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Clues for the Clueless – Sushi in Japan

I like to think I am knowledgable about food and beverages. But sometimes one has an experience that reminds you just how little you actually know.

When I booked my recent trip to Tokyo, I worked my ample ass off for weeks to secure a reservation at any of the best sushi spots in the city. I was unsuccessful, and crestfallen––I did everything right, reaching out to hotel concierges, trying months in advance, working with third-party reservation services. No dice for any of the spots I targeted.

No reservations needed to enjoy the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, thankfully!

In the process, I dove into the blogs and reviews of various experts on the sushi scene in Tokyo, and learned pretty quickly, to my surprise, that I really didn't know all that much about sushi. Words I'd never heard before kept popping up. Da fuck is shari? What the hell does he mean when he says the neta is large? What does "Jiro-style" entail, and why does he say I might not like it? What do you mean, aged fish??

Okay okay, so I knew about aged fish before (the Edomae style of sushi). But even that, a staple of Japanese sushi, came a good ten years into my love for the cuisine. About so much else I found myself completely clueless.

And so, my two loyal readers will now have someone at the vanguard of culinary embarrassment so they don't suffer the same fate. I present a new series, "Clues for the Clueless," to answer your most nagging questions about all things with mystique surrounding food and beverages. And given my recent bout of cluelessness surrounding sushi in Japan, I figured for the first installment I'd share what I learned, and what I've also gleaned in my fifteen or so years as a ravenous sushiphile.

So, my fellow clueless readers, let's begin this series with my three major pieces of advice when looking into sampling sushi in its birthplace, peppered with examples from the three sushi shops I was lucky enough to visit on my most recent trip.

1: Make sure you know what you're getting yourself into.

(a): Make sure you understand what "sushi" is. Most Americans think sushi means rolls of deep fried shrimp scoured with spicy mayo and sticky-sweet eel sauce, tempura flakes, and various tropical fruits presented in massive portions as part of menus of similar rolls pages long.

Nigiri sushi

This, my friends, tasty as it may be, is not "sushi" in Japan. In fact, some might tell you it's not sushi at all! Sushi usually refers to a style of raw seafood called nigiri, with which anyone who reads this blog with any regularity is doubtless familiar––a piece of seafood, or neta, is draped and gently pressed across a slightly compressed ball of short grain rice seasoned with rice vinegar, or shari, adhered together through a scant amount of wasabi and lightly dressed with soy sauce or some other condiment. Rolls are called maki or makimono, and are something different entirely from what the Japanese call sushi.

This is the closest you'll get to a sushi roll at most spots in Japan!

Moreover, it's atypical for sushi masters in Japan to dress up their creations with stuff the likes of which you see at sushi restaurants peddling maki in the US; instead, the fish, in tandem with the chef's treatment of the fish through aging and condiment application, is expected to speak for itself. There are exceptions, of course, but a sushi meal in Japan is a much more austere experience.

You'll probably start the meal with a slate of appetizers, called otsumami, like this insanely delicious aged bonito at Kizaki, but otherwise most of the meal will be nigiri sushi

There was an infamous incident where Janet Jackson strolled into one of the most revered omakase counters in Beverly Hills and walked out in a huff when they would not make her a spider roll. While normally the very queer Maestro would advocate heavily for the fabulousness of Janet Jackson, in this instance, you don't want to be this person.

In this piece, chives and monkfish liver are added to give the shiromi some weight. That's about as dressed up as sushi gets at these establishments,

Within nigiri as a genre, there are countless variations, and every shop has its own style, or subscribes to a particular lineage. The neta might be smaller or larger, might be fresh out the sea or use various aging techniques. The shari might be stronger, with use of things like red vinegar for a more pungent flavor, or softer in flavor with use of white rice vinegar––some say the art in sushi is crafting the perfect rice recipe, and not the seafood itself!

(b): There's not a lot of room for picky eating. Particularly if you are enjoying an omakase meal, where the chef just presents you with his selections for the day, you're largely not going to be able to avoid things you might find objectionable. And while there are many sushi-yas where you get to pick exactly what you want, I'd endeavor to say that most operate in the omakase style.

In Tokyo, you'll probably be served akagai, which traditionally gets a little smack on the counter when being prepared so the muscle fibers in the live clam tense up for a lovely texture. Would you sample it?

So, be prepared––you'll probably be served salmon roe, or sea urchin, or clams, or oysters. You might even be served a fish's sperm sacs (a challenging first for me on this trip). You may have a condiment, like a liver sauce, you're not used to. But that's the beauty of the experience, and even though I was the pickiest of eaters as a kid, I now subscribe to the Green Eggs and Ham philosophy, which I encourage for both of my loyal readers as well––"try them and you'll see."

