Japan’s insulated history has helped to create one of the world’s most intriguing food cultures. One would be hard-pressed to discover another place where the cultural ties to the food are so strong.
The culinary center of Japan is undoubtedly Tokyo, and the vestibule of Tokyo, if not its epicenter, is sushi. While there are numerous, often underappreciated, forms of Japanese cookery, it is the "ancient" tradition (sushi began in Japan in the 700s) of slamming super-fresh fish onto some delicious vinegar rice that has become synonymous with Japanese cuisine.
While fine sushi is available worldwide, the sheer number of elite fishmongers in Tokyo is something to behold. Eating at any one of these pristine sushi bars is a privilege; to find yourself seated at four of them inside a week is an epic honor. Unlike so many honors, this one isn’t really earned… it’s just bought. Be that as it may, worshiping in a "Temple of Sushi" is an experience that will make you feel special.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a top five list of the best sushi bars that excluded Sawada, Mizutani, and Kanesaka. Sukiyabashi Jiro and Sushi Saito would fill out my top five. I’ll pause while some of you protest the omission of one of the dozen or so other spots that could be included…
We had hoped to visit all of them; however, scheduling conflicts arose and adjustments had to be made. In lieu of the Honten mother ship, we substituted Sukiyabashi Jiro’s Roppongi outpost. Meanwhile, snagging a seat at these joints isn’t a picnic and we were left to do our best Louis Winthorpe III impression with Saito.
Each establishment offers a unique experience within the framework of a high-end sushi-ya (sushi restaurant). Weaving them into the tapestry of a single week offered a wonderful opportunity to compare and contrast. Ultimately, these itamaes all offer something deeply personal. Even when you find yourself amid a gregarious single-serving friend (aka another customer), there’s something incredibly intimate in a visit to one of these hidden away gems. Sushi at its best is a peaceful, highly introspective occurrence.
The comparative is taken to another level on account of the seasonality of food in Japan. In many countries, farm-to-table is a widespread trend du jour that seems to have rendered itself passé — everyone does it so it’s no longer a competitive advantage. In other, non-sushi culinary enclaves, chefs proudly announce that their morels come from local farm (fill in the blank), that their beef is of course grass-fed, and that their fiddleheads are organic. However, with sushi, there are no such monikers. Each piece arrives sans provenance and adorned with little more than the faintest slather of sauce. Perhaps that is a disservice to the many hands that had to work so diligently to get the fish onto the tsukedai in front of you (the raised platform of the sushi bar). But on the plus side, it further builds the intimacy of the experience. You must trust those that feed you and there’s often no better way than to simply surrender to the omakase.
Much about these experiences is part of a larger form. At the end of the meal, the customer is presented with the opportunity to accent the chef’s choice. While this might happen at many of the high-end establishments elsewhere in the world, and perhaps that offering might be somewhat unfettered, in these Tokyo sushi-yas, the offering is de rigueur. Aside from whatever you may choose, dessert at each is a one, two punch of anago (sea eel) and tomago (egg omelette). Perhaps the anago might be skipped on account of the season, but rest assured — you will get some egg in your mouth (if not on your face on account of the sheer exhilaration). Anago is worlds apart from unagi, the fresh-water eel popular at your grocer’s sushi bar. No matter who’s offering, if your audience is as intimate at one of these fine establishments, you will get a fluttery piece of fish, sometimes touched to rice, other times as barren as your bottom the day you were born. A touch sweet, more so than anything else you will have had, it’s still a distinctly fish-forward experience.
The tomago of the sushi world is closer to a quiche than anything Jacques Pépin might pan up. Some of them even bordered on pâté de fruit. If you saw the cult-adored Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you will see just how difficult this is process is. While you might have presumed our tomago experience at Jiro to be the coup de grâce, it was a touch overcooked.
While each of these sushi experiences is of the highest order, there are differences to be found within. It is in these nuances where the tiny distinctions amalgamate to from the whole. While it is the entire comparative that makes each more interesting, the individual establishments are meritorious on their own.
In a number of ways, Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi offers the least jolting of an environment relative to the Westernized sushi experience. The room is slightly larger and less cramped (relatively speaking) than many of the other sushi-ya and there is a bit more color in the various accoutrement. It is the only establishment in the group where the sushi bar itself is not wood. Meanwhile, Takashi-san, who is the younger of Jiro Ono’s two sons, may not be entirely comfortable with English, but his underling certainly was. Should you speak Japanese, Takashi-san will willingly engage you in conversation, particularly if the topic is sushi etiquette. The fish at Jiro has a noticeably familiar tonality and is certainly top-flight. The uni is spectacularly brilliant and the shari bathed in vinegar (which is a point of contention in sushi circles).
