Eating and drinking
Meals in Japan traditionally begin with the phrase itadakimasu (いただきます?) (literally, “I humbly receive”). The phrase is similar to “bon appétit”, or saying grace to give thanks before a meal. It is said to express gratitude for all who played a role in preparing, cultivating, ranching or hunting the food. This also acknowledges that living organisms have given their life to human beings as Dāna. Upon finishing a meal, the Japanese also use the polite phrase Gochisosama-deshita (ごちそうさまでしたGochisōsama-deshita?) (lit. Thank you for a good meal) or – more informal/simple - Gochisōsama. Gochisōsama is based on the religious belief where chisō (馳走;ちそう?) means running with efforts (by riding a horse, thereby indicating expedience) to cater foods for the guest. It is then linguistically altered to express gratitude to the effort by adding go and sama as the form of teineigo (丁寧語). To join one’s hands in the namasté gesture while saying these words is good manners.
It is considered polite to clear one’s plate, down to the very last grain of rice; children are especially encouraged to do so. It is impolite to pick out certain ingredients and leave the rest. One should chew with the mouth closed.
It is acceptable to lift soup and rice bowls to the mouth so that one does not spill food. It is also appropriate to slurp certain foods, especially ramen or soba noodles, though this is not practiced universally.
Rice is generally eaten plain or sometimes with nori (dried-pressed seaweed) or furikake (various seasonings). Pouring soy sauce onto plain white rice is not a Japanese custom, nor is it common to pour soy sauce directly over sashimi or sushi. Instead, soy sauce is poured into a small dish that is provided, and the food dipped into the sauce. Furthermore, to pour an excessive amount of soy sauce into the small dish is considered greedy and wasteful. When eating nigiri-zushi, one should dip the sushi topping-side down into the soy sauce to prevent the rice from soaking up too much sauce; leaving stray grains of rice floating in the sauce is considered uncouth, but can be hard to avoid for those who have difficulty with chopsticks. In sushi-only restaurants, it is acceptable to use fingers instead of chopsticks to eat the nigiri-zushi.
It is still uncommon for Japanese people to eat while walking around. Some consider it rude to eat in public or on trains, but this is not a universally-held belief.
Many Japanese restaurants provide diners with single-use wooden chopsticks that must be snapped apart. Chopsticks taper toward the bottom; the thicker top part, which will be snapped apart, may have small splinters. One should never use the thick, splintered end to pick up food. In order to remove the splinters, it is acceptable to rub one chopstick against the other; however, the common Western practice of placing both chopsticks between the palms and vigorously rubbing them together is extremely rude, especially when one is seated at a sushi bar, as this signals the waiter that one thinks his utensils are cheap.
In Japanese restaurants, customers are given a rolled hand towel called oshibori. It is considered rude to use the towel to wipe the face or neck; however, some people, usually men, do this at more informal restaurants. Nonwoven towelettes are replacing the cloth oshibori.
When using toothpicks, it is good etiquette to cover one’s mouth with the other hand. Blowing one’s nose in public is considered rude, especially at a restaurant; cloth handkerchiefs should never be used for this purpose. When sneezing, it is polite to cover one’s nose with a hand, or excuse oneself to the restroom first.
A typical home made Bentō lunch box. It usually contains rice and a variety of side dishes that go well with rice.
Bentō, boxed meals in Japan, are very common and constitute an important ritual during lunch. The preparation of these meals begins around the time children reach nursery school. The mothers of these children take special care when preparing meals for their children. They arrange the food in the order by which it will be consumed. Bentō are made fancy, “but it must be consumed in its entirety.”
Bentō is judged by how well it is prepared. The mother must almost “show off” her accomplishment in making the lunch. She is preparing for her child, but the way she prepares it is looked upon by the other children and the nursery school. It is close to a competition to see who is the better mother. If it is well prepared, other Japanese will consider the maker a good mother.
Because appearance with food is important in Japan, the mothers must be sure to arrange and make the bentō attractive. If it is not to specification, and the mother is not happy, then she is to re-arrange until she is satisfied with the appearance as a whole. Foods can also be seasonal; a mother may prepare a leaf cut-out in fall or cut an orange into the shape of a flower if the season is summer. It is not uncommon to see seven different courses within a Bentō.
Mothers are also encouraged to prepare what the children will enjoy eating. If the child does not like what the mother has prepared, then he/she will most likely not consume it, going against the rule that “it must be consumed in its entirety.”So, mothers must be careful in choosing foods. They must be of interest to the child so that he/she will eat the entire lunch
There are many traditions and unwritten rules surrounding the use of chopsticks. For example, it is considered particularly taboo to pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks, as this is how bones are handled by the family of the deceased after a cremation. If you must pass food from your plate to someone during a meal (a questionable practice in public), pick up the food with your own chopsticks and place it on a small plate to allow the recipient to pick it up with his/her chopsticks. Mismatched chopsticks are not to be used. Standing chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice is to be avoided, as it recalls burning incense sticks standing up in sand, typically at funerals. Also, the act of stabbing the chopsticks into the food resembles an action devout Buddhists perform when offering ceremonial food to their ancestors at the household shrine.
Chopsticks have been in use in Japan as early as the Nara period (710-794), originating in China and swept to Japan. Since chopsticks are a huge part of Japanese tradition, there are many things one must avoid while using them. If you have no other utensils to use while sharing plates of food, you will need to use the end of the chopsticks (the side you did not eat from) to retrieve the shared food.
Chopsticks can be somewhat challenging if you have never used them. They can take a lot of practice for most, but once you have used them a few times, you will get used to them easily. “Using chopsticks correctly makes you look beautiful when eating…” Since there are many chopsticks one can choose from, you want to make sure the ones you choose are comfortable and easy to handle. You don’t want them too heavy or too long. They must fit your fingers and feel right. “According to Hyozaemon, you should hold your chopsticks at a point about two-thirds of the way up from the tips. Hold the top chopstick between your thumb and index finger and support it with your middle finger. Your other chopstick should be placed firmly against where your thumb and index finger meet, with it supported against the fingernail on your ring finger. By doing this, the tips of your chopsticks will meet, forming a beak-like triangle. If you can use them dexterously by only moving the upper chopstick, you’ve got perfect chopstick manners”.
(text from wikipedia)