Reinventing Sushi: From Tsukiji to Art

Burnout is a very real and sometimes inevitable consequence of long-term travel. My Fieldmarshal personality coupled with my job as a travel writer means I’m usually blitzing from one sight to the next, ticking off places on my list of must-sees with military precision.

To restore the joy that should come with traveling, I’ve decided to change things up. For shorter trips, I’ve tried adding a “theme” element – choosing places to visit, sleep or eat, based on a specific concept. Not only has it made my planning more interesting and challenging, it’s also served to narrow my options down to a manageable level.

On a recent trip through Tokyo, I decided to make “Old versus New” my theme, taking inspiration from a Confucian proverb: On-ko-chi-shin, meaning “ask old things” (on-ko, 温故 ) to “know new things” (chi-shin, 知新) — taking lessons from the past and learning from the wisdom of the ancients in order to forge new paths.

I thought the Land of the Rising Sun would be perfect for “Old versus New”, with its equal parts of wacky trends set against its traditionally conservative nature. From the Harajuku girls to the hadoken knockout photos to bagel heads, everyone seems to be looking for the next new thing, perhaps as a way of resisting the Japanese obsession with perfectionism and conformity.

Food lover that I am, I naturally chose sushi as the starting point of my quest to discover what’s been reinvented by the Japanese, an edible expression of on-ko-chi-shin.

Tokyo - Sushi - James Pham-1

Since sushi is only as good as the fish it uses, I wanted my journey to begin at the famed Tsukiji Market, world-renowned for its tuna auctions and massive variety of the freshest seafood. With over 1,700 stalls spread over 23,836 square meters, selling more than 500 varieties of fish, it’s the largest wholesale seafood market in the world.

For an insider’s perspective, I tapped Reiko Yoshikawa, a professional cooking instructor and caterer. I had first read about Reiko in a CNN article years before and knew that the next time I was back in Tsukiji, I wanted her to guide me through the gigantic market. Since its construction after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the market sees upwards of 50,000 workers and visitors daily looking for the freshest ingredients.

“Unlike Western food laden with sauces we want to taste every single ingredient,” said Reiko. “The Japanese say it’s ideal to have thirty ingredients per day for a balanced meal, small portions which showcase the ingredients. That’s why the Japanese take pride in the freshness and care provided to our food.”

We navigate through aisles of seafood, the flesh of the fish so fresh that it oozes a luscious red. Other creatures are still alive and swimming. Seafood from all over the world comes through this sprawling market, its stamp so desired that North American fishermen are known to overnight their tuna to the market to be auctioned back to restaurants in the West.

Tsukiji - Seafood - James Pham

As we walk through, we’re alert to dodge the electric carts that navigate the tight walkways, making even tighter turns, a reminder that Tsukiji is very much a working market, where tourists are more tolerated than encouraged.

Tsukiji - Carts - James Pham

I find out that Reiko is researching a book on the stories behind the market and its vendors and am eager to put her knowledge to the test by telling her about my “Old versus New” theme. She’s game. We stop and talk to a jovial woman who chatters away as her fingers deftly manipulate an abacus to tally up purchases. In another stall, Reiko points out a traditional woven basket strung from the ceiling that has yet to be replaced by a cash register.

Tsukiji - Abacus - James Pham We then head out to the jogai shijo or outer market. There, we meet Hirano, a fourth generation sword maker whose tiny shop carries a staggering 1,700 kinds of knives, mainly for high-end industrial use. Reiko tells him I’m interested in the old and he motions us up a windy staircase to show off some of his family’s century-old knives, some of which have been used and sharpened so much that they’re barely more than a misshapen sliver of metal. We stop by and chat to a septuagenarian noodle maker who uses an ancient contraption to handmake noodles daily.

Tsukiji Market by James Pham-16

Then we head back into the market to see an auction, but not the popular early-morning tuna one. We take a detour to a part of Tsukiji I’ve never been in. The market is huge and despite its reputation, it isn’t just about seafood. We meet up with  Minoru Sakuma, the so-called Melon King, and he leads us to the morning’s melon auction, one of many auctions throughout the day in the recesses of the cavernous market. Minoru carefully inspects the melons on offer, checking the size, color and the evenness of the webbing on the melon’s rind. The surprisingly quiet auction begins in a flurry of wild gesticulating followed by a few silent nods. The fifty-dollar melons will fetch many times that when they eventually make their way to the kitchens of high-end restaurants or to be given as gifts.

Tsukiji - Noodles - James Pham Technology has come to 80-year-old Tsukiji, bringing with it sanitation and efficiency. Despite 2,000 tons of seafood changing hands daily, the market barely smells fishy, thanks to roving sanitation inspectors using the latest in laser thermometers. A plant right on the grounds of the market is well-positioned to handle the mountains of Styrofoam containers used for both live and flash frozen fish, grinding them up and melting them into industrial-sized cakes of resin for export.

