Sushi culture has certain traditions which may differ somewhat from what you're used to seeing in a Western restaurant. For example, there are slang terms and arcane procedures for counting that, even in Japan, are never heard outside the world of the sushi-ya. It's hard to feel truly at ease in this most civilized of social venues if you don't know the house rules. For the American consumer, knowing just a few basic guidelines for polite behavior will enhance the sushi experience.
The notes below refer to normative practices that are observed in most -- but perhaps not all -- sushi bars. Failure to follow these dictums will not render you persona non grata at most sushi bars in the United States. But an awareness of the customs will quietly tell the itamae that the person seated in front of him is no kono imo (uncultured hick).
After you are seated at the bar, you may be offered an oshibori (a warm washcloth). Wipe your hands with it, roll or fold it back up and place it to your left. In a few restaurants, it may be the only napkin you receive. Do not use the oshibori to scrub yourself as if you were toweling off after the Boston Marathon.
When the itamae is ready to serve you, he will place a geta (wooden plank) or a plate on the raised area directly in front of the fish case. Leave it there. Do not move it down closer to you. The chef needs to be able to reach it in order to serve you. You may or may not have a small plate directly in front of you.
The traditional phrase used almost universally in Japan to open a meal is "itadakimas" ("I partake"), uttered to oneself just before eating.
You may pour a small amount of shoyu (soy sauce) in the nozoki (little sauce dish) in front of you. Items which are already seasoned by the itamae were not meant to be dipped in shoyu. When in doubt, ask before you dunk. Use just enough shoyu to wet the bottom of the dish. If you pour too much and subsequently drop a piece of sushi into the dish, you will splash shoyu on yourself and possibly your dining companions. If you are eating nigiri sushi (as opposed to sashimi) do not mix wasabi into the sauce dish.
To apply shoyu to a piece of nigiri sushi, never dip the rice side in the bowl. Tip the piece on its side and grip it with your hashi (chopsticks) so that one stick is touching the fish and the other touching the bottom of the rice pad. When you go to dip the piece, rotate your wrist so only the fish goes into the sauce. Just a trace is sufficient. Drenching a piece of quality fish in shoyu is something of an insult to the itamae. Dropping rice grains in your shoyu dish just shows poor hashi control.
The gari (ginger) on the geta is a palate cleanser, not a condiment. Use gari in moderation.
It is acceptable to dab a little extra wasabi on your nigiri, if that is your preference. To slather on a lot would be to imply that the itamae doesn't know how to properly season his sushi.
Sake (the drink, as opposed to the fish) is not a traditional pairing with sushi. Either you're eating rice or you're drinking rice (wine) -- but you should not do both simultaneously. This ancient dictum is widely ignored the world over.
The itamae is your host and the supreme master of the bar. He bears ultimate responsibility for your experience. You order only sushi and sashimi from him. Drinks and cooked items are ordered through the wait-staff. Also, the bill will be presented and serviced by wait-staff. The itamae never handles money.
The Japanese term for "please" that works best when asking for an item is "kudasai." Thus, if you were asking for a beer, the polite way would be "biiru, kudasai." The Japanese term for "thank you" that is most casual is "domo," the most common is "arigato" or the slightly more formal "domo arigato." " Domo arigato gozaimas" is more emphatic. If it strikes you as silly to say "kudasai" and "domo," "please" and "thank you" work very well, too.
There are two common ways to say "excuse me." "Sumi masen" is used in a construction such as "Excuse me, may I have some more tea?" The "excuse me" that is synonymous with "I'm sorry" is "gomen nasai."
Hashi have their own complex etiquette in Japan. Outside of Japan, there are a few simple guidelines to remember: Never rub your hashi together as if trying to kindle a fire. Never point with your hashi. Or wave them. Or drum them on the bar. Do not use them to spear pieces of food. Never leave your hashi stuck in a bowl of food, particularly a bowl of rice. When not in use, place them parallel to the bar across your sauce dish or a plate. You will rarely see fancy ceramic hashi rests in sushi bars.
If you need to pick up a piece of food from a communal serving plate or someone else's geta, use the other end of your hashi, not the end that goes in your mouth. Never use hashi to pass food to another person. Pass the plate or geta to them and let them serve themselves.
It is perfectly permissible to eat sushi tsumamu (with your fingers). It is not permissible to eat sashimi with your fingers.
It is considered unspeakably rude to blow one's nose at the bar. If you must do so, excuse yourself and go away from the bar.
Never ask the itamae "what is fresh today?" To do so would imply that some things are not of top quality. It is better to ask the itamae if there are any items he especially recommends that day.
It is considered polite for you to pour your dining companion's beverage -- and for he or she to pour yours. Beer or sake is usually shared. Rather than ordering two individual beers or sakes, a pair of diners will typically order one larger measure at a time. "Kanpai" is the traditional toast, never "chin-chin."
If you are on very familiar terms with your favorite itamae, you may offer to buy him a beer or sake. If you are a relative stranger, some itamae may be slightly offended by such a gesture. It is wisest to wait and observe if other patrons are buying drinks for the itamae.
It is a grave insult to the itamae if you deconstruct your sushi before consuming it. Eat it in a single bite if possible. Do not take one bite and then place the remainder back on the geta. Once you pick something up, eat it all.
It is offensive to waste food. Order only what you know you will eat. With rice in particular, it's important that you not leave stray grains and clumps at the conclusion of your meal.
When you are finished, saying "o-aiso (oh-EYE-so) kudasai" to your itamae will result in your check being tallied and presented by the wait-staff. In Japan, it would be extremely rude to attempt to tip an itamae -- or any other restaurant employee. But tipping practices in American sushi bars are the same as in any other restaurant. It is not necessary to tip the itamae separately. (A thoughtful diner will remember to tell him "domo arigato" or "gochisosama deshita." "Thank you for the delicious meal" works also.)
Copyright 2006-2008, David Plotnikoff. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced without permission.