Many, if not all, tourists go to Japan to try the freshest sushi, melt-in-mouth wagyu beef, umami ramen, or some delicacy that they’ve heard of from others or on social media. But what happens if a 90-year-old soba restaurant doesn’t have an English menu or English-speaking staff?
Basic Japanese vocabulary to order at a restaurant
Not to worry, here are some ways to get your order right without falling short of the language barrier. These are especially helpful if you’re patronizing a restaurant that isn’t considered a tourist spot.
First, let’s consider the easy cheat option. Google translate your way to efficient communication! The app has a camera function and can translate Japanese text on the spot. Point your phone to the menu, and you can get an idea of the dishes available. You can also use DeepL for a more accurate translation of what you want to say.
Of course, you can also impress the staff and those around you by learning these essential phrases for a restaurant setting.
When entering a restaurant, you will be greeted with an “irasshaimase” or “welcome.” Staff will then ask you how many of you will be eating. You can use your fingers to reply, or with “hitori/futari desu” for one or two people or “san nin/yon nin/go nin desu” for three, four, five pax, and so on.
At more fancy restaurants or during peak hours, you might be asked if you have a reservation “Go yoyaku wa sarete irun deshou ka?” You can reply accordingly with, “Yoyaku o shite imasu. (Name) desu” or “Sumimasen. Go yoyaku shitenai no desu ga, aite imasu ka?” if you didn’t make a reservation.
The restaurant might have designated smoking and non-smoking seating, and the staff will ask, “Kitsuenseki, kinenseki no dochira ni.” You can reply with, “Kitsuenseki/Kinenseki o onegaishimasu.”
Another useful phrase, especially at fast food establishments, is the type of order, whether for dine-in “tennai” or takeout “mochikaeri.”
By this time, you should be directed to your seat. The staff will then give the initial introductions, give you some water or tea, and hand you a menu.
Ordering from the menu
You can overcome the menu hurdle by asking if they have an English one available. “Eigo no menyu arimasuka?” If they have none, it’s time to translate or ask.
You can get a food attendant’s attention by raising your hand and saying, “sumimasen.” The restaurant might also have a bell button on the table or a tablet for order-taking. The latter might have an English option for convenience.
You can often get by with the menu photos because what you see on the menu is what you get in Japan. You can also ask, “Osusume wa nan desu ka?” if you want a recommendation from the staff. If you know what you want, you can simply point to the item and indicate the number.
You can use the following formula for ordering: Dish + o + universal counter + onegaishimasu. The universal counter is as follows: hitotsu (one), futatsu (two), mitsu (three), yotsu (four), itsutsu (five), muttsu (six), nanatsu (seven), yattsu (eight), kokonotsu (nine) and tou (ten).
A sample would be “gyudon o futatsu onegaishimasu.” The same applies to drinks. Once done, the staff will confirm your order and tell you to wait, “Shou shou omachi kudasai.”
If you have allergies, you can inform them with, “(insert food item) arerugii ga arimasu.” You can also omit certain ingredients like ketchup or mayonnaise with “(ingredient) nashi desu.”
If you need some more cold drinking water, you can ask, “ohiya onegaishimasu.”
Paying the bill
Paying for a meal in Japan varies, from bringing a piece of paper or table number left on the edge of the table to the cashier or asking for the bill beforehand. If the latter, you can ask with “okaikei onegaishimasu.”
It is also a tradition in Japan to let the restaurant staff know that you appreciated the food by saying “Gochisousama deshita (you can omit the deshita for a more informal setting)” or “arigatougozaimashita.”
Now for some popular Japanese food terms so you can have a grasp of the ingredients and method involved with a particular dish.
|Ingredient/dish type||Japanese||Cooking method/seasonings||Japanese|
|Beef||Gyuuniku||Seafood or vegetables dipped in batter and fried||Tempura|
|Pork||Butaniku||Fried in a pan or on a grill||-Yaki|
|Chicken||Toriniku||Deep-fried||Agemono or karaage|
|Fish||Sakana||Fried with bread crumbs||-Katsu|
|Sliced, often raw seafood, fish, and other ingredients||Sashimi (sushi if on top of vinegared rice)||Soy sauce||Shouyu|
|Breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet||Tonkatsu||Vinegar||Su|
|Skewered grilled meat||Yakitori||Salt||Shio|
|Ramen noodles with broth||Raamen||Pepper||Koshou|
|Buckwheat noodles||Soba||Fermented soybean paste||Miso|
|Thick noodles from wheat flour||Udon||Ketchup||Kechappu|
Hopefully, the guide above helped prepare you for eating at a restaurant in Japan. What’s left now is to enjoy the gastronomic experience!