Whether you prefer this style or not might be the ultimate determination of your enjoyment. But beyond the vinegar levels employed, perhaps the most distinctive aspect to the Jiro experience was the cutting of the fish. Takashi-san’s hands move swiftly and with meticulous precision and what he produces is easily some of the most elongated pieces of nigiri, at times approaching an index finger’s length. Still, with no detail unturned, the platform for the fish gold is high enough up that getting underneath the nigiri is not a problem.
The experience at Sushi Kanesaka might be best defined by the surroundings. That’s not to say that the sushi itself is not exquisite. The quality is on par with the best bites offered by anyone in the court. While the rice is a bit more firm and the vinegar imparted upon it is akazu-based, a divergence from what’s to be found elsewhere, the quality of the fish combined with the balance of the composition creates a series of wonderful bites. It helps that Sanpei-san, the lead itamae, shares Shinji-san’s renowned affability and is amazingly adroit with a sashimi hocho.
Yet even more intriguing is the industry of it all. Shinji Kanesaka has had to build a system that can perform in his absence. The 14-seat restaurant is easily the most cramped of those visited. The sushi bar actually wraps a giant wood box, ensconced in the center as if to imply there’s some treasure hidden within its walls. That’s not far from the truth, as the kitchen is stashed there. As several servers slink through the narrow chasm, claustrophobia seems inevitable but is nowhere to be found. The mean level of English spoken at Kanesaka is higher than any of the other sushi-yas; although, fluent conversation is still a bit unrealistic. For those unfamiliar in the ways of the sushi-ya, this alone might give Kanesaka the most appeal.
If there’s a name on this list that brings with it awe, that name is Hachiro Mizutani. An elderly man, who once studied under Jiro Ono, Hachiro-san stands stoically inside his sparsely decorated place of employ. There’s a reason this man has amassed three Michelin stars and a 4.2 rating on the well-regarded Tabelog guide. Everything lends itself to a much more calming, almost tranquil, experience. In some ways, the naked tongue is not worthy of the lengths that Hachiro-san goes to. His rice is a mixture of grains and the vinegar is used much more sparingly than elsewhere. If forced to reduce his palace to a single word, precision it would be.
The meal is methodically paced, neither rushed nor stagnant. The nigiri and various other forms that hit the bar were defined by the fish. And yet there he stands, quietly going about his business. Hachiro-san is easily the most understated gentleman in the group. His understanding of English seems much better than his reluctance to speak it might suggest. Still, even the friendly exchanges with the locals seem restrained. You slip in and out having seen what greatness is yet not fully understanding what just happened.
Even still, there is another entirely different experience to be had. Sawada, on the surface, is the physical realization of the "stereotypical" idealized sushi-ya. It is tiny (six seats), it’s is incredibly quiet, and it is all about the technique. Koji-san himself is joined by his wife. That’s it. No waitstaff, no extra kitchen help, no understudy (though I’ve put in an application for that role). Koji-san speaks only some English, yet he is able to communicate enough so as to help you along your way.
His sushi destroys the notion that the cuisine is all about "freshness." One look at his custom refrigeration and curing box sitting wall-side will tell you that. It’s trend-setting before a trend exists; though several sushi-ya’s have provided Koji-san with the flattery of imitation. His nigiri may be raw, but it might also be torched or cured. Each piece arrives in front of you on the freshly sanded down bar. No plates, just edible art. If it's not already dressed for its date with inevitable destruction, Koji-san will point you to the salt, wasabi, and soy sauce that sit at attention. These are often used in solitude, and Koji-san instructs you on the appropriate time and place to use one or more of the additives (though never do you use all three). Customers unable to properly pay tribute in Koji-san’s native tongue will be hard-pressed to make it the entire meal without intruding on a seatmate’s prayer session. Someone has to be told.
Not a single one of these experiences can be properly encapsulated in just a few paragraphs. It seems almost a disservice. However, the greatness of these men exists beyond the details and nuances that make these meals so special. Fluff words that have been usurped by advertising agencies can be left for the artisanal cheese of Kraft. This is art, this is spirituality, and this is humility. If any one of these establishments ever gets stashes in your memory banks, you should rest assured that you’ve seen some of the best.