Greetings from the Pocket Concierge Editorial Team!
In today’s world, it is not uncommon to see foreign visitors sitting down to enjoy at some of Japan’s finest sushi restaurants, a testament to the now global appeal of this traditional art. And while this newfound fame is a boon for Japan’s cultural prominence, the gems of Ginza and Tsukiji, internationally renowned centers for exquisite sushi pieces, are now unfortunately harder to book than ever. In this article, we seek to gain insights on the evolution of sushi, the ancient art of uniting rice and seafood in bite-size umami-laden morsels, and for those who have a craving for the good stuff, list several secret sushi hot-spots that remain bookable even today.
Sushi and Tokyo; A Brief Cultural History Lesson
Image: Sushi Tou|Pocket Concierge
The history of ‘sushi’ in Japan goes back centuries; the origin of sushi, ‘nare-zushi’, was a Heian-era (8-12th C.) form of seafood preservation using salt and rice grains. Over time, ‘sushi’ evolved past this ancient lactic-fermented salty-sour delicacy, finding a near-modern format during the Edo-period (17-19th C.). ‘Ii-zushi’, a combination of seafood and vinegared rice commonly eaten with a soy sauce precursor, became widely mainstream thanks to simplicity; while successfully mimicking its predecessor’s flavors, the recipe reduced fermentation time to zero, creating a delicious new manner of enjoying fresh seafood.
Given all this history, one may believe that, as with many Japanese cultural magnets, ‘sushi’ is of Kyoto-area birth. However, the Kansai-region is historically a hub for more fermented forms of ‘sushi’, such as the ‘nare-zushi’ sibling ‘funa-sushi’, still commonly enjoyed today. As such, the evolution of modern day fresh ‘sushi’, in the ‘nigiri’ or ‘Edo-mae’ format, can be concluded to be something uniquely Tokyo-born.
The current day popular form of ‘sushi’, officially ‘nigiri-sushi’ complete with wasabi, is said to have been first created by Yohei Hanaya at his wildly popular ‘Yohei-Sushi’ location. One of old-Tokyo’s Big 3 regarding sushi, there is today a commemorative plaque at the original Ryogoku site celebrating his cultural achievement. Contrary to the nowadays-sentiment of sushi as a luxury food however, Edo-era sushi was more of a street food; served at one of many vendors lining the busy Edo streets, people would oft-eat standing. In a sense, sushi in its modern origin was not unlike what a food truck’s kebab is for modern Tokyoites.
Of course, as we have seen already, ‘sushi’ tends to evolve along with the ages; after World War 2, citing health concerns, the sale of raw foods at street vendors was banned. Adapting to this new world order, standing-sushi vendors became shops, creating the current day layout of sit-down counter-serving sushi-restaurants. In a way, through most of its post-feudal evolution, ‘sushi’ is much more than just a Japanese icon; for the people of Tokyo, ‘sushi’ is a soul-food, an irreplaceable delicacy deeply engraved in history and culture.
Post-War Ginza and Sushi
How did sushi, the Edo-era figure of street food, establish itself in luxurious Ginza? How did a worker’s quick bite penetrate the highest echelons of society? The words of 20th century renaissance-man Rosanjin Kitaooji below tell a compelling story:
“The popularity of sushi in post-war Tokyo is quite incredible; today, there must be at least ten times the amount of locations comparing to a prior time. This wild demand is likely the result of a certain common happiness in the ability to consume both fish and rice together.
However, it must unfortunately be professed that when it comes to palatable sushi, there is very little to go around; a lack of knowledge regarding the art of sushi-making, as well as a tendency to cut costs for fame, are to blame for this explosion in crude sushi.
The Shimbashi district is a good example; the area alone contains several hundreds of sushi locations, of which only a handful are even worth mention. ‘Shintomi’, of old-fame, its branch location run by a protégé, ‘Kyubei’, and ‘Sushi-Sen’; these four really are the only I deem worthy of visiting.”
Rosanjin, revered as an artist, writer, and gourmand, certainly composes with a strict honesty the above in his 1952-3 publishing ‘Masters of Sushi’. Aside from articles from his own magazine ‘Doppo’ however, Rosanjin has a variety of recorded musings regarding sushi: “Observe; good guests visit good sushi restaurants; bad guests visit bad sushi restaurants.” “For those that make their sushi appealingly large; such sushi is almost never good.” “The luster of sushi is exactly that of a human being.”
Rosanjin’s words describe a post-war Ginza district literally infested with sushi destinations, such was the popularity. Of course, from the writer’s own discontent, we see that not all of these were worthy of the high-class area. Hence, it is only natural to think that the post-war population’s sentiments pushed sushi’s prevalence sky-high, and time worked its magic in rooting out the unfit; thus, with only the truest of the true remaining, we see Ginza today a home to only the best sushi in the world.
