Oizumi Theater: The Sushi Bar as Talk Show
The sushi bar may just be a restaurant, but it is also a public stage for enacting the charismatic persona of the sushi master. Nishiogi now has a new sushi “theater,” Sushi Oizumi, and a new “performer.” If you imagine Tokyo sushi masters as stern rice-and-fish technicians with few words to spare, you will soon be disabused by the loquacious Oizumi Hiroyuki, who is supported, and often covered for, by his equally friendly but (by necessity) less verbose wife Mineko. She does all the service and reception, while he holds court. The “stage” itself is a wooden U-shaped counter that seats eight customers in comfortable high seats.
The timing for their new opening couldn’t have been worse. We conducted our interview during soft opening a week before the coronavirus case count started ticking up steadily and schools were closed down. Even without the coronavirus crisis to contend with, Nishiogi is a very difficult sushi market to jump into. According to Tabelog, the popular restaurant site, there are more than 15 sushi restaurants in the foodie town, ranging from takeout shops and everyday places that cost about 2000 yen per person to special-occasion restaurants whose average per-person cover is over 20,000. Oizumi is in the middle of this range.
According to a report of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW), while the nationwide market for sushi has expanded due to the increase in fast-food-style “revolving sushi,” the number of independent sushi shops dropped 21% from 2009 to 2014. (Over the same period, corporate entities decreased only 7.1%, indicating a concentration of businesses into larger groups.) It is said that in the sushi business food costs are 40% to 50% of sales, much higher than in other restaurant sectors, and the decrease in wild-catch fish means these costs will continue to rise. Still according to another MHLW report, over the period from 2005 to 2016, the average household expenditure on sushi remained in the range of 14,000 yen to 15,000, roughly one-tenth of total household expenses on eating out. Sushi remains an item that many Japanese people eat on special occasions as well as on an everyday basis.
Despite these trends towards consolidation by chain restaurants, the Oizumis have opened a new independent sushiya in the already-crowded sushi market of Nishiogi. There are no other employees, though their daughter, who just graduated high school, helps out sometimes. We were invited to visit the shop for an interview and were treated to a taste of their best fish and sake. We also visited for the full “omakase” dinner a few days later.
The shop is located on a section of Shinmei Street close to the station, on the first floor of a new building built especially for restaurants. When you enter, Mineko seats you at the counter. There are no other tables. A door behind the counter leads to the kitchen where Hiroyuki prepares the hot dishes on the menu. “I wanted it this way,” he said, “because with a U-shaped counter it is easy for three of four people to talk with each other. With an L-shaped counter, that becomes more difficult. Here there are two corners. I want to run this place alone without hiring anybody, just me and my wife.”
Hiroyuki’s describes his concept for the space and the service as “Oizumi Theater,” he said. “When the front door is opened, there is this metal rumble, and I know I should come out and greet the customers. But there will be times when I am in the back, and I want the customers to greet each other, and want regular customers to say, ‘Oh, this is tasty,’ and then someone can ask, ‘What is that?’ ‘Oh, that is a snapper.’ That is what a sushi counter should be like, a town community space. A counter is a space for customers to communicate. This is what I am aiming for. During the pre-opening, I found that conversations on one side were connected to the conversations on the other.”
While the customers are conversing, then Hiroyuki can go in the back and bring out the steamed items. “In order to be in the conversation, I need stay up here behind the counter,” he said. “But I can’t really do that. I need to go back to the kitchen sometimes because I am working alone. So I hope that the customers can talk to each other. ‘Where do you live, what kind of work do you do?’ ‘Oh, I live in Shouan.’ ‘I live in Miyamae.’ ‘Oh, that’s close.’ I hope people can have that kind of communication here. Sushi is not something you make silently one piece at a time. There should be laughter all the time.”
This is the first time that Hiroyuki has run his own restaurant. For the past 33 years, he worked at sushi restaurants in Suginami, Shinjuku, Setagaya and Ginza. It seems like a hard job to become a top sushi chef, and we asked how he learned the trade. “Now they teach you the steps from one to ten,” he said. “When I started out, you ‘stole’ your knowledge on the sly. You saw it once, and you remembered it in your head. The master would teach you twice but not three times. You couldn’t just say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I forgot, could you explain again.’ No way. So after work, or in the back, I would take notes in my memo pad. If I was asked what I was doing, I would say, ‘No, I’m not writing anything!’ But if you didn’t write it down you would forget. I would go back to my dorm and review, and that’s how I remembered. It wasn’t beaten into my head, I wrote notes. But up here on the stage, behind my cypress counter, when a customer orders, for example, a kohada, or ‘tuna, please!’ I can’t write that down on a memo. That would look bad. I have to remember it. Someone who notes down everything is not a pro. But you can’t make mistakes with the check. A customer wants to think ‘this guy remembers what you want and never makes a mistake on the bill.’”