Are you ready to devour some delicious salmon roe?

If there's something you know you just can't stomach, it's a good idea to tell the restaurant or chef ahead of time. The last thing you want is to be served something and then not touch it; this is a particularly insulting behavior at a restaurant in Japan.

2: Brush up on your sushi etiquette and technique.

Americans (and other foreigners) have a reputation in Japan for poor manners and general boorishness at sushi counters. This is part of what has precipitated the circumstances discussed below in the third clue for the clueless, with it being more difficult than ever for foreigners to secure reservations. Don't contribute to the problem––follow the Maestro's clues.

(a): Do not be late, and be ready to get quite lost on your way. Don't be like us––on our way to Arai, one of the finest sushi restaurants in the world, we arrived at the designated Google Maps pin right on time but could not for the life of us figure out what building it was in and what floor it was on. None of us reads Japanese, so it was next to impossible to find the place by reading the signage, and we walked in ten minutes late to the visible annoyance of the chef and staff, who had already served four pieces to the other guests. Incredibly rude and embarrassing.

Could you pick a sushi shop out of the maze of buildings that is Shibuya?

Japanese buildings are close together and most sushi shops occupy one of the various floors of these ten-story buildings with signs only in Japanese to indicate their domicile. Allow yourself time to be lost, because it might be inevitable. Look up Google Maps street view images of the building before you go, and keep an eye out for the letter "F" nestled somewhere in the address––this usually indicates the floor number; e.g., "5F" or "B1F."

(b): Ask before taking photos. We live in an Instagram generation, particularly in Western society, but things aren't quite the same in many parts of the world, where privacy still holds significant value. In Japan, many sushi-yas, especially those in the upper echelons, are not so keen on photography, and in my experience those which allow photography emphasize that photos may be taken of the food, but not of the chef or staff.

Fortunately, our chef at Arai was perfectly happy to pose with us after the meal! Mom's first omakase!

Always ask the chef or staff if it's okay to take pictures. And, don't spend several minutes composing the photos for the 'Gram. Sushi is meant to be eaten within seconds of it reaching the counter in front of you, particularly if nori, or seaweed, is involved. Have the phone ready in your hand, snap a quick photo or two, and then enjoy the piece. The camera may eat first, but it's also gotta eat fast!

Pro-tip: turn your phone upside-down for the best sushi photos!

While we're at it, it's best to keep your phone off the counter. Many spots aren't too keen on any unsavory objects gracing their counters, like phones or elbows. And for the love of god, do not take a phone call.

(c): A crash course in sushi etiquette. Some common things to do/avoid:

  1. Do eat the whole piece at once. Do not bite it in half. It doesn't matter how large it is. Eat the whole thing at once, and within a few seconds of being served.

  2. Do not make a slurry of wasabi immersed in soy sauce. I agree it's tasty, but also uniquely American and bad form. Do dip a tiny corner of the neta in the shoyu, but do not if the chef has already dressed it with shoyu or another condiment. And do not let the rice, which will absorb too much of it, dip in the shoyu.

  3. Do not be afraid to use your fingers to pick up a piece of sushi. Often it affords better control than chopsticks, particularly for those less accustomed to them. And while I have seen various philosophies, my approach is always to eat the piece with the fish side down and against your tongue so you taste the fish more than the rice.

  4. Do keep your dining space tidy and organized. When the warm towel, the oshibori, is presented, wipe your hands and then fold it in the same way it was presented, placing it back on its vehicle. Place your chopsticks back on the chopstick stand parallel to the counter when not in use. And keep foreign objects, like phones or elbows, off the counter.

  5. Do be on your best behavior. Do not be too loud, too casual, or anything less than humble. Having said that, every counter is different––some are as reverent as monasteries, and some are positively raucous. Ride the vibe, and don't make people roll their eyes and think, "Americans, amirite?" Also, do learn how to say "arigato gozaimasu!"

A perfectly assembled place setting!

3: Prepare yourself for the monumental task of narrowing down a list of spots to try, and the struggle of securing a reservation.

(a): You probably won't get a reservation at any of the spots you want to visit. It's impossible, or next to impossible, to get reservations at the most famous sushi-yas in the Japanese capital. In advance of my visit to Japan, I isolated my top ten sushi shops and emailed the concierge at our hotel to arrange reservations, hoping beyond hope that I would be able to land a spot at even one of them. Of the ten, the concierge regretfully informed me that half of them did not take any requests from new diners, and three more required going through an online system and needed a miracle to secure a seat. The other two were full. Big surprise.

