To be invited to someone's house is considered a great honor in Japan, and being a guest in a Japanese home can put you in a challenging position if you are not prepared.
If you have been living in Japan for a long time, you may have already experienced it yourself and I am sure you still remember that first time. If you are not a pro yet, I would recommend you to follow these tips in order to get as close as possible to the Japanese traditions and manners:
Bring a small present or “omiyage”. It does not have to be too fancy. Alcohol, chocolates or any typical souvenir from your country would go well as a gift. There is no tradition in Japan to open gifts right away, so if the hosts make a present to you as a responsive gesture of courtesy do not unwrap it immediately because they would consider this as excessive curiosity.
Arrive on time. As a foreigner who was raised in Latin America I am usually late, but I definitely do not do it in Japan.
Many people would also advise you to ring the doorbell after you have taken out your coat.
Japanese people say hello, goodbye and express gratitude with a bow instead of a handshake. I would recommend you to join them bowing.
Do not enter the house with your shoes on. This is one of the few rules for which Japanese will not make an exception just because you are a foreigner. Slippers are usually provided in the entrance hall.
How and where to sit:
Nowadays you are more likely to be guided to a table and a chair like in any western country. However, some very traditional Japanese houses might have zabuton (floor cushion) system. In that case, you will experience the Seiza sitting which means that you will sit with your calves folded under you.
If you are lucky to see the table and chair, well then, you won't need major instructions. They will usually choose a specific place for you; otherwise choose the seat that is closest to the door. After sitting you can thank them for the invitation.
It is common to start the meal with the phrase “Itadakimasu” (I gratefully receive).
Usually, on Japanese tables there are plenty of small dishes with no particular order to follow. But if you are not sure where to start, you can ask your host for advise. They will be happy to assist you.
When eating from small bowls, the correct manner is to pick up the bowl with your hand and lead it close to your mouth when eating from it, however, larger types of dishes should generally not be picked up.
- Emptying your dishes to the last grain of rice is considered a good manner.
After finishing your meal, put your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest or in its paper holder.
Conclude the meal with the phrase “Gochisõsama deshita” which expresses gratitude.
Japanese culture is very quiet and peaceful, and they do not mind short periods of silence in the middle of the conversation. Do not be surprised if this happens during your visit.
Drinking is always fun, but, wait, it is full of rules in Japan:
Do not start drinking until everybody at the table has a drink and glasses are raised for a drinking salute which is called “Kampai”.
When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is customary to serve each other. Do not pour your own drink.
If you do not drink alcohol, it is not impolite to say so and request for other beverages instead.
Hot or cold tea is very common in Japanese meals
Every situation is different, so there is not a particular rule to follow when leaving, so just use your best judgment. Once you decide to leave you can say “Soro soro oitomasasete itadakimasu” meaning, in a very polite way, that it is time to go.
After getting on your shoes, you will be guided outside where you will say your goodbyes.
A very nice way of appreciating the invitation and food would be saying: “Honjitsu wa gochisou ni narimashita, arigatou gozaimashita” or “Gochisou ni narimashita”. As you bow you can also say “Kongo mo douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, which means that you hope you can continue having a nice relationship. After this, feel free to walk away.