Japan: Land of Sushi?
Sushi comes to everybody's mind when thinking of culinary treats from Japan. Indeed, one can get excellent sushi in the Land of the Rising Sun but, more often than not, it won't be the extra sensorial gourmet experience one would anticipate before eating and, besides, it's not as frequent to find especial sushi as one presumes before visiting.
In short, great sushi does not only not abound in Japan, it's rather exceptional and not cheap. I say "not cheap" very consciously, because real good sushi bars and restaurants don't need to be terribly overpriced, but they will be a notch above an over-the-counter sushi bar.
Reality check, anyone?
One thinks that's what they eat over there, raw fish and rice. Well, no. The most frequent and abundant restaurant type, and food, one may find generally consists of noodle fare. Udon, ramen and soba are the regular everyday menu.
Good sushi, first and foremost, will be a great gourmet treat and a distinctly "not cheap" one at that. I could tell you right here and now that if it's not above "everyday" average price, then it's not the "real good thing". Mostly because selection and preparation of ingredients is an art and takes time and qualified skills, and for no other reason.
By "good thing" I don't meant to say that the fish anywhere won't be in great conditions, it will for sure! But it will also be mass bought and mass produced. Like burgers in the great McD, they're inexpensive because they sell millions. Likewise, with sushi bars, one can definitely find great 20 or more piece servings at very economic prices. I'm here to tell you those would be the McD's of sushi.
Hey, no shame in that at all! I mean, if you're in the mood for sushi that's tasty and hits the spot, go on. I'm sure you'll enjoy, I certainly did. But don't think that, because you're in Japan, you ate sushi.
Having said that, I'll also say Japan, and specifically Kyoto and Tokyo are home to some of the world's sushi masters. Great chefs they are, having spend their lives learning, developing and mastering the art of sushi.
Dining in one of their restaurants or bars is the real sushi experience. They will serve the pieces in order of adequate consumption, and they will take great pride in their mastery of sushi's primary fare: rice.
Any great sushi master will explain, if you're inclined to ask or listen, that the great secret to sushi isn't fish, or not only fish which must be fresh and handpicked to their exacting expectations, but rice.
The consistency of rice, its texture and taste, is what gives sushi the touch of greatness. The sushi masters will tell you this if you ask. Or, in my case, if you just sit there and listen.
Yoshuda Sushi Bar
Having been in Japan two years in a row (and very likely not for the last time), for the second visit my better half and travel guide extraordinaire decided to research sushi venues that were excellent, not only on account of the fact they offered great sushi but on account of the way they offered great sushi.
Yasuda Sushi Bar popped up in a great number of internet entries (go ahead, google it if you must), for three reasons:
- Naomichi Yasuda's history is somewhat legendary: It's typical for Japanese chefs to travel aboard to learn their trade and then come back to their homeland. Yoshida did just that, except his 'overnight, learning stay' abroad spanned three decades in New York City.
- In New York, the fellow made a name for himself. His sushi became well known in the Big Apple. It is said, and he will tell you so himself if you're in his company (he did tell us, indeed), that Martha Steward visited his sushi bar in New York first thing after being released from her stint behind bars.
- He's a media animal. He likes a camera and a review more than I like my sushi. Or thereabouts.
Yasuda Sushi Bar, a 14 seat venue in Tokyo's Aoyama district, opened 'recently' in the grand scheme of things, all things considered: It's three years old.
And, all things considered, it's quite out of the main drag. No glittering Ginza bar there, the neighborhood where it sits it's quiet, but a few minutes walk from the nearest metro station, Gaienmae at the Ginza Line. Lovely down to its location, let me tell you.
Yasuda Sushi Bar is a work of art when it comes to the ever famous and much proclaimed Japanese minimalism.
When I say it's a 14 seat venue, I should specify that the counter, where all interesting things happen, specifically the sushi preparation AND the chat with the sushi master, is 8 seats. The other 6 seats are distributed along the wall in tables for 2.
Don't be an Occidental, reserved dork, avoid the tables if there is room at the counter! You will see sushi in motion there, and you will chat the sushi chat of your life!
If bookings allow, you'll be given a choice to sit. Seriously, if you can, sit right in front of where Yasuda san stands when he greets you, as this is where he prepares your sushi.
Or his sushi, rather. So, besides enjoying the delicate treats, you will see how they are prepared.
Yasuda san has a right arm muscle that would seem sculpted with a 5 day a week gym routine. It's not. He got that muscle from shaping the rice into the well known "sushi shape" we all like to consume.
He will explain this to you, without prompting, and will gladly pose for a photo with you showing just that very well chiseled arm.
