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An Intermediate Guide to Eating in Tokyo: How to Book a Course Meal

It occurred to me recently while speaking with a person visiting Tokyo for the first time that the city has some dining-related concepts that are perhaps unique or unfamiliar. “I booked the course” has a rather golf-ish ring to it (apparently). Cash-on? Tachi-nomi? A “set”? Teishoku? All-you-can-eat…and drink?

Vikings?

In an effort to introduce some approaches to eating in Tokyo that some may not be familiar with, I’ve put together an intermediate-level dining guide that I hope can help visitors to Tokyo (and maybe expats too) go beyond making meal decisions based on guidebooks and/or plastic food models in shop windows. The aim is to help people make their own decisions about where and what they want to eat. This will likely be old hat for mid- to long-term expats, but perhaps there’s something in here for everyone.

I’m planning this as a three-part series; part 1 will be about courses and how to book one via Tabelog (with or without Japanese skills), part 2 will be an overview of three popular food and dining-related websites in Japan, and part 3 will be an overview of some key dining vocabulary perhaps unique to Japan.

With that, let’s dig in to Part 1: Courses!

What’s a Course?

Do a search for “course meals Japan” and you’ll get result after result about kaiseki. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal. There is an enormous amount of knowledge and tradition surrounding the culture of kaiseki. Methods of preparation, presentation, and use of ingredients all factor in to the experience; kaiseki dinners can be enormously expensive. There are also kaiseki lunches, which are more affordable. There is “casual” kaiseki, where dishes are all brought out together (you may see this at a ryokan). 

But if you book a “course” (spelled コース in katakana, pronounced koh-su), you likely won’t be getting kaiseki (unless you’re booking at a kaiseki restaurant).

“Course” as referred to in this guide refers to a predetermined menu of a series of dishes provided by a restaurant (served in sequence). Course menus may vary by season or ingredient availability. Sometimes restaurants have several different course options (in terms of number of dishes offered or types of food included). Some course options will have an all-you-can-drink option included in the price.

Advantages of Courses

  • All of the dishes in your meal have already been determined. No need to look at a menu. Everything will be brought out in sequence.
  • The price is fixed, so you go into the meal knowing exactly how much you’re going to pay (though drinks may be additional, in some cases).
  • You can sample a series of dishes from the restaurant (can be helpful if you’re unsure about what to get).
  • Everybody in your party gets (or perhaps “shares” is a better word) the exact same thing; can help reduce bickering.

Disadvantages of Courses

  • No changing your mind allowed (unless, of course, you want to pay extra). When you get to the restaurant, if you decide you’d like to order an item that is not on the course menu, you’re going to pay the regular price of that item (an additional fee on top of the course fee).
  • Drinks are typically sub-par. If you choose an all-you-can-drink option to go with your course, there’s a very high chance you’re not going to get the best drinks the restaurant has to offer. You’ll get a standard list of cocktails, house wine, and lager beer.
  • If a person in your group has food allergies or other dietary requirements, some restaurants may not be flexible in dealing with requested changes to their course items.
  • If there are any last-minute changes to the number of people you have reserved your course for (people drop out, for example), you may still be responsible for the cost to the restaurant, as they prepared for a set number of people. This varies from restaurant to restaurant.

Which Restaurants Offer Courses and How Do I Book One?

This is the tricky part. If you’ve got zero Japanese skill, it’s gonna be tough (but not impossible). If you’ve got some Japanese (we’re talking katakana here), it’ll be easier. If you’re intermediate-level (JLPT N3-4), you should be fine. If you’re fluent, I assume you already know everything I’m about to explain.

The following guide assumes you are starting your restaurant search from scratch. If you have a restaurant in mind, start from there. 

In this part of the guide, I’m going to use a website called Tabelog. Tabelog is a popular restaurant review website that is widely used in Japan. It is one of a few types of website like this (I’ll talk more about these types of sites in part 2 of this series). I have chosen Tabelog for this section because the English version of the site is more faithful to the Japanese version than other food search websites. Also, users can search for places by moving a map around, an enormously helpful function for people visiting the city. 

