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Sushi Bar Tutorial & Etiquette

 When you're seated at the Sushi Bar...

The hot towel (oshibori) given to you by the waitress is used to wipe your hands at the beginning of your visit to the sushi bar. You can use it during the meal to wipe your hands but a napkin will also be provided for you.  Oh, and I feel the need to say this.... Do Not Blow Your Nose at the Sushi Bar! geeeeezzz!

How to order and from whom

You may order soup, drinks, appetizers and most non-sushi/sashimi menu items from your waitress. Basically, anything made in the kitchen is to be ordered from the waitress. Tea, sake, and beer are considered normal beverages when eating sushi. Do not order anything other than sashimi or sushi from your chef. It is considered impolite to do so.

All sushi bars have a sushi and sashimi menu that you fill out yourself. If you're not sure what to order, ask the chef for his recommendations.  This gives the chef an opportunity to show off both his fish and his talents.

You may offer a beer or sake to your sushi chef, but he doesn't expect it. If you have a drink with him, he may toast you with Kampai! (To your health!)

Slurping your soup or Where's the spoon?

Soup is served hot. While eating miso soup (misoshiru) or clear broth (suimono), you may use your chopsticks to pick out the solid pieces and you can drink the soup as you would a cup of tea. Slurping (a slight sipping sound) is considered acceptable and holding the bowl of soup or rice up to your face so you don't spill is okay too.

The "Peas in a pod"

The "peas" that are a common appetizer at sushi bars are actually soy beans in the pod and are called edamame (ed ah mah may).  They are served either cold or warm usually sprinkled with salt.  To avoid "flying peas" try to put one end of the pod in your mouth as you gently "work" the peas out of the pod. Do not eat the pod...

Chopsticks - Do's and Don'ts

When not using your chopsticks, put them on a dish with the tips to the left. Or I have seen the paper wrapper from the chopsticks folded in such a way to make a chopstick holder!  (something to do while waiting for sake....) Never stick them in your food or rice bowl. It is also considered bad manners to use your chopsticks to pull the dishes to you. You should always use your hands to accommodate your dish-pulling needs.  Resist the temptation to sharpen your chopsticks by rubbing them together. Doing so implies to the chef that the chopsticks are cheap. You may discreetly pull any loose wood fibers off while hiding it in your lap. Then again, if there are loose wood fibers on the chopsticks, maybe you should let them know their chopsticks are cheap!

Did you know... Sticking your chopsticks upright into your food, especially your rice bowl, is the traditional way of offering rice to the dead? Do NOT do this! Another form of rude behavior is to grab your chopsticks in the palm of your hand as you would grab a stick. This is how a sword is handled. Also, Do not play with food and try to figure out what's inside. The Japanese are generally sensitive about this and you insult your chef or host by picking the food apart. The way in which the food is arranged and presented is equally as important as the food itself.  I have found the chefs are happy to answer any questions I have asked.

Hands or Chopsticks?

It is okay to use your hands to eat sushi, but if you are going to serve someone, reverse your chopsticks and pass the food with the opposite ends. As with anything requiring coordination, learning to use chopsticks takes practice. Use chopsticks, not your fingers, while eating sashimi.

One Big Bite?

In Tokyo where the sushi is generally smaller in size, it is expected to be eaten in one bite. However, here in the US, we tend to cram more stuff in the sushi and therefore it's bigger. I would say eat it in one bite if you can, but it's acceptable to take more bites.


Sushi Dipping and No Soy Sauce On the Rice

The proper way to dip sushi into your soy sauce is to dip the fish side only. If you've ever eaten a hand roll, you know how difficult this can be... so eat it the easiest way you can!  Do not pour soy sauce on your rice. This is offensive to the chef. Other dishes are meant to flavor the rice as you eat. Rice is still considered a valued and precious item by elders.

Cleansing the Palate

The vinegared ginger slices (gari) that accompany your sushi are for cleansing your palate in between different foods.  It is not proper to heap the ginger on any food.  

