If you’re new to sushi or not acquainted with Japanese customs, stepping into a sushi restaurant can be a daunting experience. Proper etiquette is easy to learn by observing other patrons and asking the staff for help. Use chopsticks or your fingers to pick up the sushi. Dip the fish lightly in soy sauce, eat the sushi in one bite, and follow it with a small slice of ginger. As long as you are polite, the servers and chef will help you figure out what to order and will overlook any mistakes you may make.
Clean your fingers off with the washcloth.
Some restaurants will place an oshibori in front of you when you sit down. It’s a small, damp hand towel you can use to clean your fingers before, and during the meal. After wiping, fold it nicely, and place it back in its container. Use it again as needed.
Don’t wipe your face with the oishibori. It’s meant for your hands.
Use your fingers, or chopsticks to pick up the sushi.
Even though most people use chopsticks, sushi is traditionally a finger food. Fingers make handling the roll easier, and allow you to feel its texture. This helps you prevent nigiri sushi from falling apart. If you’re unsure, if you should use your fingers, or something else, ask the staff.
Try not to ask for knives, and forks. Some restaurants are more forgiving than others about using utensils. Some people may also think you’re a little rude for eating this way, so offer an apology first.
Chirashizushi (scattered sushi) is best eaten with chopsticks, or a fork, if the establishment permits.
Lightly dip sushi in soy sauce.
Aim the fish portion of the sushi towards the soy. A gentle dip will give you all the soy you need. Rice quickly absorbs soy, which overwhelms the flavor of the sushi. Also, soaking sushi in soy is disrespectful, because it implies the original flavors of the roll are not good enough.
Always dip nigirizushi upside down in the soy sauce, and eat it rice side up.
Don’t pour lots of soy sauce into your cup. You don’t need a lot of soy, and wasted soy is frowned upon in Japan.
Some rolls, usually eel and mackerel, already have sauce on them. Don’t add soy, or other condiments.
Wasabi isn’t a necessity. You can place a little on your sushi before dipping it into soy for extra spice. Avoid mixing the wasabi into the soy sauce.
Eat your sushi in one bite.
Sushi is made to be eaten in one bite. Two bites is acceptable, particularly when eating large American versions. It’s better to take small bites than to have too much food in your mouth. When you do this, don’t put the sushi back on the plate. Keep the uneaten part between your chopsticks, and try to hold the ingredients together until you finish.
Eat a small piece of ginger to cleanse your palate.
Ginger does not go on the sushi. It is used after you finish a piece of sushi to clear off the taste. This helps you experience the full flavor of the next roll, or dish you sample. You do not need to eat a large slice of ginger to feel refreshed.
Clean off your plate.
Finishing your food shows that you enjoyed it. Waste is considered disrespectful to everyone who worked hard to give you this food. The rice takes a painstaking amount of effort to get right, so it’s impolite to leave a grain of it behind.
Avoid rubbing your chopsticks together.
Rubbing waribashi, or chopsticks, together implies that the chopsticks are poor quality. It’s unlikely you’ll find a splinter in wooden chopsticks. If you do detect a problem, discreetly and politely ask the staff for a new pair.
Rest your chopsticks in the chopstick holder between bites.
Put the narrow ends on the hashioki (chopstick rest). Placing them anywhere else may indicate that you are finished eating. If there is no holder, rest them on a clean napkin, or lay them side by side across the bowl. The pointed ends should face to the left if you are right-handed, and to the right if you’re left-handed.
Don’t cross your chopsticks. Crossed chopsticks is symbolic of death and funerals.
Never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice. This also reflects a funeral rite.
Pick up communal platter sushi with the blunt end.
Have someone pass the plate to you so you can reach it. Turn your chopsticks around instead of picking up the food with the end that has been in your mouth. Set the sushi down on your plate, and eat it normally with the smaller ends of the chopsticks.
Avoid passing food with chopsticks.
As part of a Japanese funeral ritual, family members pass bones of the deceased to each other by chopsticks. Passing food from one set of chopsticks to another mimics this ritual, and is offensive. If you wish to pass food to another person, pass the plate to them so they can pick it up themselves.