I’m going to use a couple of different restaurants throughout this guide, as they illustrate some key points I want to mention. The information you find relating to the restaurants that pique your interest may vary to some degree. 

GUIDE: How to Book a Course Meal with Tabelog

Before we begin, there are a couple of requirements that we need to meet in order to successfully complete our booking:

1) The restaurant must accept bookings online
2) The restaurant must have a course available

We’ll be able to find all of this via Tabelog. Let’s get started.

1. Find a restaurant that interests you

From the homepage of the English Tabelog website, click the applicable city. We’ll use Tokyo for this guide, so click the big “Tokyo” banner. Of course, if you want to use one of the other multitude of search methods provided by Tabelog, go for it. 

tabelog english homepage with arrow pointing to tokyo, eating in tokyo

From here, you can search by restaurants according to popularity (their “ranking”), by area (which is mysteriously labeled “attraction” in the subheading), by sightseeing spot, by type of dining experience, type of food, price, or purpose. Click on whatever you’d like to find. You’ll be taken to a page that looks something like this (I clicked on the “Omotesando” link in the “Attractions” section).

english tabelog map of omotesando area in tokyo, eating in tokyo

You can further make adjustments to your search by selecting a genre, budget, area, etc. Alternatively, you can move the map around to find a location that’s convenient for you. This is INCREDIBLY useful if you’re trying to find something within walking distance of your accommodations.

TIP: Because there’s such a high density of restaurants in Tokyo, the map function oftentimes won’t display all the results in the area. If there’s a particular area you’re planning on visiting or a specific location where you’d like to get something to eat, try zooming in on the area to see if there are any places hidden from the zoomed-out view. You may have to zoom multiple times. Be sure to hit the green “refresh” button at the top of the map so your results refresh as you zoom!

Use these search functions to identify a restaurant you’re interested in (and might like to book a course for). Below is the restaurant I want to use (identified on the map). Of course, you may find one you’re interested in from the list on the left. Click on the title of the restaurant (in blue) to go to the restaurant page.

english tabelog map showing location of w omotesando the cellar grill, eating in tokyo

The restaurant page will give you some basic information about the place. You’ll find a budget estimate (referring to how much customers can expect to spend), contact information, business hours, user reviews (in Japanese), a photo gallery, and other information that may be helpful for your visit. But we need to see if the restaurant offers a course. This is information not provided on the English page. In fact, there’s no menu information at all. Here’s one place where any Japanese skills you have will come in handy.

2. Switch to the Japanese version of Tabelog

To switch the language of the page to Japanese, you’ll need to click the link in the top right corner that says “日本語” (にほんご, nihongo). It’s in the red rectangle in this graphic.

tabelog english page link to japanese language

Clicking that link will take you to the Japanese version of the page. You’ll likely immediately notice that there is considerably more information here than there was on the English page.

3. Can You Make a Reservation Online?

Once you’ve switched to the Japanese version of the restaurant page, you’ll be able to determine if the restaurant you’ve chosen meets one of the  two requirements for this guide: you’ll see whether or not an online booking is possible. Look to the right side of the screen, just below the menu bar. You’ll likely see a phone number. You also need to look for a button below the phone number that will allow you to make a reservation online. Unfortunately, not all restaurants accept online reservations via Tabelog, so we need to choose one that does.

To determine if the restaurant you’ve chosen accepts reservations, take a look at the space below the phone number. Does it look similar to one of these images? Key words to look for are ネット予約(net reservation) and 予約申し込み (apply for a reservation).

reservation application button on tabelog 1

tabelog reservation calendar

The second image shows a calendar; you can choose your desired date (at the top), the number of people (the first drop-down box at the bottom), and the time. For reference, circle marks mean “available,” triangles mean “limited availability” and X marks mean “no availability.”

If you see something like this on the main page of the restaurant, you can make a booking online. You have to check one more thing (see step 4 below). If the restaurant does not have this function, sorry, you won’t be able to make an online booking. You can try looking for another restaurant (or can ask someone to call and make a booking for you, if you can’t speak Japanese).