This is really another lesson in and around the very famous sushi culture: The cost needs to set it aside from a "sushi McD bar", but it shouldn't set you off a month's rent. If it does, chances are you're patronizing a well renowned sushi joint. An excellent sushi joint, thought? Not necessarily, although you will think it is, because it's pricey
Yashuda Sushi Bar offers three ways to eat sushi: One set menu of 10 pieces person, another set menu of 12 pieces person, and a la carte sushi. It's all very reasonably priced. No over-the-counter sushi, but really affordable. Seriously, you can look it up in their menu. Hence my saying that good sushi won't cost what a hot dog at all, but it shouldn't throw you up for a loop either.
The first time we visited, we ordered the 12 piece menu. Oh boy. OH BOY! We booked another visit right then and there. Obviously, the second time we visited, Yasuda san recognized us and asked us what we'd like. We told him we'd like a 12 piece omakase. In the end, we ate 14 pieces each.
It's superbly priced, considering the atmosphere, personalized service and, foremost, the quality of the sushi. Yoshida san will tell you that he'll buy the fish himself, he'll tell you that he's still trying to learn and perfect the art of sushi… You just sit there and enjoy.
More on Yasuda Sushi Bar
- Sushi Bar Yasuda - Tokyo (Minami-Aoyama), Japan | Do You Even Eat
Wonderful blog entry that describes the experience at Yosuda way better than I ever could.
- Raw homecoming: Sushi masters return to Japan | CNN Travel
Other Interesting Sushi Venues in Tokyo
For very decent sushi, I'll list two other locations where you can enjoy the good stuff without being ripped off like the tourist you are. I mean, you can google sushi places and you'll come out on top of millions of results, right? But these are guaranteed for having been tried out by none other than… ahem.. me.
Tsukiji Fish Market
There are many sushi bars and restaurants in the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Fish Market.
You'd be smart to google out some of the most well known, and you'd find your prize. BUT. I'm here to tell you that any of the very well known Tokyo Central Fish Market restaurants will have a line that's as long as your tummy is hungry by lunch time.
In truth, the line up to eat on these sushi bars & restaurants starts pretty much as soon as the market is wrapping up its daily activities, which is around 6am or so.
So you've got two options:
- Either line up early in the day for those five-top hits in google, say 10:30am for lunch, and count on a 1 to 2 hour line, OR
- Pass by the very famous joints and their long lines and just get into any other restaurant in the very same alley, or two alleys down, that will have perhaps not the very same name and fame but certainly the very same quality sushi, at a similar cost as well, probably cheaper. And it all comes from the very same central fish market as well, so there you go.
This is one of our well loved and much frequented sushi bars. It's just different from the McD sushi bar variety because of the atmosphere and the service.
First of all, the Hina venues are tastefully decorated and delicately served. Second, the value for money proposition is more than well met, you can eat aplenty while still preserving a high standard of customer service.
If you google Hina Sushi, you will notice it rates very well in all reviews.
This is a place well known for fairly priced, good quality over-the-counter sushi. They do pride themselves in offering a very wide variety of sushi, and pretty much any other typical Japanese offerings (such as the famous and ever present omelet, tamagoyaki).
A Special Sushi from Osaka
The big difference between hako and nigiri sushi, which is the one prepared by hand such as the one at Yasuda's, is that the rice and the rest of the ingredients are already seasoned, so you don't need to dip in soy sauce or wasabi or anything else to highlight the flavor. In hako sushi, flavors are already there, especially with the vinegar seasoned rice, and the rest of the ingredients.
Another important difference between hako and nigiri sushi is the fact that the first, due to being "pre-cooked" or "pre-seasoned" if you will, is very convenient to buy and consume later, be that at home or elsewhere, while the nigiri sushi is meant to be prepared and consumed right then and there.
On account of this, the hako sushi became very popular as Bento box, aka "lunch box", material.
When we were in Osaka, we visited the one and only original Yoshino Sushi hako store. Yes, it's a sort of store, not a restaurant or a diner at all. You go in, buy your box of hako sushi, and leave. We were served directly by the proprietor.
This locale was established in 1840. Mind you, that's roughly the Gold Rush era in the States. Definitely earlier than the US Civil War. Just saying. I'm not too particular about tradition or that sort of thing, but I'm sure it means something to patronize a venue that was open around the time my great grandfather was born.
Any which way, we did visit this establishment and enjoyed the hako sushi mysteries as they are meant to be enjoyed: A while after they are prepared and purchased, in our hotel room. YUM!
To make a long story short
Sushi is very famous outside of Japan. Rightly so, it's a delicious treat. But it's not such the frequent occurrence once you're in Japan. I mean, you would expect to see sushi all over the place, yeah? Well, you won't. And be discerning when you do see it!