It is said that there are about 30,000 sushi restaurants in Japan. In Tokyo alone, there are approximately 5,000 sushi restaurants. With such many sushi restaurants, it isn’t easy to know where to go. It would be nice if the restaurant’s name could be used to identify its class (Grand Maison, Brasserie, Bistro, etc.), like in French restaurants. Still, unfortunately, all sushi restaurants only say “sushi,” which is the name of the dish they serve.
A typical sushi restaurant is a style where fresh seafood is lined up in a glass case in front of the counter, etc., and nigiri sushi is made in front of you. As a matter of course, a sushi restaurant is a restaurant that serves nigiri sushi (including makimono). A restaurant that serves fish dishes such as sashimi while drinking sake is different from a sushi restaurant. These are called kappo restaurant or ryotei restaurant. When you look at the world, the word “sushi” brings to mind sushi rolls, such as California rolls. In Japan, however, sushi rolls are very rare, and there are only a few sushi restaurants that mainly serve them.
Here we discuss sushi restaurants that offer nigiri sushi. But sushi restaurants that offer only tuna, salmon, and buri as sushi toppings are out of scope.
Even if we say “rating”, there must be some criteria to base it on. It should be easy to understand and universally recognized. We would like to use Michelin’s rating criteria, which is trusted by gourmets all over the world. Michelin does not publish its rating method, so it is not beyond the realm of the imagination, but here is what we believe the rating criteria to be.
The star rating for the dish itself may be based on the following five items.
・Freshness and quality of ingredients
・The quality of the cooking technique and the perfection of the seasoning
・Consistency throughout the dish that always maintains quality
These five items are also important factors in classifying sushi restaurants, but an important item is missing. These are the “comfort” aspects, such as the exterior and interior of the establishment, whether it is well-maintained, the service, and the atmosphere. Michelin also provides this information as a comfort level (the fork and spoon symbol), which is completely distinct from stars. However, comfort is not a priority item to be awarded a star or Bib Gourmand. It may not make sense, but a restaurant with bad food but great comfort is not a rating. You don’t have to go to such extremes, but comfort is a secondary priority.
In Japan, assuming that the food is good, it is not wrong to say that comfort is the main factor in evaluating whether a restaurant is good or bad. In evaluating a sushi restaurant, the personality of the master is the most important evaluation item. Because if all they do is make sushi, they should just make it in the back kitchen. By standing right in front of the customers, the sushi chef absorbs information from the customers in real time, gives appropriate instructions to his apprentice, and ensures that the meal time is proceeding without a hitch. On top of this, he also intersperses conversation to relax the guests and make the meal more enjoyable.
We think it is safe to say that Michelin’s rating is incomplete in this area.
For example, prestigious restaurants include Kyoto’s Hanamachi district, Ryotei restaurant, which is a place for politicians to hold secret talks, and other restaurants that do not accept first-time visitors, as well as restaurants that are the personal favorites of the imperial family. Many of the restaurants may not dare to put information online. In the first place, it is impossible to make contact with the general public. In Japan, however, it is rare for a restaurant, including these restaurants, to go out of its way to fully display its prestige. In Japan, the idea is that prestige is something that is perceived by the customer.
The Japanese have a set of criteria that they use when deciding on a sushi restaurant. Those criteria are what purpose, what is the budget, and what is the public/private use of the restaurant. In fact, people all over the world should be doing the same thing when they go to a restaurant.
Referring to this criterion, we can divide the restaurants into four categories: high-end sushi restaurants, machi sushi restaurants, chain sushi restaurants, and conveyor belt sushi restaurants. However, conveyor belt sushi falls outside the definition of Edomae sushi, so it is excluded from the description here. High-end sushi restaurants and small-town sushi restaurants are basically privately owned, with only one sushi chef. Chain sushi restaurants are corporate-owned and operated, with large stores and two or more sushi chefs. Take-out sushi and delivery sushi are not considered part of going to a sushi restaurant, so they are not included here.
Let’s take a closer look at the three categories of sushi restaurants. And by the time you finish reading, you will have narrowed down the list of sushi restaurants you should go to. As we will discuss later, we are not trying to tell you which sushi restaurants are the best. On that note, we assure you that any sushi restaurant offers sushi that is worth more than the price. we would like to give them fair credit for being in business against stiff competition.