The chef thinks of his equipment not just as functional but also as props in his “Oizumi Theater.” This extends, for example, to the “neta box” where the raw fish is stored before being cut into pieces for sushi and sashimi.“This is where the neta are, the fish,” he explained. “‘Customer, what would you like,” he says, imagining and performing for us how he watches the eyes of the customer as they look into the box... “The eyes of the customer will always land somewhere in the box. ‘Oh, so you want flounder,’ I’ll say. ‘How do you know?’ they’ll reply [sounding surprised. That’s the fun part. Other things are also fun.”
Chef Oizumi may seem like a born sushi master now but his first interest in cuisine was pastry.“ It was Japanese sweets. Western sweets,” he said. “Like chocolate or an edible cake house. But [pastry] school was expensive. I am the third of four brothers. When I decided not to go to high school, my teacher said, one of your classmates is working in a sushiya. So I thought, hey, I’ll go check that out. I imagined myself with a long kitchen knife cutting fish, and I thought, this is so cool. When I thought of sushi at the time, I was thinking of salmon or squid, the kind of stuff we had at home.”
So what happened when he apprenticed at the sushiya introduced by his teacher?
“It was nothing like that!” he said “At first it was just cleaning, cleaning, cleaning. Then it was setting up the tables, the chopsticks, the small plates. I didn’t even get to touch the fish. I handed out the oshibori [wet towels], served tea. That was the start. That’s how it was… But back then there was it was like that, first one step and then the second step. Anyway, that’s how I gave up on pastry, because of my teacher’s recommendation.”
“I was working with my hands, and I realized that I enjoyed making things. I wasn’t good at working with a pencil and doing homework. So I decided to take up a profession where I could work with my hands. But, when I entered society I realized that there were many things I still had to learn. And I had had a slow start with all that [academic knowledge]. I had to catch up. But I entered the world of sushi, and I liked it. I became addicted to it.”
The earnest world of the sushi artisan that Hiroyuki had leaped into was not about superficial service and just completing your tasks. It also was about getting recognition of his master and more senior employees. For example, he said, “You can’t see how much tea is in a cup from here. So how do you know? When the tea is first poured the angle of the cup when people raise it low. As they keep drinking the angle gets higher. So you look for the angle, and then you know when to pour. When my customers said, ‘that’s clever,’ my boss noticed that remark. Then he would say, ‘Do you want to help peel the shrimp today?’ That’s it. That's how it was, and still is now.”
The way Hiroyuki learned to make sushi from his master is to grab the “heart” of the customers. The way this works is through the “omakase” [chef’s choice] style of service. He describes this process. “Welcome!,” that’s how you start, he said. “When the customer walks in I will look at his face. You must catch the wavelength of that person. If you don’t catch the customer’s mood, you won’t be able to do omakase. When I go behind the counter, it’s okay for the customer to choose a red meat fish or a squid. But omakase is the pinnacle of sushi. You have to put your heart into it. You have to coordinate everything. If you have two, two, two, two, four pairs coming in, it can be jazz, classical, enka, folk. I am the conductor. As the conductor, I decide, to cut tuna, then tuna, tuna, tuna, and if I cut flounder, then flounder, flounder, flounder. But I will create a different taste for each customer.”
Hiroyuki tried to explain how he grasps the customer's taste while doing an omakase menu “The first thing to do is to ask what they like, what they don’t like, what they won’t touch,” he said. “The scariest thing is allergies, like shrimp, hikarimono [silver-skinned fish]. You have to ask about allergies. So, then do we start with something light tasting, or something heavy, maybe shirako [milt] or ankimo [monkfish liver]. Right at the beginning, we won’t start out with fatty tuna. This or that? So we may decide to go with yellowtail instead of flounder. Today let’s go with something light. Something that will go with ponzu. After that something with salt and sudachi, like that.”