However, embracing the new may actually mean the end of the market as we know it. There are plans to move Tsukiji to larger, more modern facilities, freeing up the prime real estate it currently occupies ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“About one-third of the vendors have decided to move, but the rest are opposed as it will cost them lots of money which most can not afford,” says Reiko. “Most workers here are older and are used to the old style of business which on the surface, may look like an inefficient manual style but it actually isn’t. The government is trying to make ‘good use’ of the land by building malls and office complexes. Their thinking is: New is good. But I think it would be unfortunate to knock down the locality and the history of Tsukiji.”

Try: If you get up early enough for the tuna auctions (with recommendations to start lining up at 4am to snatch one of only 120 spots for the day) and find yourself in need of breakfast afterwards, get in line again at one of the many sushi restaurants right at the market’s edge. Expect tight counter-style seating. We bought fresh mussels from the market to snack on while we waited. You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten raw mussels and fish at 7am.

Tsukiji - Sushi - James PhamAfter visiting Tsukiji, it was time to see the finished product.

If you believe the folk tales, sushi was “discovered” by an old woman who had the habit of hiding her pots of rice high up in an osprey’s nest far from thieving hands. Apparently, it was stashed so well that when she finally came back to retrieve it, she found that her rice had fermented and gotten mixed with tasty scraps of fish.

The less fun story says that sushi most likely originated as a way to preserve seafood. The fermenting rice produces an acid, that when mixed with salt, serves as a pickling agent. Fast forward a few centuries to the invention of rice vinegar which reduced the process of sushi-making from months to days, making it available to the Japanese masses and then the world.

Walking through busy Shibuya, I stopped by Genki Sushi for a quick lunch. Fresh, cheap and easy to order, the conveyor sushi restaurant uses touch screens (comes in English and a few other languages).

Walking Tour by James Pham-24

A few minutes later, your order comes whizzing out on one of two tracks, stopping right in front of you. The made-to-order sushi beats the regular conveyor belt sushi where food may sit out for a while.

Walking Tour by James Pham-25

But the delivery method isn’t the only way sushi has been updated. Enter kazari-maki, also called ‘fancy rolled sushi’ or ‘art sushi’.

Sushi Art by James Pham-2

For decades, basic art rolls have been made by home cooks depicting seasonal flowers and other patterns from nature. But the truly fanciful kind got its boost when sushi chef Ken Kawasumi (who literally wrote the book on sushi) started experimenting with new designs including animals, faces, corporate logos and even Obama sushi.

I headed over to the Tokyo Sushi Academy and talked to Sachiko Goto, vice president of the academy.

“You’ll probably never see these in a restaurant,” said Sachiko. “While a skillful sushi chef can make a regular roll in 2-3 minutes, one art roll can sometimes take 30 minutes and only yield 4 or 5 slices.”

While the academy also custom-makes art sushi (everything from sports team mascots to corporate logos), their main business is holding sushi courses.

I sat in on an intermediate art sushi class to see what all the fuss was about.

Today’s class included making a crab roll. Literally. Sushi in the picture of a crab. We started off uncovering the ingredients as the instructor walked the class through all the steps. In addition to an instruction booklet, a whiteboard in the back showed the steps from various angles.

Art Sushi - Crab 1 - James PhamGrooves and ridges were molded in the sushi rice before the students meticulously assembled the cucumber claws, egg body and tuber eyes, all upside down. Spacial Relations will forever be my Achilles’ Heel in any aptitude test, and this felt a little bit like reverse engineering, with a lot of time spent trying to envision the final product that you never really know how will turn out until you make the final cut.

Art Sushi - Crab 2 - James Pham

“Food is a great tool for international communication. Many people know American-style sushi, but when you cut into an art roll, it can communicate many things, even if you’re not good at speaking English,” remarked Sachiko.

Kazari-maki sushi is gaining in popularity partly because unlike baking, which requires a lot of specialized equipment, the only tool you really need is a sushi mat. The colors can be created naturally: seaweed powder, cod roe, salmon flakes, chopped pickles, scrambled eggs and sesame powder, or even Western-style ingredients can be used like ham and cheese.

Sushi Art by James Pham-33

Even men are getting in on the fun.

“While 80% of our students want to be sushi chefs or open up their own sushi restaurants, we’re seeing more and more husbands and retirees taking our classes. Men love fishing but their wives say, ‘Please don’t go fishing because I don’t want to clean the fish you catch.’ So they’re learning how to prepare sushi,” says Sachiko.

Sushi Art by James Pham-27

Since offering the art sushi classes, more than 700 members have joined the program despite the relatively high cost: USD 1,500 for the five-day program.

Class over, the students invited me to eat some of their creations which felt like a shame, seeing how much time and effort went into them. But who was I to refuse Japanese hospitality? After all, whether it’s served as art, on a conveyor belt or at the ungodly hour of 7am, one never says ‘no’ to sushi.

What do you think? Is sushi art here to stay? Or just another food fad?

For more ideas on themed vacations, check out my travel column for Oi Vietnam magazine by clicking on image below.

Themed Vacation Column






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6 thoughts on “Reinventing Sushi: From Tsukiji to Art

  1. Tony

    I can’t believe japan is so advance in terms of cuisines. While in America we are still still trying to imitate the traditional feel os sushi restaurants. They are already moving onto using technology in restaurants.


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