For my trip to Japan, I was determined to learn to love sushi (despite my appreciation and preference for actually cooking food), and while there we had a variety of sushi experiences. In honor of the Olympics and my love of food as culture, I share more about this significant culinary export from Japan…
Sushi Experiences from Conveyor to Fancy
One of the most famous exports from Japan is sushi, and with its explosion in popularity over recent years, it has become top of many visitors ‘to do’ lists while in Japan. This is for no small reason; sushi is a great example of Japanese cuisine – simple, fresh and focused on savoring the ingredients. There is a huge variety of sushi in Japan. With everything from chain restaurants to small family-owned businesses to luxury gourmet sushi restaurants, there is a sushi restaurant for everyone. With such varying experiences between the different restaurants, visiting a number of such restaurants is a great way to experience and enjoy Japanese cuisine.
Conveyor Belt Sushi
My son Johnny loves sushi, so he was ready to try it often, and particularly wanted to try out ‘conveyor belt’ sushi that he had ready about. Conveyor belt sushi, or kaitenzushi, is one of the most common and most popular styles of sushi restaurant in Japan. There are a number of chain conveyor belt sushi restaurants as well as independently-owned versions.
All conveyor belt sushi restaurants operate under a similar system. There are usually 1 or 2 conveyor belt tracks running throughout the restaurant. Most of the seating is either booths or counter seating next to the tracks to provide easy access – as the various types of sushi go by on the moving belt, you just grab any dish that you’d like. There are often some tables around the edges of the restaurant for groups who wish to order directly and don’t want to use the conveyor belt.
One of the conveyor belts has a constantly rotating variety of different sushi types, along with sides and desserts. These dishes are able to be taken by anyone at any table. There is often either a second track or numbered plates which are dishes which have been directly ordered.
Many kaitenzushi restaurants have electronic direct ordering through a tablet. If you are looking for a specific item, or wish to order multiple of one sushi type, this can be done through the ordering system and the dishes will be delivered via the conveyor belt to your seat. Conveyor belt sushi pricing varies from around ¥100 (~$1) per plate up to around ¥800(~$8) per plate for the more exclusive dishes. The color or pattern of the plates indicates their price, which is tallied up at the end of the meal (so that stack at the right is about 4 plates of mine and the rest is Johnny’s!)
Kaitenzushi is a great affordable option for visitors wanting to experience a large variety of Japanese sushi.
It is also a good first choice as the system is easy to understand, the tablets for direct ordering often have an English menu available and there is a good mix of different sushi types available. However, for a different sushi experience, there are also more traditional restaurants.
Traditional Sushi Restaurants
A traditional sushi restaurant is usually a lot more formal and more expensive than a kaitenzushi restaurant. These restaurants have a highly-trained and well-respected sushi master creating the sushi in front of the customers and offering their expert opinion.
Most traditional sushi restaurants have counter seating to allow customers to view the sushi master at work. There are usually tables or even private rooms also available. While we were touring Tokyo, I told our guide that I wanted to experience the more formal sushi restaurant, and he led us to this amazing place we would have never found without a local, and there was room for about 10 people total in the whole restaurant.
Various sushi are made fresh at the counter in front of customers. This shows both the freshness of the ingredients and the skills of the sushi master. Traditional sushi restaurants usually have three types of menu. There are often a few set menus, the option to choose as you go and finally, to set a budget and let the sushi master choose for you.
This is a great option as it allows for a personalized experience and the possibility of trying something new and different. Using a set menu or taking the sushi masters recommendation will result a range of seasonal fish and sushi using the best cuts.
Some sushi restaurants also offer side menus to accompany the sushi, while others focus exclusively on the fish. Most servings are one to two pieces of nigiri sushi, to allow the customer to fully savor the fish. The sushi are often accompanied by only a few condiments, including soy sauce and wasabi. However, it is considered rude to use too much of these as it masks the flavor of the fish.
It is polite to use a small amount to enhance the flavor, rather than overtaking it.
Traditional sushi restaurants are great way to experience authentic, high-quality Japanese sushi in a more intimate and specialized environment. Reservations are often required at traditional sushi restaurants as they are often quite limited in space (our guide had to call ahead once we told him what type of restaurant we wanted).
Sushi is one of Japan’s most popular foods, both domestically and internationally, so it is not surprise that many visitors to Japan wish to try authentic Japanese sushi. With such variety in sushi restaurants, sushi types and techniques, it is possible to try a number of different restaurants and still be discovering new aspects to sushi. While I’m not a big fan of sushi when I’m in the US, I really enjoyed all the variety of places we visited and the various options offered, and felt eating sushi enhanced my trip. Whether it is the ubiquitous kaitenzushi or the traditional sushi master restaurant, sushi in Japan is always a great experience.