Many Japanese sushi chefs view foreign customers as unreliable and obnoxious. Why? Because quite a few foreign customers are unreliable and obnoxious. That is a fact and I have witnessed it many times with my own eyes. Of course there are also plenty of foreign customers who behave politely when visiting sushi shops in Japan, but it only takes a few bad apples to give us all a bad rep. The good news is that much of the bad behavior is unintentional, and with some education the trend can be reversed. This article is my little contribution to this cause.
A quick word of warning: this piece is going to sound a little preachy. In the past few years I have visited Tokyo many times specifically to eat at sushi shops. In that short amount of time, I have witnessed many no-shows and I've seen quite a bit of outrageous behavior from foreign customers. In the last couple of years I have also noticed that many shops are opening second counters for tourists, grouping all foreigners together in sittings, or altogether refusing to deal with foreign customers. I attribute this to the no-show problem, and to the poor behavior of many foreign guests.
Part 1 - Before getting to the sushi shop
- Make a reservation. Pretty much all high-end sushi shops require reservations at this point. Get your hotel concierge to make the reservation, or use a paying service like Tableall if you have to, but don't try to walk in, it usually won't work.
- Don't double-book. Many foreign visitors will have a concierge book a restaurant as a back-up plan. If they can score a reservation at a more desirable shop, they then ask the concierge to cancel the first booking. First of all, this is inconsiderate for the concierge: you're doubling up their work for nothing. Second of all, EVERY TIME a foreign customer books a seat then cancels, this creates administrative work for the restaurant, and gives the restaurant the impression that foreign customers are unreliable. If a restaurant constantly gets reservations from foreign customers, then cancellations, then eventually they will just stop accepting foreigners all together. Can't really blame them. PLEASE - only book a restaurant if you really intent on going.
- If you have food allergies or dislikes, make sure they are communicated to the shop at the time of the booking. Don't just show up at a sushi shop and tell them you're allergic to shellfish. Do it when the booking is placed, so that they can plan accordingly.
Part 2 - On the way to the sushi shop
- Show up. Foreign visitors making reservations and then not showing up for them is the number one reason that it is becoming increasingly difficult to book many restaurants in Japan. Why would a sushi-ya take the risk of giving the seat to a first-time tourist who might not show, when they can keep the seat for a regular who will show? When you don't show up for your reservation, not only are you being incredibly rude to the restaurant, but you're also ruining it for the rest of us.
- Show up on time - don't be late. The Japanese really value punctuality - just look at the Japanese train system. It is not OK to be late. Many sushiya are really hard to find, so give yourself plenty of time to find your destination.
- Show up on time - don't be early. Wait for your reservation time to enter the restaurant. If your booking time is at the shop's opening, wait for them to place to noren curtain at the entrance of the shop: it signifies that the restaurant is open for business.
- Do not wear perfume, eau de toilette, or strong deodorant to the sushi shop. The food's aroma is a big part of the sushi dining experience. You sit quite close to others at a sushi counter, and strong smells can ruin the meal for other patrons. If the restaurant's staff notice you are wearing perfume, you might be turned away.
- Please don't go to the shop looking like a complete slob. I've dined at high-end Michelin starred shops next to dudes in shorts, tennis shoes, and a trucker hat - worn backwards even. I felt embarrassed for them.
Part 3 - At the sushi shop
- "Kuuki Yomenai" is a Japanese expression that roughly translates to "can't read the air" - it refers to someone who is unable to read how to behave in a particular social situation. Many of the faux-pas that foreigners commit in a Japanese sushi-shop could be referred to as "Kuuki Yomenai". The classic example is the loud foreigner who doesn't use "inside voice" in a quiet shop. Rule number one of the sushi-shop: try to behave like the regulars do. If everyone speaks in quiet, ushered tones, do the same. Try to be attuned to how you should be behaving in the particular setting that you are in. Don't be oblivious to your surroundings. Blend in!
- Turn off, or silence your phone. Do not place the phone on the sushi counter.
- If you must take a phone call, do so outside, and quickly! It is ok to leave your seat for 2 minutes, but it is not OK to leave your seat for 10 minutes, as it will disrupt the flow of the food being prepared.
- Always ask if it is OK to take photographs before doing so.
- Do not place your camera on the counter, keep it on your lap instead. The sushi counter is the chef's pride and joy. It can easily be damaged, and so heavy or metallic objects should not be placed on it.
- Don't use a camera that is large, or has a loud shutter. Be mindful of others at the counter. NEVER use flash. If you decide to take photos of the food, and the restaurant allows it, be discreet about it.
- Sushi chefs labor arduously to prepare great tasting sushi for you. Nigiri sushi tastes best right when it is made. Every second that it sits on the counter, it loses some of its magic. Eat the sushi quickly - ideally within 5 to 10 seconds of it being placed in front of you. Leaving the sushi sitting on the counter for long periods of time is extremely rude to the chef, and frankly it is stupid. Want to know how to piss off a sushi chef? Leave sushi sitting around for several minutes.
- Again, if you decide to take photos of the sushi, take them quickly! One shot is enough. You're at the restaurant to enjoy the sushi first and foremost. Learn to use your camera BEFORE you get to the restaurant.
- Eat the nigiri pieces in one bite.
- Don't disassemble the pieces of sushi prepared for you. Again, eat everything in one bite. Don't discard the rice, even if you're getting too full. It is OK to ask the chef to prepare the nigiri with less rice if you want to. But any piece of nigiri placed in front of you should be eaten as-is, in one bite.
- Do not place the pickled ginger on top of the sushi. Do not place the picked ginger in your mouth while the sushi is in your mouth. The picked ginger is a palate cleanser and should never be eaten at the same time as the sushi.
- You might be presented with soy sauce and wasabi during the sashimi / otsumami portion of the meal, and it is just fine to apply those condiments to the food then. But I've never been to a high-end sushi shop where the chef didn't apply the nigiri's finishing touches (wasabi, nikiri sauce, tsume sauce, salt ,etc) for you. This means that you'll never need to apply soy sauce or wasabi to nigiri sushi on your own. So don't ask for soy sauce and wasabi, they are not needed. If you do ask for them, you're basically telling the chef you're not enjoying the sushi.
- Other things I have personally witnessed people doing at high-end sushi counters: playing games on their phone, doing their hair and makeup. Don't do that. Learn to read the air.
Note: sushi shop etiquette is not limited to restaurants physically located in Japan. These rules also apply to high-end shops outside of Japan!