LONDON — Nyotaimori — aka “female body arrangement” aka “naked sushi,” in which the food is eaten from the nude body of a beautiful woman — is as much legend as fact in Japan (see accompanying article). But that hasn’t stopped the Western imagination from seizing upon it as supposed shorthand for everything Japanese: an exquisite erotic aesthetic, a minimalist cuisine with a side-order of kinky.
On-screen, you can’t escape nyotaimori. You may remember a prominent scene in the 1993 film “Rising Sun,” starring Sean Connery. More recently, it has featured in the film of “Sex and the City” and the mockumentary “Bruno” when celebrity Paula Abdul fled from an interview rather than eat sushi off a naked Mexican man. On the small screen, it’s starred in a episode of “CSI: New York” and, memorably, in Britain’s popular “Come Dine With Me” reality series, when one dinner-party host grossed out his guests by asking them to eat sushi off a hairy young man of dubious hygiene. One diner was filmed gagging shortly after.
Off-screen, too, nyotaimori has become fashionable, with celebrity enthusiasts including George Clooney and Brad Pitt. And yet still no one knows exactly what body sushi is — or should be. In America, options for partaking of nyotaimori range from $2,000 custom private dining, to events in strip clubs and other sex-trade venues, to cheap and cheerful specials at sushi shops featuring models wrapped in cling-film.
“Cling film,” groans Nigel Carlos, cofounder of Britain’s first foray into the world of nyotaimori, Flash Sushi. “One newspaper illustrated a piece about us using a picture of a woman wrapped in cling-film. I think that’s quite demeaning. It’s certainly not what Flash Sushi is about.”
Carlos, who works in events and PR, came up with Flash Sushi when he and a friend spotted a gap in the market. “It started as an idea between friends, and became one of those ‘Things to do before you turn 30,’ ” he explains.
He didn’t quite make it in time — Flash Sushi’s first event was held mid-November, not long after Carlos’ birthday. The concept, he explains, is a blend of fine dining and artistic display. Rather than any Japanese source, the visual inspiration for Flash Sushi’s presentation is the iconic image from the film “American Beauty”: a beautiful girl lying among rose petals.
“The two of us lie down each end of the table,” says Rachel, a dancer who has served as the “platter” at one Flash Sushi event. (She “chickened out of” the very first evening, but is now looking forward to modeling for several more). “The dressers put petals over us, and wrap leaves round our knickers. It’s very tasteful and I don’t feel any more exposed than I do in some of the outfits I wear when being a dancer on tours.” The sushi is then laid onto Rachel’s body on three large leaf-platters; these are replenished through the evening, which lasts several hours and features unlimited drinks, thereby borrowing at least one authentic Japanese custom, the nomi ho-dai.
Has Rachel ever felt the need to sneeze, cough, or move a muscle during those hours? “We’re dancers, so we’re used to being able to hold still and keep control over our bodies,” she explains. “In fact, it’s actually quite relaxing. We’re allowed to close our eyes, and I think one girl even dozed off. I use the time to think about the week ahead and plan what I’ve got to do.”
Unfortunately, none of Flash Sushi’s guests want to talk to The Japan Times about their experience. Carlos speculates that they’d rather not own up to attending such an “opulent” event while Britain is still mired in recession — a seat at the Flash Sushi table will set you back £250 (¥37,000). But he doesn’t doubt they talk about it in the office. “It’s the ultimate water-cooler moment,” he says. “A ‘you’ll never guess what I did last night’ thing.”
Certainly word seems to be spreading — Carlos has noticed multiple bookings from within certain financial firms — but the clientele are surprisingly diverse. It was a birthday celebration for one diner, a husband and wife came to experience nyotaimori together — and yes, there have been Japanese clients.
Rachel, on the other hand, hasn’t told anyone about her new side-line of work — especially not her parents. “My mum just wouldn’t get it,” she says, with a laugh. “It takes a certain type of person to appreciate it.”
Rachel’s mum isn’t the only person not to get it. Julie Bindel, feminist columnist for Britain’s popular daily The Guardian, used the launch of Flash Sushi to devote an entire column to criticizing nyotaimori. “Imagine how desperate a woman would have to be to agree to be a dish,” Bindel urges, as she speculates on “the humiliation the women would inevitably feel in being used as an object, spread out and vulnerable in front of leering men.”
“We anticipated a feminist backlash,” says Carlos. “But I believe we empower the women. They are well paid, there is excellent security, and ground rules: no talking, no touching, gentlemanly behavior at all times.”
Rachel, preparing for her next night as a human platter-cum-artwork, has a different concern to worry over. “I have a phobia of fish,” she confesses. “I have to completely block it out of my mind.”