It may seem like a way to rip you off, but it’s actually a delicious aspect of Japanese restaurant culture.
If you’ve been to a bar or a restaurant in Japan, you may have noticed that: 1. You were served a small but delicious dish at the beginning of your meal; 2. Your bill at the end was a bit higher than you figured it would be; and 3. That extra yen coming out of your pocket was marked with the mysterious characters “お通し” (otōshi) on your receipt.
Otōshi is, in simple terms, an extra fee that takes physical form in a tasty dish served at the beginning of your meal. Think of it as a delicious table fee. The problem with this fee is that you’re typically not warned about it beforehand. It’s not written anywhere on the menu or anywhere in the restaurant, really.
So, what exactly is the purpose of otōshi? It’s actually meant to tide you over between the time you put in your first order until your order arrives. And, no, you typically can’t refuse it. At the end of your meal, this stomach-filler is added onto your bill and typically comes out to a few hundred yen (or a few dollars). For instance, even when super sweet all-you-can-eat deals like in this restaurant are advertised, there’s probably an otōshi fee tacked on.
It’s not surprising that this has become an increasing problem with tourists visiting Japan. It’s particularly headache-inducing in Okinawa, where non-Japanese speaking visitors abound. The Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau (OCVB), an organization that offers bilingual support in these situations, has been called in more times than they can count by visitors and restaurant owners alike. The visitors are taken aback by the hidden fees, while the restaurant owners are struggling to overcome the language barrier and explain the concept of the fee. That’s why there’s been a call to encourage more restaurant owners to provide English explanations of otōshi, since many restaurants are lacking in them.
So, if you ever find yourself in Japan and you’re served a dish right off the bat that you didn’t order, prepare yourself for a little extra otōshi fee tacked onto your bill. It’s served with good intentions, and good flavours. Don’t dread it; look forward to it! It’s all part of the authentic Japanese restaurant experience.