I made many adjustments when I moved to Japan, but among all of them, the things that I never got used during my 5 years were mainly restaurant related.  The restaurant culture in the U.S. and Japan is just so different, and I was often left unsatisfied with the following points:
Lack of flexibility in restaurants.
In the U.S. there is a bountiful abundance of options and possibilities.  I could have my french fries swapped for salad, I can have rice instead of pasta, I can have Swiss instead of American cheese.  If I ask nicely enough sometimes I could even have things not really on the menu.  I love it! 😀
In Japan, there are really no other options other than what’s clearly written on the menu.  Once I went to a cafe inside of a small airport and saw that they had hot English tea on the menu.  I asked if it was possible to turn it into iced tea.  The waitress tilted her head 45 degrees and said “Ahhhhh…… I’m sorry, but since it’s not on the menu that wouldn’t be possible“.  In desperate need of iced tea, my addiction, I said, “Okay then, can you bring me hot tea and a separate cup filled with ice then?”  To which she said “Ermmm……… I would have to talk to the manager about that…. But he’s not here right now“.
WHY?!?!?  What possible negative consequences can there be giving me a cup filled with ice??  They already have ice, and they already have cups.  This request virtually requires no extra efforts or costs.  Is she worried the manager would scold her for giving away something that is already free?  Or is she worried I would sue the cafe for burning myself while pouring hot tea into a cup and accidentally spilling it all over myself, consequently resulting in a loss of millions of dollars like McDonalds?  No matter how I think of it, it just seems so absurd.  Ever since that incident I’ve given up on straying even slightly from the menu.
Portion of food.
In America, everything is bigger.
In Japan, everything is smaller.
From my body’s perpective, this is obviously better.  I know the portions in the U.S. can’t possibly be healthy and are often too big for one person to eat in one sitting.  On the other hand, the Japanese have a saying “hara hachi-bun-me (腹八分目)” meaning “80% full stomach”.  Not eating till you’re 100% full is considered the key to health, and I do agree I feel better when I eat to 80% and not to 120% like I more often than not end up doing in the states.
But from my heart’s perspective, the small portions in Japan just made me so sad!  There are many places with cheap prices and big portions, but at the same time a lot of the normal restaurants have normal to expensive prices and small portions.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve eagerly waited for my plate to arrive and become crestfallen at the portion that appears as if it was made for a baby hamster.
And for some reason takeout pizza is so expensive.  In the U.S. I can get a large for 20 dollars and in Japan I would pay the same price for a personal pan pizza.
Lastly, I haven’t been able to prove this, but I even feel like the Big Mac is significantly smaller in Japan.  Grrr.
The majority of restaurants that I’ve been to across Japan prohibited taking home leftovers.  So when I left food on a plate, I had to bid it goodbye forever.  This isn’t much of an issue on normal occasions since as I said, the portions are small.  But when you are having enkai or dinner parties, this becomes a problem.  These dinner parties are often held at izakaya and more than enough dishes to feed an army are lavishly ordered.  Everyone would have put their chopsticks down and there would still be entire plates leftover.  I was taught to never leave even a single grain of rice when I eat, so I couldn’t bear to watch perfectly good food (and especially those tastykaraages or fried chicken) go to waste.
Which is why I almost always sacrificed my own well-being and continued eating despite feeling and probably looking like pufferfish about to explode.
If the restaurants had allowed take out, I could have saved myself from multiple heartbreaks and about 20,000 calories.  I understand their concern as they don’t want food poisoning to be caused by food that has already left the restaurant and can no longer be monitored, but for a country whose motto is “mottainai” (how wasteful), the restaurants don’t seem to be doing their part in reducing the food waste.  (Hopefully it’s recycled and I just don’t know.)
On a positive note,
I love that you can take off your shoes at many restaurants.
I also looove cold oshibori (wet towels) on hot summer days and warm oshibori during chilly winter nights.
And I love love LOVE love horigotatsu (low tables with sunken floors for your feet to comfortably hang loose).
So I forgive you, Japanese restaurants. 😛
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