Eating out in Japan can be tricky- unless you’re a Clampett. Study the picture above. Lesser Ex Pats could be intimidated. Notice the curtains- hanging down in front means the restaurant is open. Signage in Japanese means no English menu- the handy Japanese/English dictionary will be useless unless speed flipping and recognizing over 4000 Japanese characters and two Japanese alphabets to decipher each individual word happens to be a hobby.
I’ve heard stories whispered in the back corner of the Tokyo American Club of establishments in Tokyo closed to the “Gaijins.” A bad word for foreigners. It goes like this. American walks in to a restaurant and says, “Do you speak English?” The Japanese waiter crosses the arms in front of the chest and says forcefully, “NO Eigo” which means “NO English.” HORRORS- the Japanese person just answered the question- however, the paranoid American took that to mean, “No English-speaking person allowed.” I find it interesting the question was asked at all. Do all foreigners enter a restaurant in Japan and ask for a customized menu or translator for each individual language?
Living overseas takes bravado in many ways, in Japan certainly regarding food. Our preferred method of entry to a non- English-speaking restaurant is with huge American smiles plastered on our faces- who can resist a friendly face? We are an overwhelming brood- my Spouse is big, I have big hair and big wedges, my kids are big, and we always look big in a doorway not built for a size big family. All heads turn our way. There we are – smiling and big. Usually we bring the restaurant to silence. Bigness does that. Now it’s the restaurant patrons staring at us, us smiling at them.
All expect us to ask for the English menu- in English. We say, “Konichiwa.” A few chuckles. Japanese find it funny when Americans say Konichiwa. A waiter ventures over and talks in Japanese. We have no idea what is being said. Our smiling, big heads nod regardless and Spouse holds up 4 fingers. He could be saying “No Gaijin” but undeterred, we Big our way in.
We are seated and I order 4 waters in Japanese. The waiter is pleasantly surprised. The menu is passed out- all in Japanese.
Trial and Error produced the following effective ways of ordering when one finds oneself illiterate and in need of ordering food. Potentially effective in France where one could use a dictionary but wanted to further the “Americans are too lazy to learn the language” perception.
1) Least preferred method and one used by amateurs: Point and order. Just take a wild guess and point to a random entry- see what happens.
2) Most preferred: “Osusume wa” Chef recommendation order the chef’s special choice. The Japanese only cook seasonal dishes- be it fish or vegetable. Brown nosing the chef is a best practice in all countries and guarantees gastronomic quality- just one caveat, the contents might raise Western eyebrows.
3) Standard fare in Japan- the ubiquitous “Set Menu”- Always available and for unknown reasons- in Japanese it is “Setu menu”- Easy to order!
4) Look closely at the top picture, there is a picture menu. Many of the less expensive restaurants offer picture menus or amazing wax replicas of the food served. Point and order.
Japanese chefs concern themselves as much with the taste of the food as with the presentation. Dishes are chosen specifically for the food to be served and how each will look with the others chosen. Dishes coordinate versus match. Leaves, flowers and condiments are chosen to add color and usually the entire meal is served at the same time on a platter- the Japanese way.
Most of the restaurants with Japanese only menus aren’t used to serving Western customers, however, to enjoy true Japanese cuisine and hospitality, visitors should muster the courage to venture inside. Spouse and I visited an expensive, traditional Japanese restaurant for our anniversary. Not a word of English spoken. Spouse and I couldn’t tell what type of Japanese food was served. A true disadvantage. The curtains were drawn however the door was shut. Was the restaurant open? We decided it wasn’t when 10 chattering, 4 ft 5 in Japanese women got off the elevator and swarmed on by. We followed the jubilant herd. We made quite an entrance- I walked on the wet entry stones in my socks- critical faux pas- and Tom walked head on in to the ceiling causing a flurry of concern among the kimono’d waitresses. They couldn’t help but forgive us the momentary dip of zen in spite of the major mistake made not 3 feet in to the restaurant for we kept smiling.
As usual, we nod answering “Hai” (yes) to everything spoken to us as they chatter in Japanese saying we know not what. A menu arrives. Spouse and I look around trying to decide the fare- Sushi, traditional Japanese, Tempura, Shabu Shabu- no clues but a large grill. There’s only once choice in this situation- the “setu menu”. Over the next two hours, several courses of mystery dishes are set before us. All delicious. After the third course, a cocktail coaster is set before us with a carefully written translation of the food we are enjoying. A waitress had taken the time to look up the foods, convert the Japanese characters to English letters and painstakingly written them in child- like prose to English. For the next 9 courses, cocktail coasters came with the translations. So unused to writing in any form the only paper available in the restaurant was a cocktail coaster. This epitomizes the blend of a dining experience with Japanese culture- focus on the customer, genuine concern for others by placing oneself in the others’ experience, attention to finite details in the cuisine, decor, and mood of the food and surroundings, all presented in a quiet, peaceful setting. Rendered unable to walk after eating 12 mini meals, Spouse and I drug ourselves to the curb to hail a cab. As we left, the waitress escorted us to the curtains and bowed low showing gratitude and thanks. We tried to reciprocate but our protruding stomachs got in the way.
Around the corner, TGI Friday’s was doing a hopping business, all the blonde kids hanging on the fake Santa.