High-end sushi restaurants are generally located in high-end districts like Ginza or Nishi-azabu. Generally, the shop owner/sushi chef, his wife, and his apprentices run the restaurant. There are many small shops with only around eight counter seats with a relaxing but exciting atmosphere.
There are two main high-end sushi categories. One proactively makes sushi with fatty toppings like Kinmedai and Nodoguro, while the other does not. Fatty sushi toppings don’t quite go well with shari made using the traditional rice vinegar. They go better with warmer shari, made with a red vinegar blend. Anyway, you wouldn’t know what type of vinegar a restaurant is using unless you go to the restaurant, so we won’t go deeper into that. Let’s get back to the characteristics of high-end sushi restaurants.
High-end sushi restaurants have a high rate of returning customers, and they are made with the “regulars” in mind. They are not prepared for high turnover (normally they have two turnovers per day), so they don’t rely on one-time customers that would come through guidebooks or mass media. Basically, the important point is to win over the number of ideal regular customers that fill the counter seats, and the restaurant works to make sure that not too many new customers come all at once. Some of the restaurants in places like Ginza even leave seats open on purpose in case a regular customer shows up suddenly. There are even sushi restaurants that dislike social media posts and don’t allow photos of the dishes. This all depends on the chef’s approach and you should follow any rules of the restaurant. However, it would be preferable if the restaurants wouldn’t change their policies to not allow photographs after getting a Michelin star. There are also restaurants that are only open at certain times in order to fill seats more efficiently. In extreme cases, the chef won’t start serving until all the reserved customers have arrived. In these cases, the customers must come at the time decided by the restaurant.
The chef goes to the Toyosu Market”ever’ morning and chooses wild seafood caught in the waters around Japan using his practiced eye. They only choose super high-grade toppings that may as well have a warranty. Of these, there are popular toppings like bluefin tuna, that can become extremely rare due to fickle weather driving up prices extraordinarily. The chef purchases this understanding that he might operate at a loss. However, bluefin tuna is procured from major brokers (Yamauki, Fujita-suisan, Hicho, Ishiji, etc.), and the quality doesn’t differ much between restaurants. The brokers actually start to become obligated to supply bluefin tuna to sushi restaurants they have a long relationship with. In other words, they are interdependent.
The sushi chefs are particular not only about the sushi toppings but also pay close attention to wasabi, salt, seasonings, sake served to the customers and, even the dishes upon which the food is served. They prepare various, rare sake and have a wide variety of food and drink. In recent years there have been some restaurants that set themselves apart such as by using the red vinegar that Edomae sushi started with, serving aged sushi, or holding bluefin tuna and uni taste comparisons. There are some restaurants that are open during lunch in order to expand their customer base, but the quality of sushi toppings is very different between dinner and lunch. As a tourist looking for cheap prices, please keep in mind that generally you get what you pay for. This does not mean, however, that the quality is poor.
Most restaurants require reservations. Some restaurants (like former Michelin Star recipient Sushi Saito) actually require membership. There is no menu, so if you don’t have an understanding of sushi toppings, it won’t be a great experience. Most high-end sushi restaurants only serve an Omakase combo of side dishes and nigiri sushi for more efficiency from a business perspective. You may find it interesting that there is no such thing as a “mid-range” sushi restaurant. It might be because, in the end, sushi is an expensive food.
There are also other characteristics, introduced below.
– Each additional piece of sushi ordered ranges from $5 to $30
– The Omakase course alone goes for over $200
It’s a bit of a tangent, but Shigezo Fujimoto, known as the Sushi Emperor of the Showa period, was said to be the first to introduce Omakase courses at a sushi restaurant. In the 1980s and 90s in Japan, businessmen wanted to focus on entertaining clients and wanted to avoid spending time on ordering individual pieces of sushi. This is how Omakase became appreciated. From the perspective of the customer, they can get good sushi without knowing the names or seasons of the fish, and the restaurant can reduce losses, so this system caught on like wildfire. This is also why tourists like this system.
However, sushi restaurants should be places where you can eat sushi toppings you like, in the order you prefer. You can gauge the restaurant with 2 pieces of Chutoro and 2 pieces of Uni. At some point in time, Omakase promoted by the sushi restaurant became mainstream, and customers make additional orders of toppings they want to after eating a series of side dishes and Nigiri sushi. Also, since only some sushi toppings are prepared, and only enough for the number of reservations, you can’t always order all the toppings that you want. You are also restricted to 2 hours in the restaurant (we believe this is plenty of time).
