It is very easy to commit a ‘faux pas’ in Japan. I am not sure how they say “faux pas” in Japanese. These are referred to as “Japanese Moments” by local tour guides. Whilst Japan can be the nicest country in the world, there are lot of pitfalls associated with local etiquette which can result [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Chopsticks: do not leave him sticking up!


By Gyan C. A. Fernando

It is very easy to commit a ‘faux pas’ in Japan. I am not sure how they say “faux pas” in Japanese. These are referred to as “Japanese Moments” by local tour guides.

Whilst Japan can be the nicest country in the world, there are lot of pitfalls associated with local etiquette which can result in your receiving a rather unflattering “persona non grata” status in posh restaurants or end up with your chopsticks stuck up your nostrils, one in each, sharp end first.

The Tokyo Metro system is much easier to navigate. As soon as you land at Narita Airport, Tokyo, a charming young lady will hand you a little leaflet with instructions on how to use chopsticks. Some of the stuff is pretty simple for instance:

“Do not spear food with your chopsticks.”

“Do not point with your chopsticks.”

“Do not wave your chopsticks around in the air or play with them.”

But do read on…

“Do not stick chopsticks into your food, especially not into rice. This is only done at funerals with rice that is put onto the altar.”

“Do not pass food directly from your set of chopsticks to another’s. Again, this is a funeral tradition that involves the bones of a cremated body.”

What the Japanese do with cremated bones and chopsticks at funerals is anybody’s guess. Maybe it is some sort of a game like “Jacks”. They throw up the bones and catch them. With chopsticks!

Our First Time

Fine! I was now ready for Japanese Cuisine. As long as I “Do Not Leave Him Sticking Up” I should be alright, I thought. I educated my travelling companion, the lovely young Anna. We were ready for our first Japanese meal. We were in a posh joint. There were instructions on how to eat.

The prawn tempura arrived first. Big prawns, really big prawns: “Separate into bite sized pieces with your chopsticks (this takes some exercise),”

Exercise? Practice? Never mind that, I told Anna.

On her first attempt her prawn flew in my general direction but I managed to catch it in mid-air with my left hand. With a lot of “exercise” I managed to bisect my own prawn but its tail end went into orbit and was lost in space.

Next came the Sushi: “Hands or chopsticks can be used to eat sushi”. Well, fine! Rather than use my “hands” as per instructions, I used my fingers. Subtle difference. Even Anna managed that. The Sushi was good.

I was not looking forward to the Noodles in Miso soup: “Using your chopsticks lead the noodles into your mouth. You may want to try to copy the slurping sound of people around you.”

Slurping sound? Apparently it is considered polite to make pig-like noises when eating noodles! Even the Sri Lankans don’t do that! Never mind. When in Rome……

I slurped loudly and impressively. The other diners looked at me approvingly. Anna laughed. That put me off my technique and a noodle entered my larynx. I coughed violently. Anna laughed. I spilt noodle soup on my shirt. I wanted to blow my nose after the tear-provoking near-asphyxial-noodle-soup-event but:

“Blowing your nose in public, and especially at the table, is considered bad manners”.

Kampai, Darling! Not Chin Chin!

I had had enough of this nonsense. We decided to go to a bar.

“When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is customary to serve each other, rather than pouring your own beverage. Periodically check your friends’ cups and refill their drinks if their cups are getting empty.”

I followed protocol. Kept on re-filling Anna’s glass. Anna got drunk.

“While it is considered bad manners to become obviously drunk in some formal restaurants, the same is not true for other types of restaurants such as Izakaya, as long as you do not bother other guests.”

We were in the right sort of place and doing fine. We had a lot of drinks with Japanese office workers or “Salary Men” as they call themselves. No one bothered anyone.

“Avoid using ‘chin chin’ when drinking a toast, since in Japanese this expression refers to the male genitals.”

Anna raised her glass; and purposefully and deliberately said “Chin Chin” instead of the correct “Kampai” which is “Cheers!” in Japanese.

The “salary men” laughed. They laughed a lot! We laughed a lot. We took photos of each other. Great night out!


Breakfast next morning: Traditional Japanese and consisting of Miso soup, Tofu and tofu and tofu, a small fried sardine-like fish without tofu, small bowl of plain boiled rice, green tea, something unidentifiable on a Magnolia leaf, seaweed and a fried egg sunny side up. Very dainty but how do you eat a fried egg sunny side up with chopsticks? With difficulty!

I did a good job but got some yolk on my beard. Anna laughed at this. She had her egg near her mouth. Yolk ruptured. Yolk dripped down her cleavage. Her cleavage is nice to look at but not with added egg yolk. I laughed. Laughing at the breakfast table seemed to be acceptable. We didn’t get thrown out.


By now I had had enough of Japanese cuisine and etiquette and was longing for a nice Sri Lankan rice and curry in “Buth Packet” style which I could eat with my fingers, not with bamboo sticks. Like all Sri Lankans I wanted Buth! Or even Koththu Roti. Anything I could eat with my “hands”, or rather my fingers.

I was desperate. So was Anna. I looked around desperately for a “Buth Kade”. There were none.

Mac Sumoburger

We had a few pre-prandial drinks that evening. Anna and I.The full moon was out. “Mmmm” said Anna. “Gyan, how about it tonight?”

“Sure, Darling!” I said in my Johnny Cash gravelly voice. She had dressed up nicely, put on perfume. She looked gorgeous as always. It was now time for it.

We walked into McDonalds hand in hand.

What a glorious sight it was! It was “awesome”, in Anna’s words. There was not a chopstick in sight.

We ordered.

We grabbed our “Mac Sumoburgers with Cheese” with both hands. The sheer desperation in us was obvious to everyone around. We were like hungry animals.“Ahhhh!Omigod!” said Anna losing control of herself. She was like Meg Ryan in “Harry Met Sally”. A bit embarrassing!

Things then calmed down a bit between us. The heavy breathing subsided.

“Thanks, Gyan!” whispered Anna gratefully through a large mouthful of Double Mac Sumoburger with Cheese.

“Anytime, darling!” I said.

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