If you are planning to eat sushi when you visit Japan, make sure to learn this essential sushi etiquette first!
While a lot of this is common sense, some of these guidelines may come as a surprise to you – even if you’re a frequent sushi diner.
So to make sure you enter your chef’s (and fellow diners’) good graces, familiarize yourself with these etiquette tips and taboos before heading to your sushi-ya (sushi shop) of choice.
Remember that, as is usually the case when it comes to Japanese etiquette, the overriding rule is simply to act as respectfully as possible. If you keep this golden rule in mind, chances are you’ll be just fine!
Taking Photos in Sushi-ya
While some sushi shops permit photography, others do not.
The first thing you’ll want to do is ask if taking photos is allowed (this rule applies not only to sushi shops, but to other restaurants in Japan as well).
Even if taking photographs is permitted, it’s considered uncouth to take too much attention away from the sublime culinary experience by focusing excessively on photography during the meal.
Most sushi-ya are very small, intimate spaces so you’ll want to be careful not to disrupt your fellow diners’ experience.
As our friend Rebekah Wilson-Lye puts it, “There’s nothing worse than someone pulling out their big camera equipment and turning [the sushi-ya] into a photo shoot. It’s embarrassing, it’s annoying, and it interrupts the meal and the chef.”
If you are given permission to take photos, we highly recommend being selective, rather than just taking pictures of everything.
Also, if taking photos is very important to you, a great thing to do is decide beforehand that one of you will take the photos, instead of all of you snapping away.
To be as polite and discreet as possible, turn off your flash. Better yet, use a small and unobtrusive camera (like your smartphone’s) rather than a large piece of equipment.
Special Dietary Requests
Part of what makes dining at a top sushi shop so special is the chef’s attention to detail.
The chef carefully plans out every ingredient in advance, not only to ensure you get the absolute best quality, but also to make sure he or she has the proper amount of each ingredient for each day’s service.
What this means is that if you have any special dietary requests, you need to inform the sushi shop at the time of making reservations – not on the day of your meal. This rule applies not only to high-end sushi shops, but also to other high-end restaurants and even ryokans.
Chances are they will do their best to cater to any essential needs you might have, but of course not every single request can be accommodated.
Since sushi-ya prepare so carefully for each meal, if you spring a surprise on them (for example, telling them on the day of your meal that you can’t eat so-and-so), you’ll be committing a fairly major faux pas. It’s less that they will be upset, and more that they will be frustrated that you didn’t tell them in advance so they could properly prepare.
Rebekah advises, “Tell the shop in advance, because they need to order appropriately from the markets.”
All of this applies not only to dietary requirements – such as food allergies – but also to preferences. So if you do have any special requests, don’t be shy and state them at the time of making reservations!
On a similar note, please take care not to make unrealistic demands.
It’s not uncommon for a diner to show the chef a photo – taken from a food blog or website – on his or her smartphone, and request exactly the same dish.
The fact is that this is an unrealistic demand, particularly if you’re partaking in an omakase course, which is the norm at high-end sushi-ya.
An omakase course menu is carefully thought out and planned in advance, depending on the season and other factors.
As Rebekah notes, “It’s not a coffee shop where you can just say, ‘I want it this way.’ The chef has designed the course for the season, and the best way for that fish.”
At the best sushi-ya, it’s best to trust that the chef has selected the best possible ingredients, and prepared them in the best possible way, considering the market, the season and his or her unique specialties.
Respect the Preparation
Speaking of trusting the chef and his or her vision…
It’s wise to let yourself be completely guided by the chef, and refrain from asking for extras like soy sauce or wasabi – unless they are presented as part of the dish.
If a particular piece is best with shoyu (soy sauce), or any other dipping sauce or extra, the chef will let you know. Otherwise, it’s usually safe to assume that the item is meant to be consumed just as it was presented to you.
If in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask!
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking the chef questions. After all, for many people it’s part of the dining experience.
However, there is a fine line between asking a few good questions, and monopolizing the chef’s attention by asking endless questions.
Keep in mind that the chef has to pay attention to all of the diners, so we highly recommend being considerate both to the chef and to your fellow diners.
While eating an incredible sushi meal, it may occur to you to talk about it in relation to past sushi experiences you’ve had.
Whether you’re name-dropping, or harmlessly discussing with your dining companions, mentioning other sushi shops’ and chefs’ names is generally considered a taboo.
Rebekah says, “Never mention another sushi shop’s name at a counter. Stay focused on what he’s doing, and not so much about name-dropping other sushi chefs. It’s one of sushi chefs’ pet peeves.”
Even if the sushi chef doesn’t understand English, chances are the name of the chef or shop will come across, and then your current chef can only imagine what kinds of comparisons you are drawing!
Perfume & Cologne
A common etiquette taboo – about which few people are conscious – is wearing fragrances to a sushi shop.
Fragrances (even seemingly mild ones) can ruin the experience of other diners by interfering with their interaction with each dish.
To ensure you and your fellow diners can best appreciate the meal, make sure to avoid wearing any of the following:
- Hair products
- And other fragrances
As Rebekah points out, “If you go in with a floral perfume, it’s going to destroy everyone else’s ability to perceive the subtle fragrances in the fish. You will actually be asked to leave some shops if you wear perfume.”
Reservations & Cancellations
The best sushi shops are usually extremely small and have limited seatings per night. Because of this most sushi shops charge a 100% cancellation fee if you cancel at the last minute.
One way sushi shops enforce this is by generally only accepting reservations from within Japan. We can help you with this if you’re taking a trip with us – and the concierge at good hotels can also assist.
As Rebekah warns, “Be aware that if you want to cancel, or if you double book somewhere in the hopes of getting in somewhere else, you’re going to have to pay for the meal – and fair enough!”
Cash & Credit Cards
Not so much an etiquette issue, but still a common mishap: many top sushi shops do not accept credit cards.
Credit cards are not widely accepted in Japan, so when making reservations make sure to find out if they accept credit cards or not.
See our article on cash and credit in Japan.
Read The Air
The idea of “reading the air” is a huge part of how to get by in Japan, and this applies to dining at sushi restaurants as well.
Simply put, it means being keenly aware of your surroundings, and acting in a way that will be harmonious with what’s going on around you.
Since sushi-ya tend to be very intimate spaces, we recommend being respectful of your fellow diners by keeping your voice down while still enjoying yourself, so as not to encroach on others’ experiences.
We hope you enjoyed this article about sushi etiquette!
We’d like to give a special thanks to our friend Rebekah Wilson-Lye for her insights into Tokyo’s sushi world. You can connect with Rebekah at her website, Ichi For The Michi, and on Twitter (@IchifortheMichi).