Although omakase literally means, ‘leave it up to you [the chef]’, deciding what to serve is not as simple as deciding everything ahead of time regardless of the customer. “I always try to get an image for myself of what the customer wants,” Hiroyuki continued. “Before I cut anything, I will ask the customer, for example, if they like octopus, I will cut the octopus. It feels bad if they tell me when they are getting ready to leave, ‘I wish I could have had ikura sushi when the sushi came. So with sushi, I will first hand the customer the five pieces that I want to serve that day, then I will ask them what else they would like to have. If I decide everything from one to ten, there will definitely be things that they wanted to eat but didn’t get to eat, and that’s not good. So it is better to talk with the customer, and serve something we agree on together… When you give the final check, you don’t want the customer to say, ‘Oh, that’s expensive.’ If that happens, I have lost them. You’re not expecting them to say it was cheap either. But, if they say, ‘Oh, that was delicious. I’ll be back,’ that’s when I can judge that I have won them over.”
So omakase is quite a subtle form of interpersonal communication. But for customers, not knowing what it will cost is a bit scary. We asked Mineko and she explained how to deal with this. “It is best to discuss that when you make a reservation,” she said. “It will be easy if you let us know beforehand. Of course, drinks are separate.” HIroyuki continued. “I can’t calculate it if the drinks are included,” he said. “If you drink a couple of bottles of beer and two or three small bottles of sake my costs are going to explode. So that’s why I decide on the food costs and the customer decides on the drink costs. So I have a drink menu.”
When we asked if the price largely determines what you end up ending, the chef explained that wasn’t quite how he would put it. “I don’t like to use the word ‘course,’ he said. ‘Like a 7,000 yen or 8,000 yen course in which you are definitely going to get an appetizer, followed by sashimi, followed by grilled fish, then a chawanmushi, followed by sushi. I don’t like that approach. For example, a chawamanmushi comes out, and you feel you have to finish it, because its already there. I ask the customers, ‘Do you want chawanmushi?’ Some might say, ‘If I have chawanmushi, I’m going to be too full.’ In that case, I’ll change. Maybe I’ll give that person a miso soup and everyone else gets a chawanmushi. I’ll deal with it flexibly.”
Dealing with the customers flexibly does not mean treating customers differently according to their status, Chef Oizumi explained. He described how he dealt with customers in the exclusive sushiya where he last worked in Ginza. “In Ginza Itchome that was the only kind of person who came, he said. How should I say? The young ones were company officials, then there were company presidents, entertainers, all sorts of people came. But for me, my style was the same regardless. There are plenty of sushi chefs who will see that someone is a company President and that someone else is a first or second-year employee, and then treat them differently. The customer sees this too, so I always treat them the same. People are going to dislike it if you are clearly giving the fattier piece of the tuna to this person over here. But the most difficult thing is dividing up the engawa [fin] of the flatfish. Maybe from one flounder, you can get enough of the engawa for eight pieces of sushi, but where do you serve the best piece? I that case, I must be to someone you are more familiar with. For the first time customer, I’m sorry but you won’t get this one now. I have to portion it out that way.’
Chef Oizumi said that he gets an “adrenaline rush” from hearing that his food was delicious, but the hidden part of the sushi master's social life is in the market. In order to make good sushi, he needs good fish, and of course, this comes from the new fish market in Toyosu, which replaced the old market in Tsukiji about a year ago. “The only thing is that it is further than Tsukiji. So everything is delayed, and it is really hard to get it in time for lunch. Up until now, it took about an hour. You could have two lanes of traffic there, but up until now, it is only one. So I pass it to a driver who brings it over in a truck. If you need it to be here by 9 am you have to let them know or it will be too late. But if it is too early you actually will be getting the fish from yesterday and not today. So the best time to purchase is around 9 am. In that case, it will arrive here in Nishiogi around 10:30 or 11 am.”
Not everything is served on the day it is delivered, however. “Today’s deliveries are used today and tomorrow,” he said. “Nothing is used on the third day. As for lunch, there is nothing that I couldn’t do. I’ll have to think about. Anyways, from the customers’ perspective, fresh is best.”
