Most Japanese don’t eat sushi. Or if they do, it’s store-bought. Sushi is perishable and expensive, so usually saved for special occasions. Though these days, the cheaper (and lower quality) sushi-in-the-round is rapidly replacing traditional sushi restaurants. In fact, single owner sushiya are dying at an alarming rate. They just can’t survive. Even up-scale Tsukiji fish market based small chain sushiya are closing up shop. Why?
It’s all about value. I’d rather go to a good sushi shop once a year, than a mediocre one once a month. But then, I’m crazy for sushi. And not just any sushi. I recharge my system by sitting at the blond wood counter, in front of a glass case of raw fish, picking out and eating each selection, two small pieces at a time. Slowly and lovingly savoring each bite as I flip the fish onto my tongue.
Toshi-san, the sushi master at my local sushiya in Palo Alto hooked me up with my first job in Japan. The owner of the English school was also part owner of the Palo Alto sushi shop. My first taste of sushi on Japanese soil was a letdown, to say the least. I arrived at Narita in July of 1988. This was pre-cell phone and pre-Tokyo bypass era. It took us over four hours to get to Saitama by car. I thought the guy who picked me up was kidding (not). Knowing my love of sushi, my hosts had ordered some from a local shop for a late night supper. Demae (takeout), especially sushi, extends an inherent feeling of generosity toward one’s guest and is often preferred over homemade food.
Although well intentioned, the round lacquer trays sat in the cupboard awaiting our arrival. For a few hours, I imagine. (In the heavy, muggy July weather.) The fish was warm and slightly ripe, but I valiantly dug in. Bad judgment lead me to try a piece piled with ikura. The salmon eggs were tacky and unpleasantly fishy. Luckily in those days I never ate it in one bite. Trying not to gag, I washed down the eggs with a swig of beer and gently laid the uneaten half on my plate. This was my first initiation into a phenomenon I have run into over and over in Japan. The form is often more important than the content. In other words, as good hosts, they served me my favorite food, regardless if it was practical or not. It’s the thought that counts. And here I am, still ungrateful after all these years. But that’s not true. I am grateful, though sometimes hope for more content and less form.
This disappointing induction into “Japanese sushi” lead to my obsession in finding a real sushiya. Armed with the characters for sushi and some pointers from Japanese co-workers, I ventured out on the town but was totally baffled by the cloth hanging curtains in front of each storefront (be it restaurant or not). I blundered up the stairs into someone’s house and the surprised (but kindly) grandmother directed me to a nearby drinking spot that also served food. I managed to order some grossly oversized slices of yellowtail sashimi, salt-pickled napa cabbage and a beer. At least I snared some raw fish. Still, it wasn't sushi. The place was raucous, smoky and not at all the peaceful haven I was seeking. A couple nights later, tired of the sickly smell of summer festival food, I stumbled upon a teeny shop with a fish tank out front. Hmm…could it be? I slid open the wood and glass door, and as I poked my head through the noren cloth, the owner’s head jerked up in surprise. Nonetheless, he was welcoming and patient as I tried to order familiar sushi. That was when I still thought sushi was all about the little dishes that California shops serve or that ikura demands a quail egg yolk (the master got a good giggle out of that one). Perhaps the quail yolk softens the acrid salty taste of not-so-fresh salmon eggs, but certainly adds nothing to firm eggs freshly nudged from their sac and sprinkled with a bit of sake, salt and grated yuzu peel. These eggs burst one by one as you squeeze them between your tongue and the roof of your mouth. These eggs don’t need the quail yolk because they’re that good.
Sushi is one of those meals that ends with little butterflies in your stomach as you ask for the check. That night I rang in at around $50 (phew). When my paycheck held out (not often), I tried to visit once a week for my “fix.” The price crept up a bit as I ate more or ordered special items like live kuruma ebi (shrimp). Tadaaki had never been to a sushiya, so I initiated him on the ins & outs of sushi protocol: don’t put wasabi in the soy sauce dish because it leaves an unsightly muddy mess. Pick up the sushi with your fingers and flip it upside down, dipping one little corner of fish into the soy sauce, then pop the whole piece of sushi into your mouth, fish side down. This sequence is crucial to immediately get the full fish taste, followed by a flash of hot wasabi and the satisfying finish of vinegared rice. And never let stray rice grains escape into your soy sauce dish (very bad form). Once Tadaaki joined me at the sushi counter, our per person tab went up to $100. These days, our hole in the wall occupies a spare but elegant space that exudes calm ( 甲すし). The sushi is still the best I’ve ever had: “the master” is creatively gifted and truly a master of the art. I’m fascinated with pickles and his are inspired. It’s a 40-minute drive and of course we’re up into the $150 per person range, so somehow don’t go as often as I’d like. Though as I write, I’m getting the urge.
Even in the U.S., I found sushi pricing to be creative. The longer you stay (whether you eat more or not), the higher the tab. One more reason why we eat in Tsukiji-based small chain shops in Tokyo. There is less uncertainty and less need to worry once you know the basic price for what you regularly eat (and drink). It’s nice to know you can eat your fill and bring the kids as well, without racking up a $500 bill. Our favorite shop closed recently, but we’ve found its sister shop (a cut above, so of course more expensive). So far, we’ve only gone two at a time as the boys have healthy appetites and my pocketbook is lean. 竹山
In Japan, sushi is all about the impeccable fish. It’s all about simplicity. Fish + vinegared sweet rice = sushi. That’s enough. It’s delicate, it’s subtle…there is ritual. Sushi is not about monster rolls or mayonnaise. Sometimes we should just accept something as it was meant to be and not insist on pushing and prodding it to be exactly how we think it should be. And sometimes, giving in is a relief.