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Sushi Revolution in Japan

Sunday, September 19, 2004 Posted: 12:41 AM JST [PHOTOS]

Photos of Japan by Kjeld DuitsTo people outside Japan sushi symbolizes Japanese cuisine. The delicate displays of slices of raw fish draped over small balls of vinegary rice represent Japanese simplicity and understated elegance. But until recently most Japanese ate sushi just two to three times a year. Sushi was considered a luxury food. That is suddenly changing. These days the average is once a month, and increasing. Japanese sushi restaurants are undergoing a historical revolution. A revolution that is itching to go international.

For more than a century, little changed in the traditional world of Japanese sushi restaurants. Counter-style restaurants were small, expensive, and ruled by proud sushi chefs who made sushi the way they had learnt from their elders. There was little innovation, and almost no straying from the traditional path.

While technology and chain restaurants changed the restaurant business all over the world, stubborn sushi chefs continued to resist change. They stuck to small shops where one sushi chef would service not more than five customers at a time. Restaurants were small and run by people who had no inclination to start up large chains. Small individual shops that could not centralize their purchasing and therefore bargain for better prices made sushi an expensive treat. Sushi became food for older businessmen, or for special occasions. By the eighties most young people had stopped going to sushi shops altogether. Mom and pop sushi shops were failing everywhere.

Suddenly this has changed. Sushi has replaced hamburgers and spaghetti as Japan�s number one favorite food. People are visiting sushi restaurants in droves. Some of them almost daily. Often with the whole family or their date. Sushi is hot.

The revolution is two-pronged. There are the fashionable club-like restaurants with classy interiors that attract young people in their twenties and thirties. Then there are the brightly lit restaurants that cater to families with kids. Both have one thing in common, they heavily depend on the latest technology and tend to open chains of restaurants all over Japan.

One chain that is going the fashionable route is Chanto Co., which has started opening sushi restaurants under the name �dai sushi�, a play on �dai suki�, which means �I like it a lot�. Step into a dai suki restaurant and the last thing you expect is raw fish. The interior is stylishly European, and the menu full of items you will never find in a traditional sushi restaurant. How about foie gras or okra on vinegary rice? �We try to create sushi as we think foreigners may come up with,� explains manager Yuichi Goto (1972). In other words, a Japanese view of the foreign view of Japan. To this end dai sushi even serves champagne, Perier, Coca Cola and cocktails with its sushi. Unthinkable at traditional sushi restaurants.

�We want our restaurants to look like a fashionable French bar,� says Goto. �Eating out has never been seen as fashionable or status in Japan. People in Europe dress up for eating out. Japanese don�t. We want to change that.� The status must come from dai sushi�s interior, not the prices. An average meal at dai sushi costs half as much as one at a traditional sushi shop. �Instead of raw fish, we use lots of vegetables, that is much cheaper.� Technology also helps. Sushi is made by robots and a conveyor belt takes the sushi to the customers.

A company that is staking its future on technology and low prices is Kura Sushi. Kura Sushi is based in Osaka, a city 600 kilometers west of Tokyo famous for innovations in business.

At Kura Sushi�s brightly lit restaurants all dishes of sushi carry the same incredibly low price of JYE 100 (US$0.70). In expensive Japan not even a can of juice can be bought for that. Most ingredients are prepared at a centrally located factory. Sushi rice is made by robots at each store. Customers place their orders by touching digital fish on computer screens. Not much later a conveyor belt brings them their order. Just in case someone forgets to pick it off the belt, a code on each dish makes that no dish stays on the belt for longer than 55 minutes. A computerized system automatically removes dishes that have gone beyond that time span. Each and every dish is therefore always fresh and safe. This use of technology and the economics of scale allow the restaurant to offer a menu that carries three times as many entries as the average restaurant. Customers with kids love it and fill up Kura Sushi�s restaurants even on weekdays.

The company has set its goals high. It is energetically opening sushi restaurants all over Japan, and hopes to enter the American market within two years. Europe is next. Says spokeswoman Mitsuko Mori (1955): �Within 5 years we want to be the world leader in sushi. After that we want to overtake McDonald�s.�

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1 comments so far post your own

1 | At 07:05pm on Oct 02 2004, Naylor wrote:
With referance to this article, I personally feel that the oldern concept of Sushi bars should remain.Sushi is a crusine that's very significant to the Japanese culture, even so is the concept of the Sushi bar.Every tourist who visits Japan would want to feel and have a piece of Japan to remember.
With referance to the article, Sushi bars have been popping up globally and its only a matter of time when it reaches the european countries. So, why do people want to travel so far when they can experience it at home?
What tourist wants are ethic food and cultural stuff but not high tech stuff whenever they vist a country.
Will sushi produced by a machine taste better than sushi Hand-made by a Sushi chef? Ask the any culinery expert this and they'll give you one definate answer,NO.
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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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