4. Does the Restaurant Have a Course?

If your restaurant passed the first test, we now need to determine if they have a course available. Remember the word I mentioned at the beginning of this post? コース?It’s on a button on this page (next to the word for menu, メニュー). Click that button (outlined in red below). Of course, if you’re comfortable, you can just hover over that button and click on the コース link directly. 

If the restaurant you have chosen does not have a course available for booking on Tabelog, this is the point where you’ll realize it. When you mouse over the button below, you’ll see コース in the drop down menu. If that option in the menu is greyed out, sorry. Go back to step 1 and find yourself a different restaurant (if you’re bound and determined to book a course, anyway). Of course, you can always visit the restaurant and order from the regular menu.

japanese tabelog page link to menu and course

The course result page shows us one course is available for this particular restaurant. If there are multiple choices, you’ll see a few links on this page. 

tabelog japanese page with course information for omotesando w the cellar grill

You’ll see a price for each available course (in this case, 4,500 yen). In grey below the blue link is the number of people you can reserve a private room for (if the restaurant offers that). The little grey icons to the right of the blue link also have meanings. 9品 means 9 dishes. 品 means dishes in this case, so that means booking this course will get you 9 things to try. The beige icon says 飲み放題、nomihoudai, which means all-you-can-drink. 

This particular course, therefore, is 4500 yen for 9 dishes and includes all-you-can-drink (hey hey, pretty good). Click on the blue link for more details.

japanese tabelog course page for w cellar grill omotesando

I’ve added the English equivalents for the items on the left because you’ll see this information on most course pages. 

Course fee: The price (per person) of the course

# of dishes: The number of dishes included in the course

Permitted length of stay: Most places have a maximum amount of time guests are allowed to sit in the restaurant. Common examples are 90 minutes, 2.5 hours, and 3 hours. This is especially important for restaurants offering all-you-can-drink options. There’s no number listed in my example image. If you see a number, it’ll probably be followed by 分 (minutes) or 時間 (hours). This particular example says 店舗にお問い合わせください, which means “please inquire at the restaurant.” For 9 dishes and an all-you-can-drink, though, it’s pretty safe to bet that this is a 2.5 hour deal.

All-you-can-drink: yes/no. If “yes,” you’ll see あり here. If “no,” you’ll see なし. The above example says あり、so this is included in the price.

Course items: The restaurant can write information about the kinds of things they’ll offer in their course. Sometimes this is quite detailed. In this example, we get very little information. 

If you can read Japanese, you’ll be able to have a look at the items included in the course and make your judgment call about whether or not you’d like to go ahead and book it. If you can’t read Japanese, you have a couple options: 1) learn Japanese, 2) get someone who can read Japanese to help you, 3) use an automatic translation tool. While options 1 and 2 are probably going to be more helpful in the long run, I’m going to assume option 3 is most viable for the majority of non-Japanese speakers reading. So, let’s look at what our friendly Google Translator has to say about this particular listing:

google translate of tabelog course menu

Ah. That’s troublesome. What is a wine curve? And 2H Friedlink?

(I actually started laughing when I saw this result; this was totally unplanned for this guide. We clearly still need translators.)

Google Translate has given us some very limited information. If you can’t read Japanese, you may see a result like this. 

To clarify (and give a rather casual, non-direct translation):

A wine cave-like private room is also available.
Great spot for a group of adults to have a fun time
9 dishes
2 hours free drink
*Details change in accordance with stock/availability
*Please make sure to discuss any issues with us/make your reservation in advance.

Just to compare this translation with a restaurant that offers a more specific menu for their course:

google translation of tabelog course menu

Much better, right? If this menu sounds good to you, by the way, this is a place called Osteria Kikuya that’s on my list of spots to check out (but they don’t accept reservations via Internet, sorry).

Your mileage may vary. If you’re totally stumped, try taking a look at some of the photos posted to the Tabelog page to get an idea of what kinds of things you might be eating if you make a reservation at the restaurant. 

For the sake of this tutorial, let’s say you’ve found a place you’re cool with. To make the booking, you’re going to need to input your information on a reservation form. Of course, you can always make a Tabelog account and save your information that way (note: at the time of writing this guide, you cannot make a Tabelog account on the English site).  

