One of the main joys of traveling and getting to know a country is sampling the food and the eating out culture, right? It's also a great opportunity to try and speak a little of the local language; showing your interest and respect for the home culture whilst (usually!) making the eatery staff smile. So let's grab some handy Japanese foodie phrases and hit the soba shop, izakaya, sushi bar and beyond!
All you can eat dessert….yes please!
The Absolute Basics
If you have a guide book on hand, these phrases will be in there for sure, and they're probably some of the first things you looked up. But just to cover all bases, here are 5 key kotoba (Japanese for words - so there's a bonus one!)
- Sumimasen: Excuse me! Used in the restaurants and bars to call the attention of the waiting staff (and can also be used when bustling and bumping your way through busy streets and trains.)
- Kudasai: Please. In Japanese culture, politeness is paramount so you will hear and use this a fair amount.
- Ōishii: Delicious! I hope you use this lot!
- Okaike kudasai: The bill/cheque please. You can also cross your first fingers to make an ‘x’ sign to show you want to pay.
- Itadakimasu: Let's eat! Japanese people usually say this before tucking in, showing respect for the meal they have received and the person who made it for them. Give it a go – especially if you are out with some new friends!
Next Level Essential Vocab
These are the words and phrases I would really like to introduce; they're super useful and will give you more freedom of choice! I've included the written Japanese too as you will see some of these handy words on signs and menus.
The top line reads 'honjitsu no osusume’: Today's recommendation. At this cafe in Kichijoji, they recommend the tara (cod) fish and vegetable soup lunch set.
1. Osusume (おすすめ or オススメ): Recommendation
Feeling adventurous? Want to try the restaurant's particular specialty? Can't read the all-kanji menu and don't mind delegating your meal choice? Then why not ask the waiting staff or chef for their recommendation? Also useful if you have seen what you want on a board but can't find it in the main menu.
2. .......nashi/nuki (…….なし/抜き) : no/without…... (whatever you don't want!)
Whether you have allergies, dietary restrictions or simply can't stand something, 'nashi or nuki’ will certainly come in handy. Personally, as a vegetarian living in Japan, I use this A LOT. Sometimes I spy something that I really want to try, or unfortunately there is no vegetarian option, so I want/have to ask for the meat/fish/dried fish flakes/prawns etc. nashi or nuki. If you know how to say what you can't have in Japanese, then great but if not, try it in English and add 'nashi/nuki’ to the end - I've found it's a bit clearer than just saying 'no’ as you can either end up with 1. nothing at all or 2.The staff thinking you want your no-go! (I have had this happen!) People are usually very accommodating and happy to help and if you have an allergy (arerugi in Japanese), just let them know.
The sign at this roast chicken restaurant reads “large size of rice for no extra cost!”
3. Omori (大盛り) : large portion
Want to super-size? In need of super sustenance for the day of sightseeing ahead? Opt big - sometimes for no extra cost!
The same roast chicken restaurant also states “We do take-out!”
4. Mochikaeri (持ち帰り): Take-out. Tennai（店内）: Eat-in
Particularly useful in a tapioca milk tea or cafe-style place, or any grab-and-go joint that does have some indoor seating. Also, there can be a different queue or specific window for take-out so I hope knowing these two phrases can save you some confusion!
In this restaurant, you can get unlimited free refills of soup and rice at lunch time
5. Okawari (お代わり) : Second helping or same again
In many places where there is a meal set available, you can enjoy free or cheap refills of soft drinks, miso soup and rice if they state that ‘okawari’ is available. So take advantage! You may also want to use it when winding down in a bar one evening when the first whisky highball (whisky and plenty of soda) was refreshing and it's time for another.
Note: If you've slurped up all the noodles in your ramen but still have plenty of tasty soup left in the bowl...ask for a second helping of noodles by saying 'kaedama’!
This restaurant offers an ‘All you can eat’ of seasonal food (in this case, autumnal food) for a set price – with no time restriction!
6. Tabehoudai and nomihoudai (食べ放題・飲み放題）: All you can eat and all you can drink
Especially great if you’re in a group and want to eat, drink and laugh the night away! Time restrictions often apply but it will be clearly labelled, or you can always check. 2 or 3 hours are most common times.
7. Gochisousamadeshita: Thank you for the delicious meal!
This is a set with itadakimasu (which you saying before eating). The polite and correct way to express your thanks and, as it is said when you have finished, can also be used to signal that you are ready to pay.
I wish you many delicious and culinary adventures in Japan!