Kaiten Zushi

Kaiten Zuzhi.jpgThe best thing about Kaiten•Zushi was that I could pick up any sushi I wanted and as much as I wanted. It was not all you could eat, and the price was straightforward and affordable: ¥100 for the most plate of two-piece nigiri and ¥200 and ¥300 for the special items like Ikura and Uni and of course, Toro. Each plate was color coded and priced accordingly: Blue for ¥100, Green for ¥200 and Red for ¥300. I can go to a lot of Blues and not too much Red, may be one.

After sitting down at the counter seat, my mom took two teacups and poured some green tea out of hot water dispenser, located right in front of our seats. Everything was self-serve, and that was one of the reasons why the sushi was so affordable.

I immediately saw my favorite nigiri: Maguro. Maguro was quintessential sushi item. The flavor of tuna spreading through my mouth, mixing with the aroma of wasabi and soy sauce made me happy and glad that I had a headache because otherwise, I wouldn’t be here eating Maguro Nigiri for lunch. Maguro Nigiri was a blue plate, which meant it was ¥100 so I could eat a lot, so I grabbed two more plates, and finished right away, then a plate of cooked shrimp which was also on a blue plate. Then it was time for Ikura and Uni. Ikura was on a Green one and Uni was the most expensive: Red plate. Just about the only time I had Ikura before was on New Year’s Day in Osechi Ryori – a traditional Japanese New year’s Meal. I love the moment I put Ikura in my mouth and chew, as the rich oily flavor spread through my mouth. The second to the last piece for me was Toro, tuna belly on Red plate of course. It was Chu•Toro – medium fatty tuna. It was nice and sophisticated, not too fatty. I never had O•Toro until I grew up and I prefer Chu•Toro to O•Toro, as I find O•Toro to be too fatty and overwhelming in my mouth. I suppose it could be because I got used to eating Chu•Toro in my early stage of eating sushi.
The history of Kaiten•Zushi goes back to 1958, when an owner of a sushi stand came up with an idea, after seeing the conveyor belt at beer production factory. He opened the Kaiten•Zushi restaurant, “Genroku•Zushi” in Osaka, which later became two hundred plus franchise sushi chains in Japan. The usage of Sushi Conveyor belt was patented until 1978, and after the patent was expired, many companies including franchise opened their own Kaiten•Zushi restaurant, which spread all over the world. As of October 2016, there are over 2,000 Kaiten·Zushi restaurants in Japan.

My mother told me to stack up the finished plate in front of me so that we could see how much sushi we ate. I though I had ten to twelve, and I had no idea how many my mother had. Altogether, we had about twenty plates stacked up.

My mother called the waitress and asked for the bill. She quickly counted the number of plates stacked up and added them up. That was when I realized the stacking plates up not just for us to see, but also to make it easier and faster for the waitress to count the plates.

“¥2,200 please,” the waitress said.

My mom handed three ¥1,000 bills, and we left the restaurant after receiving the change. I felt being satisfied both from the food and experience, that, I could order and eat whatever I wanted. I felt like a grown up.

A couple of weeks later, we went back to the same hospital to hear the result of the test. It turned out that the reason for the big doughnut machine was to check my brain wave or brain itself to see if there was any damage to it. The doctor was talking to my mother saying something like they found irregular brain waves, but nothing significant. Either way, I cared less because none of it made sense to me. The only thing I was interested in was going to Genroku•Zushi again. I was hoping we were going there for lunch, but was unsure if my mom was thinking of going there. I was anxious to find out, so when my mother told me that we were going there again, I was thrilled.

The second time I was there, I knew what to do. Right after we sat down, I reached for the tall teacup and poured myself green tea. I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and took some gari, wasabi from the container and poured soy sauce on the plate. I was ready to pick up my plate of nigiri. Maguro, Shrimp, Ikura, Tai and many sushi were on the revolving conveyor belt, waiting for me to pick them up. Just about when I was ready to pick up my first plate of Maguro, I heard a male customer at the end of the table, saying something to the sushi chef inside of the sushi bar. After saying OK, the chef immediately took his knife, sliced a couple of thin pieces, formed nigiri, plated and handed to the male customer.

“Here you go. Mirugai,” the chef said handing the plate over the conveyer belt.

“Thanks a bunch!” the man said with a big smile on his face.

I saw him ate the two pieces of giant clam.  Then I realized that I could order whatever I wanted if I don’t see the item on the conveyor belt. I had no idea I could do that. I thought I could only pick up what’s on the conveyor belt. I asked my mother if I could order some nigiri.

“Sure, you can. You see the names of the nigiri on the wall? That’s the menu. You can order from them.”

I could order from the menu? That is the menu? On the wall, were a bunch of large wooden tags with the name of fish written on them. There were twenty or thirty of them all around the inside of the restaurant. I was thrilled, even though I never heard of most of the fish.

Even now in Japan, going to a sushi bar with a family of four was something only the wealthy could afford. There are many forms of affordable sushi restaurants as Kaiten•Zushi, take-out sushi chains, and delivery sushi restaurants, going to a traditional boutique, high-end sushi restaurant is a very special experience. For one, a traditional sushi restaurant has no menu, no price. It’s not like the sushi chef will tell you what to do or how to order, so the whole experience can be very intimidating unless you know what to do. This is why it’s always a good idea to go with someone who’s been to the particular sushi bar, if it’s your first time going there.

The reason for no price and no menu is because the price of fish and its availability fluctuate every day. To avoid the loss, sushi chefs adapted this system. The downside of this system was that some sushi chefs took advantage and charged a higher price to some novice sushi customers, especially when they were on a company expense, which was very popular during Japan’s bubble economy in the 80’s.

My father never took us to a high-end sushi bar – ever. When I told this to my American friends and people who took my sushi class, many of them seemed surprised and asked me why.

I think the reason was that my father grew up in a very poor family. After the Second World War, my father’s family struggled to service and the food was scarce. He told me that his family lived on eating so-called  “thin” porridge, which was mostly water and very little rice and some yam to thicken the dish. So to him, sitting at the sushi bar was too much of a luxury and not know the price scared him.

There was, however, an occasion we had sushi delivered to our home when we moved. It is customary in Japan to order a plate of nigiri sushi when there is something to celebrate at home and moving into a new home was definitely one of those occasions. Graduation and getting a new job are some of those sushi dining opportunities.

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