This will be a very common sight when looking for sushi counter reservations on Omakase

These vaunted sushi temples have become impenetrable fortresses that we food folks, especially from overseas, cannot possibly hope to breach without the referral of a regular. Most of them seat a mere ten to twenty guests per night, and regulars make their next reservation on site after their meal. Some will open reservations precious few times per year, but only accept them in Japanese over the phone, and they are often gone in minutes. Famously, there's a shop that opens reservations on New Year's Day each year, and sells out every seat within the first five minutes. Food writers are calling this phenomenon, and similar trends in other countries, a "reservation crisis," walling off the highest echelons of food for the most well-connected guests.

This is all to say that you might have a list of sushi-yas ten or twenty names deep and should certainly do your damndest to get in to one, but you should definitely not hold on to the expectation that you'll be able to land a seat unless you know a regular. But that's okay, because:

(b): You don't need to eat at Jiro, Saito, Amamoto, or Sugita to have a sushi experience that will blow your mind. The sushi scene is so deep in Japan that these much-talked-about haunts are very much not the only world-class shops in town. There are hundreds of shops serving better sushi than you've ever imagined.

If you're staying at the a nicer hotel, the concierge is your best friend––when my concierge she was unsurprisingly unable to secure a lunch reservation for me at any of the top ten on my list, she recommended up-and-comer Kizaki, who she said has one of the best sushi lunches among high-end sushi-yas with fantastic ingredients and sourcing for their neta, and they happened to have a seat for one at lunch on the appointed day. And the experience was wonderful––better than Arai, in fact!

Kizaki wowed with the inclusion of aka uni, a very rare species of urchin that is only in season three weeks out of the year!

Other places to check include Tabelog, which is more reliable than Google Maps in Japan for restaurant ratings, with locals or the staff of other restaurants at which you'll be dining, or with local bloggers. You never know what gems you might uncover.

(c): Consider "second counters" or more casual outposts of the most sought-after sushi-yas. With just days before our first meal in Tokyo, we got a notification that there were seats at one of the most sought-after counters in Japan––Sushi Arai. But there was one catch.

Widely regarded as one of the finest sushi-yas in Japanese capital, Arai is about as impossible to get into as a top secret military facility. As mentioned above, this is true of most of the most revered sushi shops in Tokyo. In response, many restaurants in the highest echelons of sushi have opened "second" counters, helmed by an English-speaking sous chef and often catering to foreigners. We were not offered seats in front of Arai himself, but instead at the second counter.

It's difficult to tell if these counters offer an inferior experience relative to their more inaccessible primary counters in front of the itamae, or sushi master, often with less premium cuts and shorter menus for similar prices. However, I can say with confidence that Arai, widely known for having some of the best bluefin tuna in the world sourced from one of the most prized brokers, certainly didn't disappoint us with the quality of the neta, even with a counter full of seven Americans! It was easily the best bluefin I've had, and it's not even close.

Otoro at Arai––the best bluefin piece I've ever had.

If a second counter isn't available (and trust me, it's still hard to get spots at most of them), many sushi-yas have opened casual outposts, often with eye-popping lines and standing counters only, that offer the same neta served at the main shop but at a fraction of the price––these experiences are called tachigui, or "standing sushi." Sushi Akira, one of the best in Tokyo, has a particularly famous casual branch in Shimbashi. It's a great way to experience the finest seafood without breaking your back for a reservation or emptying your wallet.

Heaps of Hokkaido uni at Kiku in Otaru!

And moreover, sometimes you can just walk in to a more casual sushi shop and have a wildly successful meal. In Otaru, I hit up a spot right on the main tourist drag, Kiku, while mama and sister shopped, and got a crack at each of Hokkaido's magnificent seafood specialties, all for an absurdly low price with spectacular quality. And I even found a street-side stand resembling a snow cone booth peddling nigiri of seared Hokkaido beef! Insane.

Even the street-side nigiri is magical in Japan

(d): Be careful about concierge services. Many online concierge services, like TableAll or JPNEasy, offer reservation conduits for revered sushi-yas, and sometimes they can be very useful! Our reservation at Arai was facilitated with outstanding efficiency by TableAll, and we probably would have been shit-outta-luck otherwise. However, keep in mind these platforms often charge $50 or more per person in addition to the cost of the meal to make the connection for you. Whenever possible, make a reservation through your hotel concierge or services used by many restaurants for online reservations, like Omakase. And if you are lucky enough to speak Japanese, just give the shop a ring!

Well, Maestro fans, I hope you learned something, and should your travels grant you access to the Japanese sushi scene, you enter armed with some clues for the clueless. Go forth and eat, and keep an eye out for more clues for the clueless in future posts. Perhaps I'll write next about all your pressing questions about wine.

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