Actually, however, some fish is better when not exactly “fresh,” Chef Oizumi explained, showing us a piece of freshly cut tuna. “It’s called maturing, like cheese, ‘aged tuna,’ aging. This tuna here is just in. It’s completely fresh. When it is just freshly butchered it looks like this, a kind of cloudy color. After it has been cut for a while and begins to oxidize, it clears up. Then you put it in some wrap it and there is no problem.” He continues talking while cutting into the bright red tuna. “This is its third day. Tuna is good from now for about a week. It has been in the ice for about a week until it comes to the market.”
“This is a sword,” Chef Oizumi says, picturing a long knife. “like a samurai. If this is a single tuna, it will be divided into six equal parts. You cut straight, one, two, ... The best piece is the otoro [the fatty tuna belly]. At the back of the tail, the price will be lower. The highest price is here, the otoro. The price is crazy. When I opened up here, I bought it. When I can't buy it, I buy the senaka [pointing to the mid-back] here, and when I can, I buy the part here [pointing to the tummy]. If you buy, then you can ask for the part here this time, next time here. This way I get stomach, back, stomach, back. If you want only the stomach, people in the market will not sell it. It will go to a restaurant in Ginza or a place that buys high.”
Chef Oizumi buys in Toyusu, but these are all contacts he developed with the market sellers when it was still in Tsukiji. “Now I am 48, but the first time I was 16. I entered this business when I was 15. The first time, I went I was 16 but I didn’t really understand anything. I was just carrying boxes. But gradually I began to understand. Where was this mackerel caught? Always know the place. It’s okay to make a memo then. Getting to know what kind of fish is good. For example, I would go with the owner to pay, and ask the dealer about that his saba [mackerel] or this aji [horse mackerel], and I’d ask, ‘how do you judge these?’ And the person in the market would reply, ‘Hold up the fish this way in the light and you can see the silver color in this place right. It should be golden. That is very fatty.’ This is evidence of fattiness. Silver is no good, he explained. And, then you need one with clear eyes. There are those with clear eyes and those without. When this one is a thousand yen and this one is two thousand yen, which do you buy? You should buy the one for one thousand with clear eyes. Someone who doesn’t know, who hasn’t learned this, will buy the one for two thousand, the one that doesn’t have clear eyes. They will buy just on the basis of price. But those with white eyes, their freshness has decreased. You can see that, if you have trained your eyes. If you can’t see that, there is no point in going to the market.”
The market is not only a place to buy fish, but it is also a place to learn about sushi. Of course, it is also a place to haggle and look for a bargain. “I have a contracted shop and I always buy aji there. But I will always walk around the market and check out various fish. So I don’t walk just straight in, I look around. And if I find something here that is good and cheaper than usual, I will pick it up. And when I go to my usual place and they will ask me, ‘Hey, no aji today?’ I’ll just say, ‘Nope, I picked something up cheaper at another place.’ ‘That’s too bad….’”
“I’ll walk around the market and talk to all kinds of people,” he said imitating a conversation with sellers. “I’ll ask, ‘how much is this?’ ‘Five thousand yen.’ ‘Really?’ ‘four thousand nine hundred?’ ‘How about another price?’ ‘Four thousand?’ During this period I have knocked it down one thousand yen. So that is technique. Compared to Osaka or other Kansai people, Tokyo people don’t bargain. Kansai people always bargain. Tokyo people won’t say anything. But that’s wrong. I want a discount. Otherwise, there is no reason to go to the market to buy. Otherwise, what is the point of going to Toyosu, of going to the market? I always ask for a discount.’
Oizumi also ruminated on the difference in the experience of purchasing fish in the ramshackle but market at Tsukiji and the roomy but somewhat sterile environs of Toyosu. “All that is left now of Tsukiji is the outer market,” he said. “We buy everything in the inner market. In the old days, ordinary people would not go into the inner market. But starting at some point in time, tourists started coming in. They would even crowd into the places we would eat. We had our own sushi shops that the sushi shop owners would go to. Even those places filled with tourists. Then we couldn’t eat there anymore. The only thing left was soba shops. Not very interesting. The best reward for our work was eating sushi at the market, and all the sushi shop owners from the Chuo Line, the Yamanote Line, the Keio Line, the Odakyu Line, all the top people from all these sushiya would gather there. All these sushi masters would introduce each other as so-and-so from so-and-so sushiya. And when you walked around the market people would greet you, ‘How are you, today?” You could exchange ideas there too. When those community spaces were taken away that kind of communication stopped. And it was no longer interesting. In Toyosu there is none at all. Where you go into the market there are only restaurants, ramen, tonkatsu, sushi, sandwiches, and so on. There’s a lot there but it is all for tourists, and there is no place for us to eat at all. When we get off the train at Toyosu Station now we go to the convenience store or ramen shop. The best time to check-in is about six or seven in the morning. You check out around eight or nine, it’s almost ten o’clock. You’ve looked around and got everything you want. It’s around 10 am, and no place is open. Yoshinoya or other chain shops. After shopping at the market you don’t want to go eat a beef bowl at Yoshinoya. This is the biggest problem. It’s really boring. We actually really like eating.”