With all this, it is amazing to see how the chef and apprentice(s) form the perfect combination to run the operation. Everything about the service, such as the timing that the next sushi is served, is perfect. However, it is Omakase and in a way, it is like a well-rehearsed play. There is a sense of comfort in it but it is not a particularly exciting experience. In a lot of ways, it has strayed a bit from the image of how a sushi restaurant should be.
You probably haven’t heard the term “Machi sushi” (Machi means town). In contrast to high-end sushi restaurants, these can be thought of as sushi restaurants for commoners. However, it is still more expensive than ramen or soba shops.
The customers are mainly locals and the restaurants have a locally rooted business format. They are always used for ceremonial occasions, so locals of all ages are aware of these restaurants. The biggest difference between them and high-end sushi restaurants is the customer demographic.
Often, the shop owner/sushi chef, his wife, and other family run the restaurant. You’ll hear friendly conversation about seasonal toppings, sports topics, and even celebrity gossip. These sushi restaurants are hangouts for local residents, similar to the concept of a bar in Spain, and they fulfill this function. In addition to counter seating, they also have tables and even welcome families with children.
Generally, the restaurant is open for lunch, closes in the afternoon, and later reopens for dinner. In the past, Machi sushi restaurants opened for lunch and remained open until around 8 pm. They did this so customers finishing work early could start drinking around 2 pm. Unfortunately, this sort of restaurant is no longer common.
The chef goes to the fish market every day and purchases seasonal fish using his practiced eye. But he won’t go overboard buying expensive sushi toppings. So, there are places that don’t serve certain sushi toppings even if they are in season. Rather, they put their efforts into various Edomae shigoto (Edo-style preparations) for the seafood they’ve procured to satisfy customers.
Naturally they avoid using farmed fish as is standard for Edomae sushi. At high-end restaurants, only raw bluefin tuna is served, but in Machisushi restaurants the chef might use Mebachi, Minami, or Kihada if he believes they are good quality. They are also well-versed in using frozen tuna, which becomes unusable if there is a mistake in the thawing method.
The restaurant offers not only Omakase but also Okonomi and Okimari. In addition to Nigiri sushi, things like Chirashi sushi and Inari sushi are also on the menu. They also welcome guests who want to enjoy drinking and snacking without ordering sushi and some will even keep the customer’s unfinished bottles for next time. It’s rare in Japan, but some of these restaurants even allow the customer to bring their own alcohol.
The appeal is that you can eat and drink as you please at your own pace. Even if you only planned to go to eat, if you get comfortable you can start drinking. There are no 2-hour limited courses like at high-end restaurants. You can relax and adjust your time there to your preferences. As long as there are seats open, you can go in without a reservation, so it’s very convenient. You can also experience sushi without acting so formal, so it is ideal. It’s the type of sushi restaurant you’ll want to visit every day.
There are also other characteristics, introduced below.
– There are menus for sushi toppings and other dishes. Some have a wooden panel menu on the wall.
– The price range is $3 to $15 per piece of sushi.
– The budget for one meal is $50 to $150.
Japanese people have a long history of the custom of eating sushi for important milestones, life events, and after ceremonies with a sense of gratitude and celebration, and they are conscious of the strong traditional side of sushi. However, the sushi served that was considered to be high-end and treated as a traditional Japanese food is now available at Conveyor belt sushi restaurants on a daily basis and has become a more familiar presence. In other words, sushi as a celebratory meal has become extremely rare due to the “popularization of sushi.” This has probably affected the Machi Sushi restaurants most of all. At one time, there was always at least one Machi Sushi in front of nearly every train station in Japan, but there aren’t as many these days. Personally, we really hope for the revival of Machi Sushi restaurants that seek delicious flavors through effort and labor, while keeping the prices affordable.
As the name implies, a chain sushi restaurant is a group of several to several dozen restaurants operated by a corporate organization, each of which is staffed by several sushi chefs and can accommodate more than 50 customers. The difference between a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant and a chain sushi restaurant is that the sushi chefs make the sushi. Even if you sit at the counter, there is a psychological distance between you and the sushi chef who is busy making sushi. This makes the restaurant convenient for those who want to concentrate on their meal and those who do not like to talk with sushi chefs.
