Whenever I tell people that I studied abroad in Tokyo, often the first thing they ask me is whether I ate sushi everyday. But when people in America think of sushi, they often think of this….
…or designer, gourmet rolls, smothered in spicy mayo, tempura crumbs, and soy sauce. These are what we call maki, or sushi rolls. While Japan does serve these, they are often extremely simple, with only one or two ingredients and without all the fancy sauces that Americans love.
Instead, most sushi in Japan is the traditional nigiri (a piece of fish over rice) or plain sashimi (just the fish). While this seems boring compared to American standards, sushi making is definitely an art. Just watch the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and you’ll have a little insight into just how much time and effort chefs put into creating the perfect piece of sushi.
Sushi was always available in my local supermarket (which I can tell you was still 10x better than the sushi restaurants back home), and I passed a sushi-ya (sushi shop) every day on my commute back home. Although I never visited one of the more fancy sushi restaurants- where a dozen pieces of sushi can cost well over $350- I always had plenty of options.
However, my favorite place to eat sushi was always at kaiten sushi restaurants- more commonly known as conveyor belt sushi. Here, customers sit in booths with a conveyor belt rotating pass their tables, carrying small plates of nigiri and other goodies.
At a kaiten sushi restaurant, you can expect to see a wide variety of basic nigiri, as well as a few westernized sushi rolls.
The plates travel covered by little plastic hoods, which also tell you what type of sushi is inside. When you want a plate, you simply pop the lid off and take the plate off the conveyor belt.
Each table is equipped with a menu touch screen. If you want a specific type of sushi, or something else from the menu, simply select what you want and order it. Your dish will arrive on a red plate, which lets others know it belongs to someone, and the menu screen will light up once it approaches.
You can even order things like noodles, chicken nuggets, french fries, and dessert! The chocolate cake was definitely our favorite.
The table also has soy sauce, wasabi, and matcha (powdered green tea) for the guests to enjoy. Here, everyone spoons a bit of tea into their cups and adds hot water from a spigot. It goes great with all the sushi!
At the end of the meal, everyone stacks their plates and the waitress counts how many there are. At some sushi restaurants, each plate is a different color and a different price. At my favorite kaiten restaurant, each plate cost 125¥, or about $1.20 when I was there. Surprisingly, the most I ever spent was around $12! Not bad for ten plates, huh?
Although each kaiten sushi restaurant is different, my favorite had a small computer game guests could play at the end. Near the conveyor belt, there was a small slot that the guests could put their plates down to help clear the table. With every 5 plates that went through, the menu touch screen played a lottery game. This was a great way to see how many plates you actually ate, and even win small prizes! I won a cell phone charm, while my friends won little play pieces of sushi.
Conveyor belt sushi restaurants are gaining popularity in the US, particularly in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other major cities. I’ve heard that there’s one in Boston now, but I haven’t had a chance to check it out yet.
What do you think? Would you ever try kaiten sushi? Let me know in the comments below!