Sushi Eating Etiquette – How To Eat Sushi In Japan

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I clearly remember my first time eating sushi and how exotic, and confusing, I thought it was. Since that time though, I’ve eaten so much sushi I don’t know what I did without it in my life. When traveling to Japan, though, sushi eating etiquette can be intimidating. That’s why we created this guide to how to eat sushi in Japan, so you are ready to have some of the best sushi eating experiences of your life! All without feeling entirely awkward. 

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Sushi Eating Etiquette – How To Eat Sushi In Japan

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Proper Sushi Etiquette

In this food and travel post, we share our top tips on how to eat sushi in Japan. This includes some lesser known facts about sushi, the dos and don’ts of eating in Japan, and everything else you need to know to feel comfortable on your next food trip to Japan. Because sushi is one of the best things to eat in Japan and we want you to make the most of it. 

What’s most important is that there are no written rules on the correct way to eat sushi. No fish police will come barging out of the back of the restaurant and fine you. That said, Japan restaurant etiquette in general is one of politeness and ceremony. There are a few tips and tricks you can learn to look a little more like a local and to show respect to the sushi chef. These same tips are what help you to enjoy your sushi eating experience in Japan even more.

Learn how to make sushi at home with our recommended sushi making kits. 

Entering A Sushi Bar In Japan

Don’t be surprised if you hear “yelling” when you enter a sushi restaurant in Japan. Generally they are yelling “irasshaimase” which means welcome. It’s one of my favorite things about eating sushi in Japan. Minimally, the hostess will often greet you. It’s polite to just nod your head with a little smile. They will ask how many people and show you to the available seats. 

Eating At The Sushi Bar In Japan
Eating At The Sushi Bar In Wakayama

Sitting At The Sushi Bar

If you would like to sit at the sushi bar, request it. Sitting at the sushi bar is one of the best places to eat sushi in Japan because you can watch the chefs. This is a great idea if you are eating alone or with one other person. If you are in a larger group, it’s best to look for a table so that you can be social without interfering with others at the bar.

The chefs will expect you to interact with them a bit. You do not need to know or understand Japanese, just continue to nod and smile and show some respect. Most itamae, or sushi chefs, have studied for years and are proud of their craft. That said, if the chef does speak English it’s polite to talk about the sushi, but not other topics as they are generally busy taking their sushi seriously. 

Other Recommendations For Dining At A Sushi-Ya

Don’t be surprised to walk into a full sushi-ya that seems to be as quiet as a library. Here, the focus is meant to be on the fish. Of course, it’s okay to talk, but at more high-end sushi restaurants in Japan it is frowned up if a group gets too loud. Just go with the flow and the mood of the rest of the eaters.

Another unique aspect of eating sushi in Japan is that it is best to not wear heavy perfume or cologne. The scent might interfere with the flavor of the sushi and the sushi eating experience. 

correct way to eat sushi in Japan
Sushi in Osaka

How To Order Sushi In Japan

Here are a few tips on how to order sushi in Japan. Some of these recommendations are easier if the sushi chef speaks English or you speak Japanese. Other of these recommendations are for those food travelers who do not speak Japanese (we don’t and we survive).

  • If you are seated at the bar, only order sushi from the itamae, or sushi chef. Order drinks, soup, or other items from the server.
  • Don’t ask “what’s fresh today?” or “Is that fresh?” It’s almost insulting to imply that they could have fish that is not fresh. If the restaurant looks sketchy, then don’t sit down. In general, restaurants in Japan are some of the cleanest in the world and they take the quality of their food seriously. 
  • If you don’t know what to order and are okay experimenting (this is the place to do it) try ordering a set menu, omakase or the chef’s choice menu. The pricing will generally be listed so there are no surprises, but it allows the chef to show off his best to you. It also builds rapport with the chef by showing him you trust him. 
  • If you particularly enjoyed a piece of sushi and are sitting at the sushi bar, feel free to ask for another piece. 
the right way to eat sushi
Tuna at the market in Osaka

Before Eating Sushi In Japan

There is normally a wet towel placed for you at your seat. This towel is for cleaning your hands before the meal. This is important because most sushi is eaten with the hands. Use the towel to clean your hands and fingers, but not your face. When done, fold the towel and replace it on its plate or the counter. This becomes your napkin during you meal.

