Japan's culinary delight: The TableCheck Guide for unforgettable Omakase experiences

Get a real taste of Japan by dining premium Omakase style in the country’s top restaurants



Jun 20, 2024 - 8 min read

Japan's culinary delight: The TableCheck Guide for unforgettable Omakase experiences

Japan's tourism is experiencing an all-time high with millions of foreign visitors flocking to the country to experience its sights, sounds, and rich cuisine. 

With restaurants nationwide open and ready to feed insatiable appetites, the culinary options are endless. However, true gourmands with adventurous palettes may discover that an omakase or a multi-course kaiseki meal may be more satisfying than regular restaurants. First, Japanese luxury dining can be an enriching endeavor, and there are many top and award-winning restaurants in Japan to choose from. Secondly, these upscale venues also pamper diners with their creative dishes, showcasing Japanese omotenashi hospitality through food.

Kaiseki and omakase difference: While a kaiseki meal can be a multi-sensory experience, omakase is a ‘leave-it-to-the-chef’ culinary theatre that takes the art of sushi dining up a notch.

It's a surprise: Omakase is a dining concept that plays with the element of surprise wherein the chef drives the whole culinary experience. Diners can sit back and relax and enjoy what the chef has planned for the course, foregoing the normal menu that can be found in typical sushi restaurants. And just like a real live theatre, top chefs involve diners in the whole experience, making this an interplay and gastronomic conversation between chef and guests.

Omakase sushi

A bit of history: The evolution of sushi to Omakase fine dining cuisine

Sushi has its origins in Ancient China and Southeast Asia and made its way to Japan during the eighth century. The first type of sushi was called nazerushi featuring fish fermented with salt and raw rice. Meanwhile, the Edo period gave rise to hakozushi, a type of sushi that used vinegared rice, sculpted and pressed into the oshibako (wooden box). In the 19th century, Hanaya Yohei invented the modern nigiri style of sushi, using hand-pressed steamed rice with rice vinegar and topping it with a slice of fish.

With Yohei’s nigiri, fast-food sushi shops and stalls proliferated around the country. However, it would wait another century before sushi was elevated to fine dining cuisine. Omakase was born during the 1980s and 1990s, in the thick of the bubble economy in Japan, as a result of the sudden increase in wealth of the Japanese. With this new money going around, the Japanese lavished on high-quality sushi and ate at high-end sushi restaurants. There was one problem though: Customers wanted to pair sake with side dishes but didn't know what fish to order, so they left the chef to decide their menu. This became the start of the omakase-style of restaurants where the chefs pick bespoke sushi dishes to serve their guests.

Today, the omakase version of sushi has blossomed into an integral part of Japanese fine dining gastronomy appreciated by both locals and gourmet enthusiasts from around the world.

Omakase in Japan

Get the best out of your Omakase dining experience: Top 13 Tips

For the sophisticated diner who wants an extended and premium sushi experience, here’s our guide to enjoying omakase fine dining and sushi etiquette in Japan:

1. Guaranteed omakase seats: Research and reserve in advance

Guests are advised to research the restaurant in advance to get to know the chef and their style of preparation to fully appreciate omakase dining once they are at the restaurant. When booking, diners should communicate their preferences in advance so that the chef is fully aware of what to include or exclude in their meals and side dishes. Omakase meals consist mostly of raw fish and rice, so those who cannot eat these two ingredients might have to look for other acceptable alternatives in other restaurants.

Researching Omakase restaurants in Japan using TableCheck and its partners

When it comes to discovering Omakase-style restaurants in Japan, there are various methods available to curious diners. Many people rely on well-known sources such as the Michelin Guide, and Tripadvisor.

TableCheck is a powerful restaurant reservation tool that connects high-end restaurants in Japan with media outlets and concierges. We have successfully established partnerships with the aforementioned travel guides, solidifying our reputation as the ultimate resource for restaurant discovery. In fact, by visiting TableCheck.com directly, diners have a higher chance of finding exceptional dining experiences compared to other platforms. Since the majority of popular restaurants in Japan are already utilizing the TableCheck system, it serves as a reliable source for those seeking remarkable culinary adventures.

2. Hassle-free transactions: Confirm the restaurant's payment methods

Guests should make sure to check the restaurant's payment methods before booking or whether it requires prepayment in advance. Although it's rare, some venues may only accept cash, so guests need to know the payment method the venue accepts before making a restaurant reservation.

