Platters of sushi, boiled vegetables, lotus root, kelp, and toofu may greet your eyes when you enter the dining area. There may be beer, wine, juice, tea, or other beverages. Even private parties usually start like an enkai (with a kampai) if you can get the cook to sit down long enough to toast her. It is common Japanese hospitality to prepare a feast for guests, so you may hardly see the women of the household as they spend their time running back and forth between the kitchen and the party room.
The table will already be set with several dishes, bowls, glasses, and o-hashi (“chopsticks”). Traditionally, hashi are placed horizontally, closest to you, with the thick edges to the right. The thin edges rest upon a small platform to prevent them from touching the table. An obsession with cleanliness may move your hosts to use waribashi (“disposable chopsticks”).
The First Point
At your place setting, you will have a relatively small plate called a torizara. When selecting things from the large platters, use the opposite end of your chopsticks (the end that does not touch your mouth) and feel free to bring the torizara as close to the main platter as possible. As long as you are using the fat ends of your chopsticks, it doesn't matter if you brush up against the other food. Using your chopsticks like a shovel should be avoided if possible. Also, try to refrain from licking the residual potato salad from the fat end once you have helped yourself.
Many Japanese people do not expect foreigners to know this unspoken rule to prevent germ-sharing. You will surely impress your hosts by maneuvering your chopsticks in such a polite way.
It is possible, too, that a “serving” set of chopsticks will accompany each platter or dish. In that case, you may use those to bring food to your torizara. It is not necessary to use the fat end of the “serving” chopsticks.
Napkins are not commonly found in either restaurants or Japanese homes. Tissues are usually available, but most people carry a small hand towel or handkerchief with them at all times. The practice of always having something with which to wipe your hands is a habit ingrained in Japanese children from preschool. Public restrooms are usually without paper towels (and sometimes toilet paper) so it is a good idea to get into the habit of carrying a tiny packet of tissues for emergencies.
The Second Point
As with most dinner parties, conversation mingles with drinks and food, and the pace is leisurely (aside from the cooks frying up baskets of tempura in the kitchen). You will, most likely, be sampling a variety of new and interesting dishes. In between mouthfuls, you will want to rest your hashi.
Lay your chopsticks across the top right-hand section of either your torizara, or your gohan-chawan (“rice bowl”). If you have a chopstick rest, it is perfectly acceptable to lay them there as well. Do not jab your chopsticks vertically into your bowl of rice and leave them there or lay them down on the table.
The Last Point
If your chopstick skills happen to need a little work, your hosts may take pity on you and try to help you get the things you want to eat. If someone grabs something from the main platter and offers it to you, hold out your plate to accept it. Never take something from someone else's chopsticks with your own set of hashi. Passing food around from hashi to hashi is only done at funerals. Japanese are relatively superstitious about performing acts that mimic funeral rituals and will probably involuntarily cringe if you try to take something from an outstretched pair of chopsticks.