A Well-Kept Secret; The Arakicho~Yotsuya Area
Image: Yotsuya’s easy-going counter delicacies; Sushi Wa-sabi
If Rosanjin were still alive today, where would he frequent? For such gourmands looking for incredible sushi destinations that are actually bookable, we at Pocket Concierge highly recommend the Arakicho-Yotuya area; first, numerous Michelin-starred sushi restaurants dot the streets, proof of the district’s authentic claim to fame. But that is really only the tip of the iceberg; Arakicho-Yotsuya has tens of less known gems, including a location with a sister in Hawaii’s Ritz-Carlton and casual backstreet diamonds kept secret. From recently opened shops to century-old establishments, this hot-spot is a unique ecosystem brimming with the finest sushi waiting to be discovered.
Yotsuya, populated in the Edo times with multiple ‘hatamoto’-grade mid-tier warrior class mansions, retains a sense of history in its districting; instead of the modern ‘cho-me’, the area is still organized via a ‘ban-cho’ numbering. A red-light district during the early 20th century, Yotsuya is home to a web of thin alleyways and backstreets; though the kimono-clad nightlife has gone, the culture, in the shape of heavenly sushi restaurants new and old has remained stalwart. As a longtime home to pure ‘Edokko’ Tokyoites, perhaps it should be no surprise that the soul-food of sushi too matured in a original format here in Arakicho-Yotsuya.
【Restaurants in the Arakicho-Yotsuya Area】
A tiny 8-seat counter just 30 seconds away from Yotsuya-Sanchome station, ‘Sushi Wa-Sabi’ awaits guests with a simple yet exquisite sushi experience. The casual interior welcomes all, with not a bit of the forbidding ‘sushi-restaurant’ haut present. Enjoy delicious sushi alongside the chef’s cheerful chats at the relaxing ‘Wa-Sabi’.
Hidden in a residential area a 5-minute walk from Yotsuya station, ‘Kouraku Sushi Yasumitsu’ offers unforgettable sushi and a warm hospitality courtesy of the chef’s family. Yasumitsu’s sushi, of impeccable quality thanks to every-morning pilgrimages to Tsukiji for the freshest of the catch regardless of brand or source, is a more than worthy centerpiece alongside the grills and dishes that complete the chef’s course. Add a extensive lineup of sakes and champagnes, and voila; an extraordinary sumptuous sushi experience.
Enjoy Authentic Tokyo-Town Sushi in the Classic Workers’ Kinshicho~Monzen-Nakacho Area
For gourmands with a down-to-earth casual feel in mind for their Tokyo sushi experience, something akin to what sushi would have been more like in an earlier century, head outbound across the river from central Tokyo to Ryogoku and its worker’s town satellite, the Kinshicho~Monzen-Nakacho Area.
Those with experience in Tokyo may have a sense for Kinshicho as a slightly shady location, but surprisingly, it has a less-known face as a gourmand’s heaven. Thanks to its tradition as a commoner’s city, the Kinshicho surroundings are packed with affordable restaurants of fierce competition; a prideful passion for outservicing neighbors lends a hand as well, making those shops that remain standing those of remarkable hospitality.
A recent trend has seen spice-rich foreign cuisines like creative curry-dishes snatch the limelight, however the quality of established Japanese cuisine shops are not to be underestimated. With even ‘kaiten’ rotating-sushi shops serving authentic-level sushi using red sushi vinegar and sought-after seafood, and more traditional locations touting Ginza-like courses with all-you-can-drink alcohol for half the price and twice the satisfaction, the Kinshicho~Monzen-Nakacho area, for those with a liking for more lively airs, is a haven for gourmet-nightlife. For visitors looking for the casual extraordinary, do try stepping outside-the-box and into the Kinchicho vibes.
【Restaurants in the Kinshicho~Monzen-Nakacho Area】
‘Edo Fukagawa Sushi Nishichi’, in the middle of Monzen-Nakacho district, embodies the very essence of old-town commoners’ Tokyo. With a gruff pride in the selection of seafood and condiment, and willing to go the extra mile for quality, Nishichi’s chef concocts simple-yet-exquisite pieces with tireless dedication. Already with an untarnished reputation, Nishichi continues to aim higher, incorporating new techniques into inherited age-old ‘Edo-mae’ traditions and creating a ‘sushi’ worthy of the next era.
The Ever-Evolving Tokyo Sushi Culture; Where is it Headed?
Time is tireless; with every coming year, the Tsukiji Market’s move to Toyosu, the 2020 Olympics, the 2027 MagLev Bullet Train, Tokyo will continue evolving; and so too, will its soul-food, ‘sushi’.
As with many things, knowing history enhances the sensory experiences gained today; with sushi as well, through enlightenment of that of Edo, we hope to catalyze your further enjoyment in Tokyo in the current day. Which location will for you be the pinnacle? Where will you find your rich layers of flavor and history intertwined? When else but the next weekend to start? Do let us at Pocket Concierge help in kickstarting your delicious time-traveling sushi journey today!
【About the Author】
Ms. Chikako Tsuruta
Born 1985, raised in Iwate prefecture, currently resides in Tokyo’s east-side workers’ district. The self-proclaimed original ‘Professor of ‘O-Hiya’’, regularly spends time contemplating on the cold glasses of water served at cafés and restaurants. While unaware of it herself, a very…unique…er…disappointing lady.
TOP Image: Sushi Ryusuke|Pocket Concierge