Japanese restaurants are different from Western ones in ways beyond the menu items. We've actually become inured to this sort of difference, but while traveling with Justin's parents, we noticed them through fresh eyes. These are the sort of things which would never make a travel guidebook but which would jerk you out of a novel set here (I can't read the word "whiskey" in novels set in Scotland anymore.)
- Japanese restaurants all have "party of one" seating areas, mostly banquettes. It is normal to go to a restaurant alone. Some places have more of this seating than of seating for groups.
- If you do go to a restaurant with other people, you will still only get one menu. No one can explain this to me.
- Some menus are written and posted on the restaurant wall, diner-style. Those are the hardest for foreigners because they are all text, without pictures, although sometimes they write the spicy dishes in red letters.
- All meals are served with wet towels, either the cheap plastic packaged
kind or, in more upscale places, heated white washcloths.
- Japanese chopsticks will always be wood. The Koreans use metal and the
Chinese usually use plastic in restaurant settings. Chinese chopsticks
are the longest, maybe because of the tendency to eat from shared plates
at a distance. Japanese chopsticks are shortest. Korean chopsticks are
- You can still smoke in restaurants here. The scent of french-fry grease and cigarette smoke always takes me back to the McDonald's of my childhood.
- Many restaurants set out Kleenex boxes for use in place of napkins.
- At some restaurants, especially ramen restaurants, you might buy meal tickets from a vending machine instead of paying cash to a person. You turn the ticket in to the server and they bring you the food shown on the ticket.
- Some restaurants, particularly those on the ground floors of large buildings, do not have their own bathrooms. To go to the bathroom, you have to exit the restaurant (which is outdoors, in the cold) and walk around to the bathroom, which is typically shared with other restaurants. Often these are squat toilets. THE HORROR.
- Fast-food restaurants like Lotteria and McDonald's have sinks out in the main area, near the order counter, so you can wash your hands without going into the bathroom. Actually, this is brilliant.
- When you discard your tray at a fast-food restaurant, you have to sort your trash first. There is a separate receptacle for the leftover ice in your soda cup.
- Water cups are teeny tiny - no taller than your hand. I noticed this in Europe, too. I don't know why Americans drink so much more than other people. I would die of dehydration drinking the way they do in Asia and Europe.
- Water is often "セルプ”, or "self-service," from coolers in a corner of the restaurant. This makes the teeny-tiny cups even more annoying, since you have to get up and walk across the restaurant to refill them. Sometimes they have pitchers, though, which helps.
- No sales tax, and no tipping. If you try to leave even a penny behind, they will come out in the street to find you and give it back.
- If you get to a chain restaurant at opening time, you might witness the staff's pump-up ritual. They gather outside the restaurant and cheer a few times before going in and starting work. They do this at major retailers, too.