A Guide to Formal Japanese Table Manners
How to eat at kaiseki ryouri
While few expect perfect manners in the home, there are certain things we should be mindful of at those more formal occasions one comes across in life. Among them, "Kaiseki ryouri" (a traditional multi-course dinner) is one where even Japanese people find the manners hard to understand. Today we'll give you a brief explanation of how you can save face, and maybe even give the locals a run for their money.
Take your time
Kaiseki Ryouri has multiple courses, starting from the "Sakitsuke" (starter), and running through the "nimono" (simmered), "namamono" (raw), "yakimono" (baked), "agemono" (fried), courses, and so on. All in all there are usually about 10 courses. Aside from dessert, the last is usually "tomewan" (miso soup) with rice and "tsukemono" (pickles) to be enjoyed with sake. While it depends on the shop, it usually takes around one and a half to two hours to finish a meal.
It isn't the case that one plate is limited to a single dish, and some plates may have several types served up alongside each other. Japanese cuisine is generally served so that the flavours get gradually more intense going from left to right, so if in doubt start from the left. While items that can be eaten in a single bite are fine left as is, larger items should be cut using your chopsticks. Biting a piece and returning is unfinished to the plate to a definite no-go.
Further, something you can't forget to bring is "kaishi", a type of pocket paper. This is used to wipe the corner of your mouth like a napkin, or to hide your mouth when biting through items you can't cut with your chopsticks.
Basically, it's about beauty
The food served to your should be eaten while preserving its appearance. You might want to look for something to mix your chawanmushi, or to mix in wasabi with your soy sauce, but you should refrain from doing so. Even in the middle of eating, the plate should retain its elegant beauty.
The difficulty often comes with the "yakimono", where you are likely to encounter fish with the head and tail still attached. The baked fish should be held down using the kaishi, and eaten from head to tail before taking out the backbone and bones in the middle and proceeding to eat what remains in the same fashion. You should not overturn the fish, and the remaining bones and skin should be placed at the edge of the plate.
After the meal, comes the sake
Once the tomewan, rice, and tsukemono have been served, you should stop drinking your sake and eat them before they get cold. Open the lid with both hands by turning it, allowing the condensation on its inner rim to drip into the bowl before placing it on your right side. Do the same for the rice, placing the lid on the left side.
First try the solid parts of the soup, before trying the rice and tsukemono in turn. Finally you should eat them in whatever order you like, but making sure not to focus too much on any one item. It isn't recommended to place the tsukemono on the rice and eat them. Further, when asking for a second serving of rice, make sure to leave a mouthful sized portion in the bowl before doing so.
There are other aspects to the manners of kaiseki ryouri, but the fundamental idea is to maintain the beauty of the plate. If you remember that, then you're most of the way there.