After the interview with Oizumi, the Nishiogiology team visited the Toyosu market ourselves, and we were shown around by a retired restaurant owner from Ginza. His impressions were similar to those of Oizumi. In the past, people in the sushi trade could meet and trade ideas. After Tsukiji became a tourist attraction and then the market moved to Toyosu, it became more difficult to communicate. Tourists are no longer allowed to crowd into the inner market, and it seems cleaner and more efficient, and it might well be, but it has lost a bit of the feeling of a community space.
Lastly, we talked about opening an independent sushi restaurant in Nishiogi, a fierce culinary battle zone, and about the customers we expect of it. "It’s true, there’s a lot of restaurants in a small area,” Oizumi said. “And with the rise of the conveyor belt sushi and the raising of the consumption tax to ten percent, there is no doubt that Japanese people are tightening their purse strings. Still, there are always things that are trendy. It’s always the same. Now the conveyor belt places are, but that can change. Now things are quite calm. With the Olympics coming and the increase in foreign guests, it’s unclear how much the economic climate might change. So more than the conveyor belt places, I think places like this will be popular. Conveyor belt places are closing down. This has to do with the improved economy. In Nishiogi you are getting more and more small places. Kichijoji is expensive and is more for young people. I am not aiming at the young crowd. Ogikubo is a bit more downscale than Nishiogi. I’m aiming at Nishiogi.”
Nishiogi has the image of being an affluent town where people like to eat good food, Oizumi said, including many company presidents and other wealthy people live. His target patrons are the children of the people where he did his own training years ago. “The kids are in their mid-thirties now,” he said. “They are now working getting some bonuses. Some of them have been going out to this kind of place since elementary or middle school. Now they are stepping up in life, getting married and having kids. But it is hard for them to go to the place their parents were going to. Some of them are people I served when they are kids [at a nearby famous sushiya he didn’t want to be named]. So they will find it easy to come here. Some used to come to the counter and read a manga. I would ask, what do you want and they would answer, ‘shrimp’ and ‘egg.’ Mommy wouldn’t say anything. That kid didn’t like wasabi. But I would purposefully put wasabi on it, then say, ‘eh, I’m sorry!’ That’s what I did.”
Chef Oizumi has no problem with children coming to his restaurant but they should have some basic sushi manners. “The sushi bar counter is not a place to read a book. Also, children who start playing video games. I never let them play games. If you want to play, then go home. That kid I made cry with wasabi, what is he doing now. He is a teacher. When he met a girlfriend he called me up in my place in Ginza and asked, ‘Can I come?’ Welcome! He actually turned out fine. That kid also came by when I opened here. His girlfriend thought it was funny when I told how I put wasabi on his sushi and made him cry.”
He hopes that customers will come from near and far. “If you have delicious food everyone will come, even if it only one time a year. And then there are the new local customers. I need to catch them. Sushi is really not about how you touch the rice but about how you touch the customers' hearts. If you can’t do that, you can’t succeed.”
So a decades-long dream of running a sushiya has finally been fulfilled, opening a shop in a competitive neighborhood. Now the coronavirus epidemic has stopped many people from leaving their homes. This may be the first test for the Oizumis, and likely a very difficult one. In fact, it will be a big challenge for the entire Japanese food and beverage industry. And the Tokyo Olympics are looking uncertain. We have to be concerned about the entire independent sushi bar culture which has been part of both everyday and special dinners for Japanese people for many decades. (James Farrer March 22, 2020)
(Interview by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura Jan. 30, 2020; Japanese transcription and Japanese language editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation and English writing by James Farrer. Copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved.)