Sushi Royalty: Eating at Japan’s Best Sushi Spots

Eating at Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi, Kanesaka, Mizutani, and Sawada and living to tell the story

Our contributor takes the sushi tour of a lifetime.

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.

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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.