I know we have been completely MIA on posting while in Japan and we’re not even going to make any excuses as we’ve been having way too much fun… and by fun we mean we have been in a 20-day food coma. While we could write our own book the size of the Odyssey on our experiences of all of the superb Japanese food we had the pleasure of encountering, this post is solely dedicated to our favorite Japanese delicacy, sushi. So if you are uninterested in sushi or simply do not like sushi (…. how?!), then please skip this ode to this beautifully simple, but perfect dish.
Growing up in Hawaii in a fishing family, I (Marlie) was lucky enough to know great fish freshly caught from the warm Pacific Ocean from my hunnabudda days (super young for the non-Kanaks). My dad had spoiled my taste buds with fresh sashimi and sushi from an early start, where I knew that I was basically going to have to get a good-paying job to support my sushi addiction. Meeting Rid, who didn’t even really like fish that much, it was my sole mission to not only get him to eat fish but to learn to love raw fish so we could obviously go on sushi dates. Well ladies and gentlemen, it turns out if you give people good fish they tend to like it! Rid is now my first convert to the sushi lifestyle and has quickly become a raw fish snob… and I couldn’t be more proud (stay tuned on our soon to be released program, How to Convert a Loved One into Loving Sushi, coming out soon :P). Long story short, we both have had plenty of great sushi in Hawaii and San Diego and were wondering if Japan could live up to all the hype on the sushi front… I mean come on it’s not even cooked so how could it really get significantly better??
HOLY MOLY… MIND BLOWN! We thought we loved sushi before but it is now the third party in our relationship. I seriously don’t know how it can be so much better than any other sushi I have ever had but I will simple crack it up to being 1) the types of fish, 2) exceptional training on how to prepare sushi, and 3) they must put drugs in it as it really is so amazing. We quickly learned that each place has its own unofficial specialty where a specific type of nigiri just stands out way above the rest. Out of the ten places we ate sushi (so if you are good at math, that is right that we had sushi about every 2 days), here are some of the spots that stood just a few inches about the rest (in chronological order, not order of excellence):
1. Gansozushi 元祖寿司 秋葉原万世橋店 (http://www.gansozushi.com/) – Akihabara, Tokyo
After go-karting around Tokyo dressed as sushi (maguro and ebi to be exact – check out our pictures on the homepage or our instagram!), we really worked up an appetite for sushi as we hadn’t really had any sushi despite being in Japan for three days. Since the go-karting place was located in Akihabara, we happened to find a conveyor belt sushi spot within walking distance with a line out the door. All amazing things in Japan come with a line out the door, so don’t walk away if you see a long line but jump right in that queue and get ready for something delightful! As we were still pretty fresh in Japan, a conveyor belt sushi place was a nice introduction as we didn’t have to order anything specific with the sushi chef or waiter but rather could pick what we wanted as the chefs stacked the plates on the belt. For being a conveyor belt sushi, where the price was already cheap for high quality fish, the chefs were cutting the thickest, biggest pieces I have ever seen at this type of sushi restaurant.
The superstars of Gansozushi were the sake abura (fatty salmon belly), aji (Japanese Horse Mackerel) with cold ginger, toro (fatty tuna belly), and the toro gunkan maki. I think we had around 23 plates and two beers between us and it was only equivalent to $65 (also quick shoutout to no tipping in Japan!!!).
2. さつき鮨 – Matsumoto
Matsumoto is not one of the bigger cities you visit in Japan, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in immense charm and picturesque shop-lined streets that are traditional with a modern facelift. We really loved Matsumoto and packed all of the sights into one day so we could have a rest day in our hotel to recover after doing the Mt. Fuji hike. Luckily, our hotel (Tsuki no Shizuka) had two restaurants within walking distance, a ramen shop we had lunch at and a sushi shop we had dinner at. While the sushi restaurant looked more like a family home, which it was, the old married couple who served us sushi while they watched the local baseball game knew that looks can be deceiving. The old man used his google translator to help us order to sushi and sashimi combo platter, such cool technology, and came back about 15 minutes later with an assortment of sushi and sashimi. At first glance, it looked like a good looking dinner to only end up being surprising fresh with exquisite flavors – maybe because we didn’t have high hopes for the place or just because with age comes wisdom and an expert hand.
The superstars of this platter had to be the chutoro, hotate (scallop), ikura (salmon roe), and surprisingly the maguro negimaki. Also, the sashimi was excellent, which was the cherry on top of the bomb sushi.
3. Harukoma honten – Tenjinbashi, Kita Ward, Osaka
I found out about this little locals sushi bar in a food blog on the off-chance, but I am so happy that I did as it was one of the best sushi experiences we had while in Japan as we were nestled in tightly with the regulars at the sushi bar with front row viewing of all the action. The menu here was all in Japanese but included pictures with numbers so you could order using the number of the nigiri you wanted plus how many plates you wanted. We went for three medium sized orders, mostly cause there was hardly any room on the sushi bar, and because it seems like most locals only order a few pieces at a time. The sushi here was unreal, the atmosphere felt upbeat and action packed as you relaxed into the euphoria of great sushi, and the sushi chefs were shocked that two whities could really knock back a lot of sushi and actually knew the Japanese names!
The superstars of Harukuma hoten were the maguro (bluefin tuna), otoro, and the unagi (eel). The real superstar though was the old Japanese man sitting next to us who killed two large Asahi beers and two carafes of sake while eating a fraction of the sushi we did (not all pictured here)… all at noon on a Wednesday LOL.
4. Ichiba Sushi Gyotatsu – Nagahama, Fukuoka
Our last sushi meal was at a sushi restaurant located in the Nagahama Fish Martket building, where the sushi chefs make made-to order nigiri at lunchtime but have a conveyor belt system at dinnertime. This restaurant was the most difficult to order in as you had to write the name of the nigiri you wanted in Japanese and on two different colored pads of paper depending on what you wanted – not sure what the difference is for even now but thankfully our waitress wrote what we wanted for us. It was hugely helpful to know the Japanese names for all of the types of sushi we wanted and I would highly suggest that you learn at least your favorites so you can order what you want in any setting. The speed of the sushi chefs were impressive with us receiving our food within minutes, even with just being freshly cut. Similar to the conveyor belt, they count your plates at the end but with a super cool plate scanner that also doubles as the ordering handheld computer.
The superstars at this place were the aji, maguro, ikura, and the chutoro. Kind of a random restaurant far away from the center of Fukuoka but definitely worth the walk.
All in all, from conveyor belt sushi to high-end, made to order nigiri to pre-made sushi platters at local markets, the sushi literally knocked us off our foodie asses and made us salivate for more. The only thing that wasn’t quite up to par with the rest was the hamachi (yellowtail) as it was often pretty hard/crunchy with a more subtle flavor than its stateside counterpart – maybe this is how the Japanese prefer that fish though?
The glory of sushi in Japan is that each place really delivers high notes on varying nigiri and that you have to nitpick the smallest degrees of difference to determine which were stellar versus magnificent. Until our next time eating sushi in Japan, these three weeks of sushi heaven will live in our dreams. So there you have it, sushi is Japan’s crack!