As a native New Yorker, I thought I knew all about sushi. After all, I had enjoyed California rolls and Dragon rolls in a number of restaurants throughout NYC. But the thing is, if you go to a proper sushi restaurant in Japan and try to order a Dragon roll, they really won’t know what you’re talking about. So in case you live in Japan or are planning to visit after Covid-19 finished its rampage, I thought I would share what I have learned over the years.
Types of Sushi Restaurants in Japan
I think there is an image of sushi costing big bucks in Japan (and it certainly can) but you can really get sushi at your preferred budget whether you are in Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, or rural Japan.
The Cheapest Sushi
That would likely be at a kaiten-zushi, also known as conveyer belt sushi. These places are worth going to just for the novelty of watching your food zoom around you, but they are also budget, time, and traveler friendly due to the fact that most of them will have an electronic menu with more than one language option. So in this case, you don’t even need Japanese! When I first moved to Japan these are the kinds of restaurants I frequented in order to avoid awkward miscommunications.
You can order from the tablet or just grab dishes as they zoom past. It’s a good chance to familiarize yourself with the different kinds of fish that are popular in Japan and what they look like. A lot of places also have a tap at the table along with a dish with some powder inside. That’s for tea! You can add some powder to your cup and drink as much as you like. The bill will be calculated by counting your plates. They all have different colors which indicate their prices. Usually the range is between 100-500 yen.
Some of the big name chain restaurants for Kaiten-Zushi are: Sushiro, Hamazushi, and Kurazushi.
Mid-Range Sushi Restaurants
These are respectable restaurants with great cuts of fish and respectable sushi chefs. They offer a la carte ordering or an Omakase set, which means its chefs choice. As a traveler with limited use of Japanese I think these are often the best option. You will try things that you may not have chosen for yourself and you don’t have to keep breaking out the dictionary to figure out what you’re ordering. Sushi Zanmai is likely Tokyo’s best known sushi chain at this level.
As not all restaurants will have English menus and staff who speak Japanese, let’s break for a small Japanese lesson.
nigiri-sushi – this is sushi as most people know it. A piece of fish layered over rice.
sashimi – I’m sure you know this one! This is raw fish served without rice.
shoyu – The Japanese word for soy sauce, used as a dipping sauce for sushi and sashimi.
wasabi– you can order sushi with our without. If you don’t like wasabi you can say wasabi nuki. It’s generally not considered good manners to melt wasabi into your soy sauce (my Japanese husband happily does this at home) because in a restaurant it can be considered an insult to the chef.
maguro – tuna! You’ll notice a few varieties depending on the type of cut you want to order, same as meat. Akami will have a deep red color and is considered “standard” so unless otherwise specified this is probably what you will get when ordering maguro. Chutoro is medium fatty tuna and Otoro is the fattiest and most expensive cut of fish. I recommend trying all types. I actually find otoro to be too rich and enjoy chutoro.
salmon – is salmon, so that’s easy! Make sure to pronounce the l if you’re ordering.
ebi – shrimp
ika – squid
tako – octopus
kani – crab
buri – yellowtail
anago/ unagi – ocean eel / freshwater eel – these are usually boiled or grilled, served with salt or a special sauce – depending on the restaurant.
onegaishimasu – always remember to say please!
If your wallet can handle it I recommend splurging at least once. Most of the legendary places are only Omakase – this is because the chef will choose the menu based on the mornings fish market, as these places only procure the most high end delicacies. As for cost, depending on the place it will start at around 10,000 JPY but places that are truly famous such as Jiro Sushi – well…that will be closer to 30,000 JPY. Once you have eaten at one of these restaurants you can consider yourself a sushi connoisseur. Texture, taste, rice, and balance – these are the important things to consider when partaking.
Don’t be afraid to eat sushi with your hands
Finally, a contested topic…can you eat sushi with your hands? Obviously this depends on personal preference but it is completely culturally acceptable to do so. It is a bit tricky to grab sushi with chopsticks and then turn it so only the fish touches the soy sauce..and then still makes it to your mouth without falling apart. So, go ahead and use your hands!
When in doubt..write it out!
There are huge pronunciation differences between English (and other languages I’m sure) and Japanese. If you’re having trouble communicating it’s best to just put it on paper, don’t get frustrated. Japanese people are really friendly so I’m sure they will do their best to understand you.
I hope this short guide helped you to achieve your sushi dreams!