Shredded White Stuff

Shredded white radish (daikon) is to nibble on between sushi orders, use chopsticks to eat this. This is commonly served under sashimi and other dishes or on the side as an edible garnish.

The Green Stuff is Hot!

Be careful with the green mound found on your plate with your sushi. It is wasabi and it can be quite spicy if used in abundance. Wasabi is Japanese horseradish translated to "mountain hollyhock".  A dab is smeared under most sushi and some people mix bits of it with soy sauce, but the Chef will be happy to add more wasabi to accommodate your personal taste.  

Saké Etiquette

Pouring sake for others is a common custom in Japan that takes a bit of getting used to but has a wonderful charm and appeal once ingrained. Small cups (called ochoko or guinomi) and a larger serving flask or vessel (tokkuri) allow for frequent refill opportunities, each of which is a mini-ritual of social bonding. In formal situations, the tokkuri is held with two hands when pouring. Likewise, the person receiving should lift his or her glass off the table, holding it with one hand and supporting it with the other.

The more formal the situation the more such etiquette is observed. Even in informal situations, pouring saké for one's table companions is the norm, although pouring and receiving parties generally revert to the more natural one-hand grip. Among close friends, after the first round or so, all pouring rituals are often abandoned for convenience.


Sushi Bar Vocabulary

A special vocabulary is reserved for sushi bars in Japan.  Soy sauce is referred to as murasaki (purple) instead of the normal shoyu. This is because most sushi restaurants make their own house sauce. Normally the marinated ginger slices are refered to as sushoga (vinegared ginger), but at the sushi bar it is called gari. Green tea is the national beverage of Japan and it's called ocha.  When asking for tea after the meal, you may ask for agari (finished) instead of ocha.  And lastly, Arigato means Thank You.

Check, please orsay OAISO, KUDASAI (pronounced: Oh-eye-so, coo-da-seye)

You can tell the sushi chef when you are done, but ask the waitress for the check. In Japan the people who handle food do not handle the money. Also in Japan, the gratuity is included in the bill and you are not supposed to leave a tip. But, in the United States a large tip is OK; consider the personal service and that the chefs share tips with the rest of the restaurant.

What To Say and How To Say It

For an extensive list of phrases, sushi, sashimi, and other sushi related terms and definitions, please go to Vocabulary. You will also find a brief explanation about how to pronounce most Japanese words.  Go to our Japanese Numbers page to learn how to count in Japanese.


Bowing represents humility. You elevate, honor, and respect the other person by humbling yourself or lowering yourself. The lower you bow, the more you are honoring or respecting the other party. As a Westerner, you are not expected to initiate a bow, but a bow should always be returned (except from personnel at department stores and restaurants who bow to welcome you, and to whom you can nod in return if you like). To not bow in return is similar to refusing a handshake.

The person of lower status usually initiates the bow, bows the lowest, and is the last one to rise. The most frequent bow is a rather informal bow of about 15 degrees and is held for one or two seconds. A deeper bow is used for a superior or for a formal occasion such as a first meeting. It is usually about 30 degrees and is held for about three seconds. Men usually leave their hands at their sides while bowing, but women usually place them together on their thighs with their fingertips overlapping or touching. Heels should be together. If you rise from your bow and the other person hasn't risen yet, you should bow again. On most occasions, especially when saying good-bye, there are several bows by all parties.


For Greetings and Partings; introductions, welcoming, acknowledgment of another's presence (even across the room), gaining attention

For Sincerity; offering assistance, food, presents, etc., showing gratitude, congratulating, sympathy

For Humility; requests, apology, respect

For Ceremony

To Acknowledge or Show Agreement


Handshaking is definitely a Western custom. Generally, the Japanese are uncomfortable with any physical forms of contact, however, they have become accustomed to this Western tradition and often shake hands to promote good relations. You should not judge the kind of handshake a Japanese person returns nor should you be too aggressive or excited shaking the hand of a Japanese person.






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