Travel

timecrunched 5 pts

Sweet tips! Haven't been to Japan, but we'll be prepared when we do! Might be able to make it there later this year or next if we end up moving to China.

NancieM1 5 pts

Great post! I would have found this most helpful when I was in Japan, and will use it the next time I visit. 

zonjineko 5 pts moderator

 NancieM1 Awesome thx for your feedback - much appreciated! ^^

Japan Australia 5 pts

A great guide that is extremely useful for surviving in a restaurant in Japan. We all have to eat after all!

Heathernaut 5 pts

What if your chopsticks really ARE cheap and splintered and you do not wish to get pointy bits in your mouth? Can you rub them together then?

Ken Seeroi 5 pts

 Heathernaut The reason we don't rub our chopsticks together doesn't have to do with implications.  Everybody knows the chopsticks are cheap, and that's fine.  We don't do it because it looks dumb, like rubbing your knife and fork together.  If there were splinters, rubbing your chopsticks together would only create more, not less.  If there is a splinter, just pick it off with your fingers.

kaleyinjapan 5 pts

This gave me a good chuckle. Especially the part about ordering two of something using "futari". The bit about having to get the server's attention by saying "Sumimasen" is super helpful. I would of thought that they were rude as well! So different from America, where if you say "Excuse me!" to a waiter you can be seen as rude.

AriaLeonard 5 pts

What do you say if you want to pay for everyone's meal?

Ken Seeroi 5 pts

 AriaLeonard 私の奢りです。watashi no ogori desu. It's my treat.

cnc0 5 pts

You have a typo in your past conjugation of おいしい. It is of course おいしかった。

zonjineko 5 pts moderator

cnc0 Thx always something I miss in edit mode! ^^

lyonku 5 pts

Amazing post! Really good information. ありがとう!

ameliaanneyap 6 pts

short question... how do you ask for the bill if it was not already given to you?

owls_mcgee 5 pts

ameliaanneyap "チェック" is "check" - they use Katakana, so it's pretty easy. Just like ordering food, you can "order" the check. "チェックおねがいします." Also, the old "gochisoosamadeshita" usually implies that you want the check. However, at almost every place you go, the bill will be left on your table with your main course. If you want desert or something, they just pencil it in as soon as you order.

ali.najaf 5 pts

owls_mcgee ameliaanneyap I dunno, I've always preferred 'okaikei onegaishimasu', but there are a lot of different ways to say it.

ameliaanneyap 6 pts

ali.najaf owls_mcgee ameliaanneyap

Thanks alot!!!

will remember those phrases =)

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