What Is The Proper Way To Eat Sushi In Japan

First, a bit of nomenclature:

  • What is sushi? Sushi is a Japanese dish made with raw fish (neta), normally over rice mixed with vinegar.
  • What is nigiri? Nigiri is a finger of rice topped with fish or some other topping, like egg. It is prepared by placing a bit of wasabi between the fish and the rice.
  • What is sashimi? Sashimi is a slice of raw fish without the rice underneath. 

Sashimi is normally eaten with chopsticks. Nigiri and other pieces are normally eaten with your hands. This allows you to feel the texture of the piece. It also is a more delicate way to eat sushi. Chopsticks can damage the delicate pieces and leave it falling apart. 

proper way to eat sushi
Eating nigiri with the hands is totally appropriate

Eating Sushi With Your Hands

To eat sushi with your hands lift the piece between your thumb and second or middle finger. Carefully turn the piece upside down. Then, dip only the fish into the soy sauce, not the rice. The rice will absorb the soy too quickly and the piece will fall apart. Moreover, the sushi chef has already seasoned the rice before it arrives on your plate, so there is no need to season it more.

Try to place the fish into your mount in one bite with the fish side facing the tongue. This will allow you do fully appreciate the flavor of the fish. Plus, it’s a little difficult to flip it back over after it’s been dipped in soy.

If the chef adds and sauce or topping to the fish, then skip the soy sauce. He has already seasoned the fish they way he thinks is best. Trust him. When eating sushi in Wakayama, which is just south of Osaka and Kyoto, I poured soy sauce and never used it because the chef prepared each piece expertly for me.

Eat Sushi Immediately

Even when ordering a set sushi menu, normally individual pieces will arrive one or two at a time. It’s meant to be eaten right away. That is when it tastes best. This is in part because the rice is warm. When the fat in the fish hits the warm rice, the result can be simply sublime. 

The Best Sushi Making Kits
Eating tuna sashimi in Hokkaido Japan

Eating Sushi With Chopsticks

Although it’s customary to eat most sushi with the hands, there are times when chopsticks might be used. For example, sashimi, which are slices of raw fish without rice, is eaten with chopsticks. 

Another note about eating sushi with chopsticks, if they provide wooden chopsticks, don’t rub them together. It suggests the quality of the chopsticks is low. If there is a problem with the chopsticks, then just request a new pair. 

When you are not using your chopsticks, place them in the holder next to your plate. Avoid placing them across your plate or in your bowl. You may place them between pieces of sushi. Never, ever stick your chopsticks into your rice, allowing them to stand upright. This is reminiscent of incense sticks, funerals, and prayers to the ancestors.

If you eat soup during your sushi meal, don’t expect a soup spoon. Instead lift the bowl to your mouth. You can then use your chopsticks to eat any solid pieces from the soup. 

If sharing food with your dining companion, try not to share the food or move it with chopsticks. Instead, offer the plate and allow the individual to take the food themselves. 

how to eat wasabi with sushi

Sushi, Wasabi, Ginger, And Soy

Eating sushi in the US is very different from how to eat traditional sushi in Japan. In the US, most people drench their sushi in soy and slather it in wasabi. In Japan, it’s different. You can trust the sushi chef to prepare each piece of sushi exactly as it should be eaten. In a way, this makes the right way to eat sushi almost foolproof. You can almost always eat it just as it is presented to you and it should be wonderful. 

Soy

Pour only a small amount of soy into the bowl provided (the shoyu dish). You can always add more if you need it. Pouring excess soy sauce can be considered wasteful. Also, by using too much soy, it can be inferred that you need to cover the taste of old fish, which is almost never the case. For fish that already has a sauce, such as unagi, or eel, there is no need to use soy sauce. 

Wasabi

Every sushi chef will add the appropriate amount of wasabi to your sushi before it reaches you. Generally this is a small amount between the rice and the fish. Even if you love the spice and burn of sushi with wasabi at home, trust the chef when eating sushi in Japan. The goal is to taste the flavor of the fish, and importantly the rice, not the wasabi.

Even if wasabi is placed in front of you, use it sparingly. You can use wasabi for sashimi, which is not served with rice. Most wasabi in Japan is freshly grated from a root and much stronger than the wasabi paste used at home.

