Thursday, 1 December 2011

Favourite Restaurants #4: Kaiten Sushi, Shinbashi, Japan

When I first started travelling to Japan, I would generally stay at the Shiba Park Hotel. My business there was at the Japanese national standards body, whose offices were just across the street from the Tokyo Tower and a short and pleasant walk through the Shiba Park itself from the hotel.

In the evening a longer walk - fifteen minutes or so, one subway stop - led to the Shinbashi area. This is a maze of tiny side streets, packed with minuscule restaurants that fill with salarymen (the Japanese word for middle-class office workers) at lunchtime. After work they're back, for a beer or two with their colleagues, and a plate of noodles or sushi before setting out on their long commute to the distant suburbs. It was in one of these, many years ago, that a friend who was learning Japanese managed to order a plate of chicken sashimi (yes, just raw chicken) with a bowl of what tasted like rotten strawberry jam.

Close to the main square at Shinbashi Station, the one with the steam locomotive in it, is a kaiten sushi restaurant. Kaiten - written 回転 in Japanese - just means "turning round". You've probably been to one - instead of ordering from a waiter, you have a conveyor belt in front of you covered in little dishes of sushi. You take whatever you want, and at the end they figure out your bill by counting the plates. This system depends absolutely on having a very high turnover. It takes only a short while, maybe 15 minutes, for the fish to start to dry out and look distinctly unappetising. Kaiten sushi tends to be a lunchtime thing, when there are big crowds in a short time.

An additional benefit of course is that you don't need to be able to speak the language. Assuming you can recognise the things you like - or don't mind taking a risk - you just pick things out as they pass.

A further sophistication of the same idea is to replace the conveyor belt by a canal with little boats carrying the plates of sushi. This was an American invention - Isobune Sushi in San Francisco's Japantown claims to have invented it, though for all I know so does every other boat sushi restaurant in the country. To my great frustration, I have never been able to work out what makes the boats move round the canal.

But back to Shinbashi. We first went to the Kaiten sushi on our first trip together to Japan (though we'd both travelled to Japan before). It's a very unassuming place, full of salarymen during the week and shoppers at the weekend. It's important to go when it's busiest, before about 1.30 - as I explained before. Sometimes that means a bit of a wait, then you squeeze onto two tiny stools (if there are two of you of course - though it's very common for people to eat there on their own), squashed between the other diners. Service is minimal, though courteous and attentive anyway since this is Japan. Every three places or so there's a hot water tap, a pile of cups and a box of teabags (o-cha - green tea - of course), along with a chopstick dispenser, napkins, soy sauce and pickled ginger. You just take what you need and wait for your favourite sushi to roll by. If you want beer or sake, you have to order that.

In the middle of the island, three or four sushi chefs toil continuously, replenishing the dishes. If you watch them carefully you can see what they are making, usually in batches of half a dozen or so dishes, and if it's something you're waiting for, you can prepare to grab it quick. The normal protocol is just to take things from the belt, but if you want something that isn't there or is a bit special, you can ask one of the chefs and they'll make it for you.

When you've had enough, you just stand up and walk to the door. The cashier shouts to the other staff, who counts your dishes and shouts back the price, you pay - usually in cash - and that's it. There's nor formality to it and of course, in Japan, no tipping.

For some reason we really took to this place. Every time we go to Japan we manage to squeeze in a visit. It hasn't changed in the 20+ years we've been going there, although I guess the staff must have moved on. Each time we dread that it will have closed - so many of our favourite spots in Tokyo have closed and been replaced by office buildings, like the "Rubbery Pancakes" breakfast spot next to the Shiba Park. But, so far, it has still been there every time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you have the address of this kaiten sushi place? I'm staying in Shimbashi and would like to try it. Thanks!