TableCheck has a Contactless Pay feature that allows guests to add their credit card details at the time of booking, and with that registered card, automatically pay their bill when they finish their meal. Find out how Contactless Pay works.

3. Comfy for high-end dining: Wearing smart casual

Guests should consider wearing something functional for both sightseeing activities and dining. Chino pants, a casual dress, or a skirt for the ladies will do. Jeans are acceptable as long as it’s paired with something smart casual on top. However, diners should refrain from wearing sports outfits or shorts.

"Even three-starred Michelin restaurants do not consider jackets a requirement these days, whereas 10 years ago almost all venues did. Though there is no strict dress code anymore, people still gather at these omakase restaurants for special occasions like wedding anniversaries, where many are quite nicely dressed, so be considerate of other patrons."

– TableCheck CEO Yu Taniguchi explains.

With new budget-friendly omakase restaurants popping up around Japan, there’s no longer any need to go too formal. But unlike, high-end venues, these affordable restaurants are much more casual and not really used for special occasions.

4. No to perfume: The smell of a full omakase experience

We’ve heard this before: food is influenced by the taste and the smell. And it’s never more true than in an omakase restaurant. Sushi is all about tasting and smelling freshness so wearing perfume, colognes or strong odors will disrupt the whole dining experience. It is considered rude and a big no-no when it comes to omakase. Some venues even reject customers dining on their premises if they are wearing perfumes. Keep in mind that most upscale omakase restaurants are tiny and can sometimes accommodate 7-8 people so any strong odors can interfere with the sushi chefs’ goal of delivering the best-tasting sushi to guests.

5. Leave the masters at work: Trust the sushi chef 

The chef is the boss of the omakase meal and has full control of the menu so it’s important to have an open mind and trust their expertise and culinary choices. First, sushi chefs are highly revered in Japan due to the discipline and training they go through. Secondly, trusting the sushi chef’s repertoire is also a sign of respect toward their culinary craftsmanship. Giving the masters full control of the menu can enhance guests' dining experience while adding an element of surprise. Diners should sit and relax and be open to trying new flavors and seasonal ingredients.

Omakase chef

6. There's no such thing as small talk: Engaging with the omakase chef

Counter tables are the best seats in the house unless there is a need to hold exclusive and private conversations with others. At the counter tables, guests are face-to-face with the chef. This intimate setting allows diners to be able to converse with the chef directly, ask questions, and see how their dishes are being prepared with their own eyes. 

For those who are not well-versed in the Japanese language, it is advisable to use these phrases itadakimasu (to humbly receive) before the meal, arigato gozaimasu (thank you), or gochisousamadeshita (that was delicious) in Japanese.

Note: Counter tables are considered very valuable seats so they are harder to book. Guests should try to make reservations way in advance to be able to get seats in front of the chef.

7. Culinary theater: Watch the Omakase choreography and get awe-inspired

In an omakase-style restaurant, guests can watch the sushi masters at work as they skillfully demonstrate their knife skills in front of guests. There are two ways chefs prepare the fish. Some chefs choose to cut fish each time they serve, while some chefs do it in advance before the guests take their seats. Whichever style the chef opts for, the way fish is handled is a demonstration of culinary artistry rooted in age-old culinary traditions. Every movement has an intention, which is to create magic with their hands and create bespoke dishes for each guest with flavor combinations and seasonal ingredients that can satisfy voracious appetites.

8. The search for umami flavors, collaborating with suppliers

There's a lot of work behind the scenes that these masters have to do before being able to serve their guests. Not only do they have to source the freshest fish of the season, but also establish a good working relationship with their suppliers to get the best fish choices. Equally, reputable suppliers prioritize maintaining high-quality standards expected by chefs from award-winning restaurants.

Fresh or not fresh: Contrary to popular belief – not all sushi served in restaurants is "fresh from the market".  More modern sushi chefs are now opting to age their sushi to dramatically increase the umami taste. Aged sushi is totally fine to eat as it’s been prepared delicately and meticulously by the sushi chef using salt and vinegar, while also controlling the surrounding conditions like temperature and moisture.

From buying the fish to the process of preparing the choice cuts of fish, chefs go through a long laborious process to get the best umami taste.

9. IG shots: Photography and phone etiquette

Omakase restaurants are foodie havens – and each sushi dish is a work of art. Hence, it’s an acceptable practice for guests to take photos of their Instagram-worthy omakase meal.