Wasabi And Soy

Although commonplace in the US, don’t add wasabi to your bowl of soy sauce. That is definitely not how to eat sushi the right way. Plus, the mixture of the two creates a globby paste that is just not elegant when eating sushi in Japan. 

Ginger

Avoid eating ginger and sushi at the same time, i.e. there is no need to place a slice of ginger on top of the sushi. Instead, ginger is used as a palate cleanser. It can be eaten between pieces of sushi or to cleanse the mouth between different types of sushi.

conveyor belt sushi
Eating conveyor belt sushi in Osaka Japan

What Is Conveyor Belt Sushi In Japan

Also known as a sushi carousel or kaiten-sushi in Japan, our first time eating conveyor belt sushi was in Osaka over 10 years ago. This is a must have experience when it comes to eating sushi in Japan. In this case, the proper way to eat sushi sort of flies out the window, or takes a ride on the conveyor belt. 

Plates of sushi will make their way along a conveyor belt in front of you. There is a pricing guide, with each plate being priced based on its color. Pick what you want to eat and stack the plates in front of you. At the end, you are charged based on the number of plates.

There is loads of wasabi, soy, and ginger, so the proper sushi etiquette rules sort of fly out the window. It might not be the highest quality fish, but it’s still darn good and lots of fun. It’s also a great way to spend a night in Japan on a bit of a budget.

planning a trip to japan
Eating sushi at a market in Osaka

How Much Is Sushi In Japan

The sushi price in Japan can depend on a variety of factors. There are cheap sushi bars, conveyor belt sushi restaurants, typical sushi restaurants, and high-end and Michelin Star sushi restaurants. The cost of sushi will vary depending on the type of establishment. It’s possible to visit a conveyor belt sushi restaurant for $10-15 a person. Higher-end sushi can cost anywhere from $30-100 a person. It can still be a good opportunity to eat great, fresh sushi for a fraction of what it costs elsewhere in the world. 

If you are on a budget, look for sashimi at one of the many local markets. Even at more touristy markets like Kuromon in Osaka or Nishiki in Kyoto, you can have a tray of tuna for as little as ¥1000. If looking for tuna, remember the darker the color the more lean and the less expensive it is. The tray above includes lean tuna, fatty tuna, and something in the middle. 

what to drink with sushi
Drinking sake is always a fine pairing with sushi

What To Drink With Sushi

Green tea goes well with sushi and is often served at conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Some say you shouldn’t pair sushi with sake because they are both rice based, but I love sake with sushi. Look for something more dry. If you would prefer wine, look for a highly acidic wine like a Sauvignon Blanc. 

Is Tipping Necessary

Tipping is not customary in Japan, at all. When we’ve left a few coins of change that were left over on the table a server once ran after us to return it. The same goes with ordering sushi in Japan.

It is not necessary to tip the sushi chef. In fact, handing money to him could be considered rude or at least off putting. This is in part because he is handling food and should not be handling money as well. If you loved your meal and interacted well, watch what other patrons are doing. Some might buy the sushi chef a bit of sake as a thank you. We’ve never done that because I don’t speak Japanese and to me it seems awkward. 

FAQs - What Is The Proper Way To Eat Sushi In Japan

Is sushi Japanese?

Yes! The earliest reference to sushi is from the early 700’s in Japan.

What is the difference between nigiri and sashimi?

There are many different kinds of sushi. In Japan, they often fall into one of these two categories. At its most basic, sashimi is a slice of fish that is served on its own, without rice. Nigiri is a piece of fish served on top of rice. 

Do you need to make a reservation for a sushi restaurant in Japan?

The more casual the place, no, you don’t need to make a reservation. If it is a higher-end place, reservations are required. In between, they are recommended. This is because, in part, many sushi-ya are very small so there is limited seating. The most important thing is that if you have dietary restrictions you must make a reservation ahead of time and notify them at the time of the booking. If you can’t ask your hotel to call for you, perhaps stop in the day before to make a booking for the following day.

Can you take photos at a sushi restaurant in Japan?

There is no blanket rule against taking photos. Always ask first. This it the rule any time you take photos of another person, even a sushi chef. As far as taking food photos, try not to be disruptive. That means no flash.