Unfortunately, not all restaurants accept reservations booked online via Tabelog. You need to find a restaurant that offers a course and Internet reservations to make the most of this tutorial, as we talked about earlier in this step-by-step process.

If you’ve found a restaurant you like that has a course and accepts online reservations, great! Let’s move on to the next step: making the booking.

5. Making a Reservation

Let’s refer back to the two images we saw in step 3. There are slightly different approaches to your reservation depending on the way the restaurant requires diners to book. Let’s begin with cases where the reservation button looks like this:

reservation application button on tabelog 1

Start by clicking on the button (with the OpenTable logo).

opentable reservation application step 1

There are really only three things on this page to consider, and they are all to the left of the pink button. From left to right, the fields are: number of people, date, and time. Choose accordingly, then hit the pink button (the button says “search for available seats”). You’ll get a series of times to choose from (near the time you searched for):

step two of making a reservation with open table

Click the time that you’d like to reserve for. You’ll then go to a page where you need to enter some information.

translation of opentable reservation guide

If you want to book the course advertised on the Tabelog page, copy and paste the course title into the “other notes” section. Follow the title of the course with this text:

をお願いします。

This is an expression we can translate as “please.” It’s used when making requests. You’re putting the name of the course before your request, so you can think of this like a pattern that means [course name] please.

If you want to/don’t want to receive emails, alerts, etc., check/uncheck the boxes beneath the fields. When you’re done, click the pink 予約する (reserve) button. Done! You’ll get a confirmation email.

Let’s look at one more way of doing this. Let’s refer back to the other image from step 3:

tabelog reservation calendar

Select the date, number of people, and time you’d like to reserve for. Then, click the yellowish 予約する(reserve) button at the bottom of the box.

tabelog reservation page with english translations

Make sure the course name listed in the “details” section matches the name of the course you want to reserve. If it doesn’t, click the 変更する (change) button on the right and choose the correct course from the list. There’s one more field at the bottom of the reservation page for any notes to the restaurant about your reservation. Clicking the green button at the bottom completes your reservation. Note that when you do so, you agree to all the applicable terms and conditions (which is beyond the scope of this post). But that’s it! You’re done with your reservation!

You’ll get an email confirming your reservation; this will come in handy for the final (and most fun) step.

6. Visiting the Restaurant 

The last step in this process, of course, is to actually go to the restaurant and (hopefully) enjoy your meal. When you walk in to a restaurant and have a reservation, all you have to say is:

[time]時からの予約ですが、「your name」です。

If that’s beyond the scope of your abilities, however, just make sure you have that reservation email handy (printed or on your phone, for example). Show it to the person at reception; find the part that shows your name and the time.

After you’ve been seated, your course will begin. Please note that although your food has already been determined (and staff may provide explanations for each dish as they bring it out), you will still need to make decisions (to some degree) about what to drink. If you don’t speak Japanese and there isn’t an English menu available, stick to simple cocktails (gin tonic, rum coke, etc.), as more complex drinks are usually not permitted in all-you-can-drink settings. Typically a house red wine and a house white wine are available, as is beer. Soft drinks are of course also included, but selection will likely be limited to a couple of types of soda or juice. 

But that’s how to reserve a course using Tabelog! While this is certainly not a perfect system (and it will by no means grant you access to food in every restaurant in Tokyo), I hope that you can use this to enjoy a meal you otherwise might not have been able to.

One note: There are SOME cases where restaurants will ask you to confirm your reservation by clicking a link in the email you receive. I’ve personally had this happen only once (for a very large group). If you’re worried about this, you can try running your email through Google Translate and taking a look at the text that comes before the links included.

Hope you found something of value in Part 1 of this series! Part 2 will take a look at the three most popular restaurant information websites in Japan: Tabelog, Gurunavi, and Hot Pepper!

One Comment

  1. Rafael Rafael October 26, 2017

    Hello Alisha, I recently found this page, I am Rafael Ortega and I am from Mexico I study English and Japanese and Japan for me is very interesting and I hope someday to go. I want to continue studying languages to work here in Mexico and if one day I go to Japan I would love to meet you and you could give me your autograph, I am your fan 🙂 Greetings from Mexico.

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