Guests are allowed to take photos as long as they do it as soon as nigiri is placed on their plates and eat it afterward. It is considered rude to leave the sushi on the plate for a long time, or more than 30 seconds. Part of the reason is that the chef has to prepare the next nigiri, and there is a certain rhythm to the service for all guests.

To get the full omakase experience, guests should treat it like a real play while being respectful and making sure not to talk on the phone inside the restaurant.

10. Eat and savor each dish – hand or chopsticks?

Eating slowly can make the omakase meal a heightened experience, and the pace will allow diners to appreciate the intricate details that go into the preparation of a 10-course or a 22-course meal.
Here are a few tips:

For first-timers: Guests should keep in mind that nigiri sushi already contains light soy and can be eaten using chopsticks or by hand. There's no need to cut the sushi in half as they are already prepared in bite-size servings by the chef.

How to eat sushi: A good tip is to rotate the nigiri so that the fish touches the tongue first instead of the rice.

One recommended way is to rotate the nigiri by 90 degrees on the plate, picking it up with the three fingers at the bottom, then flipping it in the mouth with the fish facing down. This may however be impossible for some nigiri, as some sushi are a bit more fragile to eat than others.

11. Appreciate the omakase culinary craftsmanship: A visual feast

From the food right down to the crockery, everything in an upscale omakase restaurant is top-level. The sushi as well as the plates are all visually stunning. Some restaurants collaborate with local potters descended from generations of artisans, to create their earthenware pot and plates to complement every bespoke sushi dish. This level of attention to detail elevates the artistry that goes into creating a perfect plate to satisfy guests. Guests should take note of the arrangement of the food, colors, and garnishes – every detail has been carefully thought of to achieve maximum guest satisfaction.

12. The flavors of Japan's four seasons: Experimenting with different tastes

Not only do the chefs use top fish for their sushi dishes, but also seasonal ingredients for their side dishes and mains. Omakase often includes a variety of flavors so it's advisable to eat ginger between every serving to clean the palette and get the best out of each dish. Each serving of sushi comes with soy sauce already, but if a visitor wants to add extra, be careful to dip the fish in the soy sauce rather than getting it on the rice. This will maintain the delicate balance between the fish and the vinegared rice.

A great omakase meal should always start with light dishes and progress into bold flavors. Appreciating the balance and progression of the dishes and the range of tastes they offer will guarantee that guests get to enjoy the best omakase meal in their lifetime.

Take note: Top-tier venues, which are not necessarily Michelin-starred places, do not always have soy sauce for diners to dip their nigiri.

13. Appreciate the ambiance

Omakase is a unique dining experience that engages all the senses. Even the counter table in a Michelin-starred omakase restaurant is made to conjure a visual appeal. Counter tables are made from hinoki or Japanese cypress – an expensive type of wood that is used for building temples due to its durability. Omakase owners and chef-owners treat their counter tables almost like a sacred space. Guests should not place smartphones, keys, or any other items that could scratch the table while also treating the table very delicately.

Apart from the counter seating, the atmosphere, and the overall decoration of the restaurant are part of the whole omakase presentation. Every detail including the lighting and the artworks that are hanging on the walls has been carefully integrated as part of the restaurant. The whole purpose of these aesthetics is to elevate the dining experience and let the guest experience the very best of Japan.

Omakase – the pinnacle of Japanese gastronomy

Omakase sushi

Omakase takes guests on a unique culinary journey. It's important to enjoy each moment while appreciating the craftsmanship that’s been put behind to deliver each dish, made uniquely for each guest. With thousands of omakase restaurants available in Japan and varying culinary styles, this type of dining remains sought after around the world.

While there are many Omakase restaurants now sprouting globally, nothing compares to experiencing Omakase in the land where it was born, Japan. These sushi chefs in Japan are pushing the envelope when it comes to refining the craft of omakase. Some chefs are experimenting by differentiating orders of tsumami and nigiri, or preparing vinegared rice in front of diners instead of in the kitchen, etc. Some use ingredients that were never used traditionally, such as caviars, etc. to create fusion-inspired dishes.

No matter which way Omakase's evolution goes, a sense of culinary adventure awaits hungry travelers. In the realm of omakase, those who are bold enough to try it will take away more than just Japan's cultural and culinary heritage, but also a dining experience that will last a lifetime.

From the ambiance, food, and customer service, Omakase restaurants in Japan are renowned for offering an exquisite dining experience that truly transcends expectations. With TableCheck, these restaurants can provide award-winning experiences to their guests as well as drive more revenue to their businesses.

This article was published in June 2023, and updated on June 2024.

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