Everybody has to eat, but I can’t think of any human activity outside romance and relationships that’s subject to more byzantine rules and cultural taboos. In your home country you’re perfectly aware of what the rules are—and which you can break, and when—but eating in other cultures takes some research. There’s post after post on the internet about how to eat in Japan without looking like a barbarian, but most of those rules have exceptions that apply in casual dining situations which, if ignored, will make you stand out in more subtle ways.
1. The Rule: Use your chopsticks!
You can absolutely ask for a fork if you can’t manage chopsticks, but nothing will be able to save you from the embarrassment of announcing to the world that you never learned to use them even semi-competently.
The Exception: A lot of stuff, actually
Although Japan is known as a chopstick-over-fork culture, there’s plenty of food that doesn’t take chopsticks: curry (spoon), yakitori (skewers/hands), soup (straight from the bowl), edamame (hands), takoyaki (skewers)… The list goes on. And as far as forks, they’re actually just as common and acceptable as chopsticks for foreign cuisines—Italian restaurants in particular are likely put out forks with or in place of chopsticks.
2. The Rule: Eat with your chopsticks; nothing else!
If you’re 12 and/or feeling particularly jetlagged, it may seem funny to do the walrus with your chopsticks. Resist the urge. While you’re at it, here’s a whole list of things you shouldn’t do with them!: Don’t stand them up in food. Don’t pass food chopstick to chopstick. Don’t wave them around. Don’t lick them clean. Don’t hover them over the food while you try to decide what to take. Don’t pick up non-food stuff with them, use them to drag plates or glasses, or any other non-eating use. They’re either in your hand picking up food to move to your mouth, or they’re laid neatly on a rest or dish while your hands handle the non-food tasks.
The Exception: Taking food from the communal plate
If you’re eating in a large group and there are no serving utensils, turn your chopsticks upside down to remove food from the communal plate to set on your own plate, using the back part that you don’t eat with. This also goes for skewer food you’re sharing with other people: use the back of your chopsticks to push the food onto a clean plate so everyone can grab a piece. (Just don’t lick them after!) An additional exception: it’s okay to stab larger food for the purpose of tearing it into smaller pieces as long as you’re doing it on your own plate. Don’t serve this ripped up food to others.
3. The Rule: Slurp your noodle soups
I always suspected this was a myth until I actually went to Japan. You really can slurp noodle soups like ramen and udon. Although it’s hard to call this polite, it’s not impolite either. (Though some shop owners in America are so nostalgic for the sound that they’ll commend you for your efforts.) Slurping introduces air to the food as it enters you mouth, cooling the noodles so you can eat faster. Some nostalgic shop owners also claim it improves the flavor. To keep from making a mess, steady them with your chopsticks. Just don’t do this with non-noodle soups like miso and osuimono.
The Exception: Curry Udon
Curry udon is thick wheat noodles in a curry soup/sauce. This is one of my favorite comfort foods, but there’s no steadying these things; they will splash everything in a 10-foot radius with the soup, which will stain the bejeezus out of clothes, skin, and surfaces. Just blow on them and suck up the noodles as carefully as you can; no slurping whatsoever!
4. The Rule: Don’t walk and eat!
Although you see people quickly guzzling down a beverage on every street corner, eating is reserved for sitting down, preferably indoors, unless you’re a salaryman dashing between trains. (And those guys will lay across five seats to sleep on the train, so they’re not great examples of polite behavior.) This rule can be a little hard to follow if you’re staying in a hostel or guest house, which don’t always provide even a meager breakfast. If you don’t plan well, you end up buying your breakfast from a convenience store but not having time to return to the hostel to eat it! Coffee shops and park benches for you, my friend.
The Exception: Ice cream
Okay, to be fair, certain foods also fall into this exception during festivals, and crepes (being cone-shaped) are also occasionally acceptable in more informal situations, but only ice cream is considered portable year-round. Despite convenient packaging on food like onigiri that would let you eat on the go without a mess, only soft serve ice cream cones are deemed fit to eat while you wander. Ice cream stands are everywhere in touristy areas, and you’ll see plenty of people partaking as they stroll and take in the sights. Although licking is of course fine, some people choose to use spoons so there are always some available at the stand.
5. The Rule: Don’t eat on the train!
I can almost see how people could think this is okay. Chairs: check. Indoors: qualified check. But no, trains are in fact not an acceptable place to eat even soft serve ice cream. It’s public transportation, for crying out loud; were you raised in a barn? While we’re at it, you also can’t eat on buses or taxis.
The Exception: Long-haul and high-speed trains
Trains like the shinkansen and the Hokuto in Hokkaido actually offer a food service similar to that on airplane. Much like an airplane, it’s not expertly-prepared haute cuisine; often it’s sandwiches or gyuudon just warm enough to be acceptable. Still, if you have a long ride ahead and forgot to grab the previous meal, it can be a lifesaver. You can also pack on your own food to eat on these trains. Just use the tray table so you don’t make a mess.