Passing sushi between chopsticks is only tolerated as a gesture of closeness between parents and children, or lovers.
Ask the staff what ingredients are in the sushi.
Going to a sushi place can be overwhelming at first. Sushi comes in several varieties with different fillings. Learning the basic terms beforehand can make ordering less of a hassle. If you have questions, the chef, or the staff will be happy to help. When seated at a sushi bar, you may ask the chef directly. Otherwise, ask your server.
Nigirizushi consists of a piece of fish, shellfish, or fish roe over a rice ball. It is the best choice for appreciating the flavor of the fish.
Maki sushi is rice, and filling packed together, and wrapped in seaweed. Standard rolls are called norimaki, since nori means seaweed. Futomaki are thicker rolls, and hosomaki are thinner rolls.
Uramakizushi means an inside out maki rolls. The seaweed is around the filling, and the rice is on the outside of the roll.
Temakizushi are similar to maki rolls, but are shaped like cones.
Oshizushi is sushi pressed into a rectangular shape.
Chirashizushi means “scattered sushi.” Raw fish and vegetables are placed over a bed of rice.
Inarizushi is wrapped with something other than nori seaweed, such as fried tofu. It typically is filled only with rice.
Sashimi is raw, sliced fish. It is not actually sushi.
Ask the chef for recommendations.
Don’t ask the itamae (sushi chef) for what’s fresh. Instead, ask for the omakase (chef’s choice) menu, what fish is in season, or for recommendations. As long as you are polite, the itamae will be glad to guide you.
If dining at a table away from the sushi counter, allow the waiter or waitress to speak to the chef. If you prefer to place your order with the chef personally, sit at the sushi counter.
Order lighter food first, and heavier food last.
Sashimi, and nigiri are lighter since they are only fish, or fish and rice. They’ll fill you up less than large rolls, or dinners. When ordering multiple courses, start light. You won’t fill up as fast, and will be better able to enjoy the taste of all the food.
The chef may prepare the food in a certain order for you. Usually this is done deliberately. It’s best to eat the food in the order presented.
Be polite to the staff by saying “please”, and “thank you”.
Unless you are in Japan, it is usually okay to do this in your native language. You may also do this in Japanese. Say thank you, or “arigato gozaimasu” (ah-ree-gah-toh go-zah-ee-mahs) when seated at the sushi bar. You may say “itadakimasu” (ee-tah-dah-kee-mahs) when receiving your food. After you are finished, say “gochisosama deshita,” (go-chee-so-sama-de shita) which basically means “thank you for the meal.”
Another useful word is excuse me, or “sumimasen” (su-mee-mah-sen), when asking for help.
Note that if you’re outside of Japan, the employees at the restaurant may not speak a word of Japanese. Use these phrases when you know they’ll be understood.
Don’t disturb the sushi chef with small talk, and unrelated questions.
Pay your bill, and tip through your server.
The sushi chef is working with raw fish, so don’t give your money to him. Let your server handle it. Tips go in a jar, or are handled also by the staff. Thank your staff, and allow the chef to get back to serving other customers.
In Japan, tips are included. This makes it an even better idea to treat the chef to a shot of sake to show your appreciation.
Drink tea with one hand under the cup.
Remove the lid from the cup, allowing the water droplets to fall into the tea. Place the lid on the table, making sure the inside faces upwards. Grip the side of the cup with one hand. Place your other hand under the cup to support it.
Drink soup from the bowl.
It’s common to drink the soup instead of spooning it. Use your chopsticks, or a spoon if provided to pick up solid pieces. If your soup has noodles in it, slurp while eating them. In Japan, it’s rude not to slurp since the noise signifies that you enjoy the food.
Pour out sake for others.
Serving yourself looks bad. Pour the sake out for anyone eating with you. Let them return the favor, or allow your server to do it when you are alone. Savor the drink, smelling its scent before you begin to sip it.
Consider tipping your sushi chef with a shot of sake, or a beer for a job well done. This is customary in Japan. Don’t ask again if the chef doesn’t accept. Get the same drink for yourself if the chef accepts.