A childhood in which fish were close at hand, naturally leading to the path of sushi
You were born in Kuroiso City, Tochigi Prefecture, what kind of child were you?
I was just a normal naughty little boy who liked playing in the rivers and mountains. I liked cars, so when I was a child my dream was to become a race car driver. I liked moving my hands, so I was good in arts and crafts class. My father was a fish dealer, but after he retired he taught calligraphy, and my mother painted Japanese paintings from when I was a child. I was raised in an environment in which this kind of traditional Japanese beauty was close at hand.
The family business was fish dealing, so I grew up touching fish while helping out my family. I was even doing things like grilling several hundred fish for a wedding.
I was prompted to become a sushi chef when I was 18, just graduated from high-school, and I was thinking about whether or not I should go to university. My brother, who was two years older than me, was doing an apprenticeship to become a chef at a restaurant called “Sushi-ko” in Ginza, and he introduced me.
When you say “Sushi-ko,” you mean the famous old restaurant that was established in 1885, right? How was the apprenticeship?
It was that era, so you began by doing cleaning, then cutting vegetables and doing the purchasing. After four or five years, you started making sushi.
Making sushi was different, but since I was used to handling fish, I didn’t find the job that difficult. It was good that I was able to learn detailed work that I had never done before, different from fish dealing.
Also, I was the same age as Mamoru Sugiyama, the current fourth generation owner. It was a great experience to be allowed to act as an advisor for Mamoru when he graduated university and entered “Sushi-ko.”
What I leant the most at “Sushi-ko” was “refinement.” There’s certainly the fact that it was Ginza, but even in Ginza there are various different ways of doing things depending on the restaurant.
The third generation master who taught me was a really sharp and stylish person. His way of speaking was that of a person born and raised in old Tokyo, really decisive. That way of living comes out in the sushi. His sushi wasn’t overly ornate. It was clear-cut. I aspired to that way of life and that refined humanity. He was the person who influenced me the most.
Speaking personally, I think of sushi as being the most refined of foods. It is the sharp style of a person born and raised in old Tokyo, transformed into a food. It is fresh fish and flavored rice, the action of making and then immediately eating. It is taste itself.
I think that this might be the reason for the world sushi boom. This is something I learned from the third generation master, but I have always wanted to become an artisan with that kind of sharp style.
The turning point arrived during his time in Los Angeles
What is it that made you want to work overseas?
In 1979, I quit Sushi-ko after working there for eight years, and then I went to Los Angeles on vacation. Among the customers who used to go to “Sushi-ko” at that time, there was a guy who had an office in Los Angeles, and he said to me, “in Los Angeles, you can play a round of golf for cheap.” So I played golf every day for half a year.
I had acted as an advisor for Mamoru, the fourth generation owner, and the third generation owner was grateful to me and gave me a lot of severance pay, so I had enough money to live and enjoy myself for the time being. One day, there was an occasion when an acquaintance of mine took me to a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, and I was honestly quite surprised that sushi was that popular in Los Angeles. That person suggested that I open up a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, so I decided to try it.
I took out some loans to supplement my own money, and in 1980, I opened a restaurant called “Sabaya.” We took the Chinese character from a fish I like, the “Saba,” or mackerel.
What was sushi like in California at that time?
At that time, the main current was Japanese orthodox style sushi, with the toppings just a little bit different. There was the California Roll, but at that time, variation rolls like the Spicy Tuna Mayo had not been made yet.
In my restaurant, we made not only orthodox style sushi but also the popular California Roll. At that time, there were ways to transport fish from Japan, but it was very expensive so nobody was buying.
“Sabaya” was a restaurant for the masses, where one person could eat for 40 or 50 dollars, so naturally we couldn’t afford to do that. Even the same fish can have a different taste compared to Japan, so I remember coming up with ideas, like, for example, broiling the fish if the fishy smell was a little bit too strong.
Paving the way with outstanding power of action: “If there are no fish from Japan, you should buy them yourself.”
The year that changed was 1984.
I sold “Sabaya” and, as the same kind of owner-chef, I opened a new restaurant under the name of “Sushi-ko,” called “Ginza Sushi-ko,” in downtown Los Angeles.
This was a high-end restaurant where just sushi for one person would cost 250 dollars, so I wanted to be able to use fish from Japan. I approached a local fish dealer downtown about trying to get fish from Japan.
However, the words I got in response were: “Even if we get fish from Japan, nobody will buy them because they’ll be expensive.” Even then I didn’t give up. I made the order, telling them to get the fish because I would buy everything they brought in.
In this way, I was able to serve in my restaurant the fish from Japan that I really wanted. This immediately became popular by word of mouth, and other sushi restaurants starting using fish from Japan as well. At the beginning, my restaurant was buying fish once per week, but on the way we increased to twice per week.
At the time, my customers were almost all Japanese people. It was the beginning of the era of the economic bubble, so my restaurant was always packed. There were lots of people coming to Los Angeles to invest in real estate, so even if I purchased a lot of fish from Japan, we’d quickly use it all up.
We got whitefish, shrimp, and shellfish that lived even in Los Angeles, but, after all, the taste was different from the ones from Japan. I felt that for things like fresh eel, squid, and shrimp, the Japanese products were just necessary.
Two or three years after opening, I started to buy the fish from Japan myself.
At that time in Los Angeles, Northwest Airlines had a direct flight from Osaka, so at the start, I would go on the weekend myself to personally buy the fish. I flew to Osaka by plane on Saturday, went to the central market in Osaka, bought the fish myself, and brought them back by hand-carry.
Each time it was seven or eight boxes of checked baggage. After repeating this for a while, even the wholesalers, who were saying that they wouldn’t ship overseas, gradually started to trust me.
But when you actually send the fish, it becomes necessary to follow the procedures for things like clearing customs. So I spoke to a transportation company and asked them to prepare the documents, and I introduced the person in charge to the wholesaler. It was decided that the wholesaler would write down the weight of each fish and do everything up to bringing them to the airport at a fixed time.
Wow, so you were developing your own distribution network.
Yes. And when the fish arrived in America, I would personally go to get them.
The plane would arrive at around one pm, so I went around noon. I submitted the documents myself, paid the duty and received the fish. When the highway was busy, I’d get back to the restaurant at around four pm. From then, in order to be in time for the six pm opening, I would hurry to get the fish ready. That’s the way it was, so I was very busy at that time.