I am so relaxed after soaking in the hot spring bath that I am almost unconcerned about the cultural minefield of public dining. I did say almost.
It could be worse, I could be going to a funeral. Just imagine a dumb foreigner in an emotion charged situation of extreme personal importance tripping over every tradition encrusted cultural artefact in sight. Eating is surely a piece of cake.
By comparison, yes, but knowing a little about a Japanese funeral will get you some way towards the attainment of good manners. Most Japanese depart on their final pilgrimage with Buddhist ritual. The proceedings fall into three phases over a couple of days and are quite intricate. For the moment, though, let’s extract just a few details.
After death the spirit will make a journey to another place. The body is dressed in a white garment (kyōkatabira) which resembles the clothes of travelers and pilgrims of past times. It is folded over the chest in the reverse of the normal way, left side under right. Some further accessories complete the outfit, the full shinishozoku. The body is made a gift of food with the chopsticks standing in the rice. After cremation relatives of the deceased use chopsticks to remove the residual bones from the ashes. They are transferred from the head of the family to other family members from chopsticks to chopsticks and then placed in the funerary urn.
It follows, little grasshopper, that in donning your yukata the right side goes across your chest first then the left goes on top, you are, after all alive. You never leave your chopsticks standing in your rice and you never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks.
Traditionally a meal is taken kneeling at a low table. In informal situations girls may slip their bottoms off their heals to a more comfortable position, boys may sit cross legged. I can hold any of these positions for several seconds.
Westerners and older Japanese can be accommodated at low table by having a well for their legs. This is a splendidly comfortable alternative that doesn’t spoil the photos. It works well until, having drunk too much sake, the westerner stands up and his foot slips into the hole.
If you are used to western style tables and chairs and are given the choice, play it safe.
Japanese food is exquisite. It is one of only two cuisines to be given World Heritage listing by UNESCO. (The fact that the other one is French does take the gloss off a bit). Plain boiled rice, miso soup, pickles, a variety of mushrooms, lots of fresh ingredients, art, skill and thought. That’s all it takes. You could do it at home, an evening meal shouldn’t take more than about eight hours to prepare.
Before starting a meal a Japanese family would say “Itadaki masu“, that final u is silent, whilst making a slight bow to the food with palms together. The words translate as little more than “eat” or “receive” but enclosed within the words and gesture is a statement of thanks to everyone and everything concerned, to the animals and plants, the farmer and the chef.
After the meal it is polite to say “Go-chisou sama”