Japan’s most famous specialty is probably sushi and the place to eat it is near Tsukiji, Tokyo’s huge wholesale fish market.
Sushi is at its best when the fish is fresh, and it doesn't come any fresher than around here. I choose a sushiya, a specialized sushi restaurant, by finding the one with the longest line out the door. They are intimate places where the chef, or itamae, will chat to you about what is good that day while his hands move in the fluid poetry of long practise.
Itamae Akira Kaneko, now in his late 50s, tells me he has been a sushi chef since the age of 18. We are talking in a quiet period after the morning rush but he stops to serve two other customers who come in. “The hardest thing is to serve many guests with lots of different orders,” he says afterwards. “They must not see the panic. I cannot show any stress. The performance is important, and movements must be beautiful. I need to know exactly where everything is to be efficient.”
As I eat my sea urchin and yellowtail sushi, I ask Kaneko-san which is his preferred fish. “My favorite is different every season,” he says. “In autumn, I like flatfish, for example. But winter is the best time for sushi because the fish are fatter.
“Tuna is not what I call genuine sushi. Even salmon is new to us. When I was a kid there was no salmon. It started about 15 years ago when the kaiten [conveyor belt] restaurants were looking for cheaper fish. Even now, the very best sushi restaurants do not serve salmon.
“I never get tired of eating sushi, and I have to eat it every day because I have to test it for the guests. I cannot serve anything I am not proud of.”
Kaneko-san’s knife skills are hypnotic and make me determined not to leave Tokyo without a good sushi knife of my own. The best place to find one, or any other piece of kitchen equipment, is Kappabashi-dori - “Kitchen town”. This street is lined with 170 shops selling everything you could possibly need to set up a restaurant and cook in it. Shops specialize in equipment to make soba noodles, or in uniforms, or more general crockery for every course, from exquisite bowls to delicate glassware. Several display colorful arrays of the plastic food found outside many Japanese restaurants.
Seiichi Kamata, a third generation shop owner, takes me through some options for knives. His shop, Kamata Hakensha, has 800 types for sale, ranging from factory-made to the very best, eye-wateringly expensive hand-made ones. “This has 63 layers of cobalt steel so it stays sharp longer,” he says, showing me one with a magnolia wood handle that uses buffalo horn to hold the blade. “This is the same technique used for a samurai sword.”
Once sold, he carefully hones it to a sharpness that would put a razor to shame.
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