For efficiency, chain sushi restaurant operations have a centralized facility that prepares tuna and other fish, which are then supplied to each restaurant. Some smaller fish are prepared at the stores. Basically, sushi chefs have little discretion in judging the day’s toppings and deciding the size and thickness of the toppings. They simply make the supplied sushi items and sushi rice like a robot. In order to use warm sushi rice, there is an attempt to cook rice in the store or prepare shellfish and other toppings after receiving an order, as in upscale restaurants.
At the market, the company has a dedicated person in charge of purchasing fish, who actively uses farmed or alternative fish and purchases in large quantities to reduce costs. At the same time, the company has a system to provide fresh items that are the restaurant’s centerpiece by having a direct delivery route from the local area.
Other features include:
– The restaurant has the menu and offers the same prices all year round, except for seasonal items.
– The price range is from $2 to $10 per piece.
– Budget is less than $50
Efficient operation is quite difficult, and few chain sushi restaurants are growing in number. Conveyor belt sushi restaurants and upscale sushi restaurants are exemplary solutions to the basic management problems faced by sushi restaurants, and they may be standing halfway between the two.
Some conveyor-belt sushi restaurants are transforming into restaurants with sushi chefs making sushi, and the unique characteristics and merits of chain sushi restaurants are fading away.
Successful sushi chain companies include Kintaro Sushi (the originator of negitoro) and Sushi Zanmai (famous for its Tuna action at the beginning of the year, where you buy the most expensive tuna). In a sense, the upscale sushi restaurant Ginza Kyubei falls into this category. Of course, there is no Oyakata (sushi master), nor is the sushi made by an Oyakata.
Sushi chefs are not just cooks. They are “sarashi” craftsmen (exhibitionists). “Sarashi” refers to how they are always on display to the customer while serving them sushi. That means they have to be good at reading the room and serving the customer in a way that suits them. Excellent conversation is also necessary. You can’t be called a sushi chef if all you can do is make Nigiri sushi. In other words, you need skills beyond cooking. High-end sushi restaurants and Machi Sushi restaurants are run by craftsmen with these skills, while it is not necessary for chain restaurants or conveyor belt sushi restaurants. So how is this received by the customer?
We should add that although prices vary greatly by restaurant, the actual deliciousness of the sushi does not differ in proportion to these prices. Sushi is based on personal preference, and a high price does not always mean delicious sushi. There are many cases where Machi sushi restaurants taste better than high-end options. The most important issue here is the balance of the sushi topping, Shari, Wasab,i and Nikiri shoyu. No matter how high-end the sushi topping is, it won’t become delicious sushi with shari that doesn’t bring out its delicious flavor. That is how complicated Edomae sushi can be.
To put it bluntly, the price of sushi is determined based on the cost of ingredients, staff, rent, and profit. The more high-end the restaurant, the higher the ingredient costs, apprentice fees, rent, and the more expensive the interior decor that allows you to enjoy the sense of luxury. It is only natural that this experience would be more expensive.
With this knowledge, if you want to have authentic sushi in Tokyo and visit a restaurant that serves Edomae sushi to you at a counter after the sushi chef has prepared it in front of you. We offer a casual but meaningful and high-quality service where you can comfortably enjoy the delicious flavors of sushi prepared in the Edo style. Unfortunately, you can’t get such a deep, cultural experience at a chain restaurant or conveyor belt sushi. The biggest concern there is that you might end up coming all the way to Tokyo to eat nothing but seafood imported from your own country.
Instead, why not join Sushi University where you can have a deep, meaningful experience in Japan through sushi culture. Our expert interpreter will press the chef with your questions. Past reviews say things like, “Strangely, it felt like I was a regular at the restaurant,” and, “I’ve already made my next sushi reservation.”
The biggest factor in our favorable reviews, is the fact that you can speak directly with the chef, which is usually unheard of. Generally, even if a regular customer is at the counter for 2 hours, they don’t even get even 5 minutes of conversation. Enjoying delicious sushi while you just watch how the chef works and handles his knife is a valuable experience, but in order to make it a one-of-a-kind experience there needs to be conversation with the chef.
This is not the sort of luxury accommodation, luxury adventure, or luxury transport experience provided by someone else. Luxurious vacations might be appealing, but they are not always meaningful. This is a real sushi experience you create yourself, for yourself. Just use this for your reference.