Etiquette 101 seminars a hit

'Kaiseki' mistress reminds business types how to mind table manners

by Mariko Kato

How to enter a room with bamboo mats, where to place chopsticks, what not to wear — these are just some of the essential rules of etiquette young professionals are learning from Michiko Noguchi, a veteran restaurant mistress whose seminars on table manners are growing in popularity.

“I first thought of running the seminar because I saw that young people these days don’t know how to serve and entertain guests at formal business dinners,” said Noguchi, the deputy manager at Soujuan, which serves “kaiseki ryori” (traditional Japanese multicourse dinners) at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku.

Noguchi began her seminars on “settai” (courtesy or entertainment) earlier this year. The courses, aimed at young businesspeople but attended by people of varying ages and occupations, are conducted in groups of about 20 in a Japanese-style room over a typical kaiseki dinner. They have become so popular that Noguchi had to add more sessions to the ones held in January and March.

At a two-hour seminar on Sept. 15, 22 slightly nervous people sat at a long table to learn how to maneuver plates, pour drinks and eat without making too much noise.

“Chopsticks must always be placed on the chopstick holder, and bowls must always be held in one hand when you’re eating. There are so many people these days who eat from bowls without lifting them,” Noguchi said afterward, noting that basic etiquette was traditionally taught at home.

The participants also were taught how to slide themselves on to cushions, place folded wet towels on the table with the crease away from the body, and the order in which to eat various dishes.

According to Noguchi, who has 30 years’ experience serving in such restaurants, young professionals often slip up when suddenly called upon to organize and host formal dinners with business clients.

“Young people no longer get taken out by their superiors to go drinking or such things, so they don’t have any chances to learn how to serve guests. But when they are suddenly told to go and entertain guests, they panic and run around,” said Noguchi, who is in her 50s.

“Their outfits are inappropriate, they worry about there not being enough drinks and they are constantly popping out to talk on the phone,” she added.

According to hotel spokeswoman Soo Youn Jung, the seminars have been a hit with both sexes and are generating waiting lists after spreading by word of mouth and the media.

“Some people come more than once to try out their table manners with changing seasonal menus, and some are sent by their firms to learn etiquette,” she said.

The seminar began by defining the position of “kamiza,” the seat of honor, followed by instructions on how to hold, lift and place chopsticks and bowls using various areas of the hand in a graceful fashion.

The technique is simple yet crucial, Noguchi told the participants, and at the end of the meal she checked to make sure their chopsticks were only dirty up to 5 cm from the tip.

The kamiza position isn’t as simple as it seems, either. Although it is basically the seat furthest away from the door, if there is a window view or a hanging picture to admire, the guest should sit in a position where he or she can enjoy it, Noguchi said.

After a quiet start, the participants gradually loosened up with the help of alcohol, and asked questions about what to do when the sake is too hot to hold and the best time to distribute gifts to the guests.

Although the seminars are intended to give tips on how to host formal dinner parties, the etiquette tips can prove useful to anyone, said a civil servant in his late 20s who was at the seminar.

“In my job there are no opportunities to have business dinners, but I came along because I was curious, and I think it is useful to learn these manners anyway,” said the civil servant, who only gave his last name of Yamauchi.

“The things I learned today were really basic, but if you don’t know them it’s embarrassing,” he said.

The details of Japanese etiquette may seem alien and unnecessary to many foreigners, but the formality has a spiritual element and reflects the host’s wish for the guests to enjoy themselves, Noguchi said.

“There is a major spiritual element to entertaining guests,” she said, explaining that the concept of settai originates from Chinese Buddhism, where entertainment took place among monks and between monks and believers.

“When you’re entertaining, you have to know how to behave respectfully toward your seniors, and traditionally people offered meals as well as other entertainment, such as traditional dance showcases. That has now developed into such forms as taking people out to play golf, or to one-night stays in hot spring baths.”

Practicality is the next priority after grace, Noguchi told the participants, teaching them tricks that could be useful in minor emergencies, such as not being able to take the lid off a soup bowl. She showed them how, if you press lightly on either side of the bowl, the lid will come off easily.

Noguchi said you should not hesitate to use your fingers when eating lobster or crab, to tuck your napkin into your trousers to stop it from falling off your lap, or to replace the lid on a hot dish if you want to enjoy your drink first.

“After all, you’re not taking exams, you just need to look smart,” she said as the seminar drew to a close.

“I want you, not just the guests, to enjoy the dinner,” she added.

Noguchi’s advice went beyond the dinner table, including how to preview the restaurant layout before the day, how to order a taxi to send the guest home, and how not to wear lace-up shoes because you could be left behind at the entrance trying to tie them.

To make the atmosphere of the seminar more relaxing, a more intimate setting may be in the works for future sessions, Noguchi said.

“I’m considering holding smaller sessions of 4 or 5 friends, so they can talk to each other, and I can tailor the seminar to their needs,” she said.

Noguchi added that foreigners would be welcome, although the seminar will be conducted in Japanese as there are too many terms that would be difficult to translate accurately into English.

You’ll have to reserve in advance for the next settai seminar, which is on Jan. 19, 2010. The fee is ¥10,000 for two hours, meal and drinks included. Of the 22 places, 14 were already filled as of Sept. 16.