Every Japanese restaurant typically provides some form of a wet towel to wash your hands with before enjoying your meal. Fancier restaurants will collect it after you're finished cleaning your hands, but most restaurants will leave it at your table. In this case, you can use it to wipe your hands during the meal as needed.
Calling the Server
At most Japanese restaurants, the servers will not come to your table unless they are called. Some restaurants have a call button, but at many places, you will need to call for the waiter by raising your hand and saying 'sumimasen!' which means 'excuse me' in Japanese. It might feel strange at first, but you'll get used to it.
Call your server when you're ready to place your order, whenever you need anything during the meal, and when you would like your check at the end.
Hold Your Bowl
When eating soup or other dishes served in a small bowl, it is polite to hold the bowl in one hand and bring it close to your mouth rather than leaving it on the table while eating. This helps avoid spills and dropped food, and allows you to sip soup directly from the bowl (Japanese don't typically eat soup with a spoon).
Slurping Noodles is Okay!
When eating noodles such as ramen or soba, it is perfectly acceptable to slurp the noodles, making a loud sound. This is actually the easiest way to eat hot noodles especially, so it's something worth practicing!
When setting your chopsticks down between uses, make sure never to stick them into your food. The only time this is done is when offering rice to someone who has passed away. Instead, rest your chopsticks flat across the top of one of your dishes.
Especially if you're eating at a restaurant where others are waiting to be seated, it is polite to leave once you're finished eating so that your table can be offered to the next customer.
There is no tipping in Japan, which is a wonderful thing. Even if you feel like you had exceptional service and want to show your gratitude, do not give a tip as it will likely cause your server to feel uncomfortable more than anything else.
Etiquette for Restaurants Requiring a Reservation (Fancier Restaurants)
Punctuality is the norm in Japan, and it's important that you show up on time to your reservation. Aim to be there about 10 minutes before your designated time.
Ask Before Taking Photos
Some restaurants have a no-photos policy, as they prefer to maintain a certain atmosphere. It's always a good idea to ask before taking a photo.
Keep Your Voice Down
This should go without saying, but guests should try to respect those around them by keeping the volume of their conversations down. Especially at a high-end restaurant, it's polite to show respect to the chef by keeping the focus on the food.
Wearing strong perfume can interfere with the aromas and flavors of the food, and can detract from the experience for you and those around you. Especially at a counter-style restaurant where the chef is right next to you, it's important not to disrupt the chef's sense of smell.
Eat as Soon as it is Served
At a counter-style sushi restaurant where each sushi piece is served one at a time, it's important to eat as soon as it's served. This guarantees that you experience the sushi at its freshest, exactly how the chef intended.
Eat in One Bite
When eating sushi, put the whole piece in your mouth in one bite.
Go Easy on the Soy Sauce
At most high-end sushi restaurants, each piece of sushi is already seasoned and should be eaten just as it is served to you. If the chef wants you to dip it into a sauce, he or she will usually tell you so. In that case, dip just a small corner of the sushi into the sauce so that the flavor of the ingredients aren't totally overpowered by the sauce.
Don't Ask What's "Fresh" or "Recommended" Today
Most high-end sushi restaurants serve only an omakase course, meaning everything is left up to the chef. However, if you're at a restaurant where you order sushi individually, it's sometimes considered disrespectful to ask "what's fresh today?" or "What do you recommend?" These questions suggest that perhaps some of the fish the chef is serving are of an inferior quality that they wouldn't recommend. Instead, it's okay to tell the chef your preferences and ask what they suggest based on those eg. "I don't like sushi that is too fishy tasting. What do you recommend?"
Bonus: Japanese Phrase to Remember
After finishing a meal in Japan, Japanese people usually say the phrase 'gochiso sama deshita' (ご馳走様でした）which is the Japanese way of saying thank you for the meal. If you feel like it, you can say this to the chef after the meal, although a simple thank you (arigatou gozaimasu) is also perfectly acceptable.
Hopefully these tips are useful and give you a sense of confidence when eating at a Japanese restaurant. Enjoy your meals in Japan!
If you're interested in dining at a fancy restaurant in Japan, check out our feature on Michelin-starred restaurants: