- article by Rebecca Foster
From fresh produce markets to cooking classes, a visit to Japan gives you the chance to immerse yourself in one of the country's most glorious culinary offerings.
Whether you prefer a pink slab of fresh, fatty salmon sashimi or a crispy handmade roll packed with avocado, crab and rice, there’s no doubt that the plethora of dishes grouped under the 'sushi' umbrella comprise one of Japan's finest exports to the rest of the world.
Sushi first arrived on Japanese shores in the 4th century, although this style of food actually originated in Southeast Asia. However, Japan soon made sushi its own, serving up rice sweetened with vinegar topped with pieces of raw fish as a staple.
A visit to Japan offers up the chance to try real sushi - and after you’ve sampled some of the local fare it’s unlikely that a visit to your former-favourite restaurant back home will hit the spot in the same way that it used to. As well as the thousands upon thousands of sushi restaurants scattered across the country, there's also a plethora of alternative experiences that will help you enjoy this wonderful gastronomic delight even more.
A trip to the market
If you're not afraid of an early start, then a trip to Tokyo's Tsukiji fresh produce market is an absolute must. This large wholesale market sells everything from flowers to fish, and processes over 2,000 tons of marine produce per day. The tuna auctions at 5am are a highlight for visitors, but it's important to arrive early, as the event is popular and visitors who arrive as early as 4am can still find themselves disappointed. Before setting your alarm clock, double check online that public access will be permitted on the day you want to go.
Once you arrive you’ll know you’re in the right place thanks to the powerful marine aroma emanating from the stalls. You’ll see fishmongers filleting the catch of the day as you dodge trucks and trolleys of fish being wheeled past. Most of the day’s business will have been completed by 9am, at which point you should head to one of the many sushi counters for a fresh breakfast. The best eateries can be found near the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, just inside the main gate of the market.
Sushi and drink
While Tokyo is home to more than its fair share of high-end eateries, it’s often fun to rub shoulders with the locals by sampling some of the local sushi fare in one of the city’s many bars instead. Tokyo’s Ebisu neighbourhood is home to a plethora of options where visitors can drink at the same bars as the locals, with sashimi and other simple dishes prepared in tiny kitchens and served on tiny plates. The streets in Ebisu are packed with bars, so simply take a look at what’s on offer by assessing the chalkboards parked out front, and take your pick. Some of the more old-school joints won’t offer any English menus, so it could be a case of picking something at random and hoping for the best.
Not just in restaurants
In addition to gorging yourself on sushi, Japan offers a selection of unique ways to learn a little more about this lip-smacking traditional fare. Situated in the Shimizu Port area of Shizuoka City, the Shimizu Sushi Museum is a major hotspot for plenty of sushi lovers. The museum itself is positioned in the S-Pulse Dream Plaza - a four-storey shopping mall on the port’s waterfront area. The museum boasts several informative displays and models telling the story of sushi, and the second floor of the facility focuses on the sushi cooking academy. Once you’re finished with learning about sushi, the facility is home to around 10 exquisite sushi shops where you can get your hands on the conventional dishes, or those that are a little quirkier. If you haven’t had a chance to visit Tokyo’s Tsukiji market yet, then head down to the Kashi-no-Ichi market about 1 kilometre north of S-Pulse Dream Plaza to see where the catch of the day is sold.
Make your own
If you can’t get enough of Japan’s intriguing culture - and the sushi side of things in particular - enrolling onto a sushi-making course provides the perfect chance to delve a little deeper. In addition to cooking tutorials, some of the more famous classes in Tokyo also include guided tours around the Tsukiji fish market to learn about how the produce is caught, distributed and sold.
Once the workshop truly begins you will learn how to make your own nigiri and sushi rolls, guided by a sushi master. It takes more than 10 years’ experience to earn this coveted title, so if you’re keen to pick up some top sushi-making tips then make sure the class you're booking onto is being run by one of these guys. Of course, at the end of the class, you’ll have the chance to sample the fruits of your labour and chow down on all the creations that you’ve spent the morning preparing.
The main event
If you thought your home city was home to a plentiful choice of sushi-serving establishments, then think again - Japan’s capital, Tokyo, is home to 5,000. That gives you plenty of choice when it comes to selecting a different restaurant for every night of your stay in the city. Kyubey has been a favourite with visitors since the 1930s, and is the perfect choice for those who want to ease themselves slowly into authentic Japanese sushi culture.
Situated within Tsukiji fish market, Daiwa Sushi is perhaps one of the world’s most famous sushi joints. Expect to wait for over one hour to eat here - but know that each minute you wait will be more than worth it when you tuck into that exquisite piece of tuna sashimi. Sushi-no-Midori is a good bet if you’re on the lookout for a sushi set with a little bit of everything. Head here for a late lunch (about 3pm) on weekdays if you want to avoid the crowds.
Before planning out which sushi havens you’re going to be heading to in Japan, it’s worth understanding the fundamental differences between sushi-serving establishments to ensure you get a little bit of everything:
- Conveyor belt sushi is a great option for tourists that don’t speak Japanese, as you’re simply free to grab whatever you like the look of. This is probably the most popular kind of sushi shop, and will serve all of the usual favourites in addition to a selection of desserts.
- Chain sushi eateries are another great option for visitors who aren’t too confident with their Japanese, as most of the offerings on the menu are familiar favourites. Plenty of these kinds of restaurants also have picture menus showing what’s available.
- If you’re feeling ambitious, head to one of the country’s small family-owned establishments. This is where you’re going to sample scrumptious fare that tends to be targeted at the locals, so you can be sure you’re going to be served something that’s truly authentic.
- If you fancy splashing some hard-earned holiday spending money, then head to one of Japan’s finest high-end sushi shops. Many of these will offer specialised types of sushi, using highly-sought after and difficult-to-get ingredients. Some of the finest restaurants book out up to one year in advance, so be sure to make a reservation before showing up.