Japan put a halt to the crazy sushi bullshit just after the California roll. Leave the Philadelphia roll to America. In this country, there are no catfish-and-cucumber rolls with picante sauce and names like Samurai Komodo Dragon Rolls.
If you want sushi in Japan, you will get an expertly sliced piece of raw fish placed, with a dab of wasabi, on a small ball of white rice. It will be delicious, but not American delicious, and it will probably come to you on a conveyor belt: Kaiten Sushi – or Conveyor-Belt Sushi, or, if you are living in modern Japan, “Sushi.”
Sushi in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Long before the first conveyor belts began to roll coal out of devastated mountainsides, I imagine the DaVinci of fishermen sketching the device for posterity. “Maybe not today, but someday, this is how men will eat.”
The process is near-perfect: The belt runs clockwise, so you can hold chopsticks in your right hand while grabbing the plate with your left. It runs at a finely tuned 8cm per second, keeping the food moving without spoiling fish through aeration. Different colored plates mark the prices. At the end, the waitress tallies them up.
The sushi comes out by type: Three plates of fried shrimp, three plates of squid, three plates of natto and sea bream, etc. This triggers a hunting instinct and a finicky urge to wait. You don’t want the perfect plate of calamari to pass by when you are chowing down on mediocre sea bream.
It’s like playing “Hot or Not” with raw fish.
A Cold Fish Medium
At Genki Sushi in Hakata, you can order sushi through a television screen. There’s real food on the conveyor belt, but if you desire something on the TV, they’ll assign you a number and send it on a plate with a card. Other places have monitors with virtual fish.
Kaiten Sushi, though, has its downside: Traditional Sushi is practically nonexistent, going the way of bluefin tuna. In Japan, I’ve seen hundreds of Ramen and Udon places, but my hometown in Maine (with 40,000 people) had more sit-down sushi places than my current home, a suburb of a Japanese metropolis.
Sushi is Dead
I can’t speak for the nation as a whole – I’m in a region that celebrates its Ramen with as much ferocity as its baseball team – but traditional sushi is pretty much absent, with the low-cost Kaiten taking its place.
Barthes, in the last chapter of “Empire of Signs” before he started getting complicated – talked about the process of sushi as a chain: The chef (who doesn’t cook) is carving fish in the same way that calligraphers paint strokes; only instead of making words out of ink, he is making food out of fish. The conveyor belt, then, is like a printing press: cheap, affordable, accessible sushi for the masses. And with it goes the holiness of a hand-inscribed book.
It’s not an exaggeration. Sushi, for the purists, is an art form. Traditional sushi chefs spend 10 years in training and 3 years before they serve a single piece (Compare that to the 2 years for an Art School MFA and you’ll see that sushi is actually more rigorous, albeit more conservative). The first three years are spent learning how to select the fish. The next two years are dedicated to rice.
Reducing this process to one guy at the end of a conveyor belt carving up salmon bought in bulk at Costco kills off that exclusive culture. This would make Yoshiaki Shiraishi – who invented the conveyor-belt sushi system in 1958* – a kind of Andy Warhol** for sushi.
Shiraishi (“Sushi Innovator” Shiraishi, in his 2001 NYTimes Obit) built the conveyor system and a robot-based sushi-delivery system (which doesn’t have the same degree of success) after staffing problems hit his restaurant.
If there is real hand-wringing in Japan after 50+ years of conveyor belt sushi, I wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway. But in a country that is constantly negotiating rapid progress with a deep history – where shrines are sandwiched between industrial buildings and shopping plazas – kaiten-sushi stands as a complete compromise to modernity, a surrender.
But it’s delicious and costs 150 yen a plate. So I suppose modernity has its charm.
*= Shiraishi’s first conveyor belt started rolling a mere three years after Ray Kroc bought his first McDonald’s franchise, spawning the rise of modern fast-food in America. Coincidence, or zeitgeist?
**= “America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it and you know it.” – Andy Warhol