Eating sushi in Japan

Sushi in Japan is a delicious affair.
Sushi in Japan is a delicious affair.

Japan & sushi

If you live in the west, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that people eat nothing but sushi in Japan: California rolls for breakfast, avocado/teriyaki chicken rolls for lunch and canned tuna/egg warships for dinner.

Guess what? They don’t eat any of those things. Sushi in Japan is much, much better than anything you have ever experienced. So read up, and prepare your taste buds!

The difference between sushi and sashimi

Both of these terms get thrown around like they mean the same thing, but there are differences.

This here is sashimi.
This here is sashimi.

SashimiIt’s raw fish. That’s it. You dip it in some soy sauce, maybe a bit of wasabi, and down it goes. No bells and whistles, no rice, no seaweed, just good old raw fish.

Sushi: Raw fish + rice. The most basic form, called nigiri-zushi, is a small slab of sashimi resting on a little oblong of rice, but you can find all sorts of variations on this, from rice wrapped in sweet tofu, to natto (smelly sticky soy beans) wrapped in a seaweed cone like a crepe. Yes, they also have your standard seaweed roll, but this style is actually more Korean than anything.

Where can you eat good sushi in Japan?

Sushi in Japan is pretty good everywhere. If you’ve just arrived, it’s probably going to blow your mind no matter where you go. In fact, I would even go so far as to say you should start low quality and have your mind progressively blown with steadily increasing deliciousness. But maybe you’re only here for a day, so let’s have a look at your options.

Geography

Sushi gets better the closer you are to the ocean. Makes sense, right? It’s raw fish, and the less time spent in transport, the fresher it’s going to be. Proximity to the ocean also means there is generally more fish in the local diet, and therefore more people with the ability to prepare it well.

With the exception of Tokyo, seaside Japan will generally be significantly cheaper than what you will find further inland.

100 yen sushi restaurants

If you’re going to start down low on the sushi scale, I highly recommend visiting one of Japan’s many thousands of sushi train restaurants, called kaiten-zushi. Places like Kappa-zushi, Kura-zushi, Sushi-ro and Uobei are all over the place, and they literally cost 100 yen (plus tax) per dish. You can fill yourself up with Japanese sushi for under 1000 yen. What paradise is this?

These restaurants basically function like enormous robots. Aside from the “train” with all of the sushi dishes that revolve slowly around all of the seats, you will also have a touchscreen from which you can order what you want for it to be specially made and delivered to you on a special “bullet train.” They often have menus in English and everything is stupidly efficient – when it’s time to go, someone will come around with this mysterious device which scans all of your leftover plates and automatically calculates your bill.

As far as taste and freshness goes, it’s pretty close to the bottom of the scale in Japan. But on a world scale, you’ll have trouble bettering it. I strongly encourage you to give one of these places a try before you move up a rung.

Moving up a rung – reasonably priced sushi

Kaiten-zushi isn’t just for the 100 yen joints – you will also find it in mid-range sushi restaurants as well. It won’t be stupidly efficient with touchscreens and bullet trains, but it’s a popular way to passively serve customers even among the places that charge a little more.

These restaurants will usually have an island kitchen in the middle with two or three sushi masters, or itamae, who are surrounded by a revolving track of sushi and you on the other side. They are constantly making various dishes and putting it on the track, but most people will look through the menu, decide what they want and call out to the itamae directly to have it made fresh for them.

They serve higher quality fish than their 100 yen counterparts, and have menus that range from 150 yen to 1500 yen per dish. These places really cater to the Japanese middle class and haven’t really jumped on the tourism boom, so you might struggle to find anything with an English menu.

A favorite of mine in this class is Kitokito-zushi over by the Sea of Japan on the west side. Check it out if you’re ever in the area!

Sushi counters

This is probably the closest you will get to “real” Japanese sushi. The restaurant will usually consist of one room split in half by a counter, with a row of counter seats on one side and a couple of old itamae fellows on the other. These guys are usually serious craftsmen, something that’s reflected in the price. They will masterfully slice up fish that they bought that morning at the market auctions right before your eyes, and chat with you as they blow your minds with the most delicious things you’ve ever eaten. They rarely speak much English, but the very personal setting forces some great sign-language conversations. See if you can make it through the whole ordeal without waving your hand in the air like a fish to get your point across. (Pro tip: I don’t think anyone in Japan doesn’t understand the English word “fish,” much less a sushi master.)

If you’re in Tokyo, you’ll find a lot of these places around Tokyo Bay, more specifically Tsukiji market, although I recommend that you approach this area ready for a tourist experience rather than a meaningful cultural exchange.

If you are looking for something a little less touristy, a personal favorite of mine is Sushitomi in nearby Nihonbashi. It’s a much more relaxed atmosphere, and the itamae is a total sweetheart. Unless you’re being a shitty customer. He don’t tolerate bullshit.

He said he had these cups made some 30 years ago. Hasn't aged a day!
He said he had these cups made some 30 years ago. Hasn’t aged a day!

If you’re stuck on where to get your sushi fix or are wanting to make a reservation for somewhere fancy, check out the JPNEAZY app – they might be able to help you out.

Sushi etiquette

Eating sushi in Japan is a delicate process.

First, use your chopsticks to gently roll the piece of sushi onto its side, taking care not to knock the fish from the top of the rice. Take the piece of sushi between your chopsticks so that one chopstick is on the fish and the other is on the bottom of the rice. Dip the piece briefly into your soy sauce, and insert it all into your mouth at once.

Or, just eat it however you want. With a fork. A spoon. Suck it off the plate. Who cares? It tastes the same no matter how you eat it.

In fact, many older people prefer to eat it with their hands. That’s right, even germaphobic Japanese geriatrics get their fingers dirty with a bit of sushi. Whoever decided that chopsticks was the right way to eat sushi was an idiot.

However, for the sake of taste, here are a few things you probably should pay attention to when eating sushi in Japan:

  • Try not to destroy the rice. This can happen when you’re bad with chopsticks, or when you try to eat it in several bites instead of one. Trust me, it tastes better when you shove it all in at once.
  • The pickled ginger is for eating between morsels. Like coffee beans in a perfume shop, it plays the role of “resetting” your taste buds so you can fully enjoy the next mouthful.
  • The little dishes are for soy sauce, and you can mix a small amount of wasabi in if you prefer, although some sushi comes with some wasabi underneath the fish. Just don’t soak it in the soy sauce for too long, unless you want a soggy salty inedible mess of rice.

Wrapping up

Sushi in Japan is an entire culture in itself. There are literally thousands of sushi “masters,” each with an unfathomable wealth of experience and knowledge about their trade.

I know some of you just want to swoop in, have a taste and tick “Japanese sushi” off your bucket lists, but if you have any space left in your heart, make the effort to talk to your itamae and show some interest in the culinary culture that has shaped their entire lives.

Unless your itamae is a miniature bullet train. Can’t help you there.