We need to talk about sushi. First, any discussion of sushi isn’t worth its wasabi without a mention of the perspicacious octogenarian Jiro Ono, star of the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” about his Michelin-starred restaurant in Ginza — you know, the one that Obama took Abe to, or was it the other way round? To wit: The documentary I recommend, I haven’t eaten at Sukiyabashi Jiro (although I would like to), but before that I would like to point out that there are many, many excellent sushi establishments in Japan that don’t work out at roughly ¥1,000 a minute. Here’s one.
Nanaezushi is in the unimposing western suburbs of Kyoto: it looks more like the rest of (suburban) Japan than (old) Kyoto. What matters — especially for this inland city — is that it’s nearly within smelling distance of the city fish market. If you can’t be close to the sea, then a fish market it should be.
The Jiro documentary makes clear that making sushi is a vocation and one that often envelops the entire family. The master at Nanaezushi has been making sushi for close to 50 years; his wife greets and seats customers. It’s a small, classically designed sushi shop: a wrap-around counter, three low tables on tatami mats and a fish tank, the last resting place for aji (mackerel), ebi (shrimp) and a few other sea creatures.
Nananezushi serves Edo-kei (Tokyo-style) sushi. The sashimi menu is substantial, but I came for the nigiri-zushi, the hand-rolled bite-size sushi. Sushi is about freshness, simplicity and brevity. The menu is divided three ways, with servings ranging from ¥250 to ¥700, and all are served on sushi no geta — those wooden platforms. When it comes to sushi, everyone has their preferences; for me it’s white fish. We started with octopus: a thin slice of the tentacle, a strip of nori seaweed binding the rice to the octopus and a rub of soy sauce marinade or murasaki (plain soy sauce). This was followed by kisu (Japanese whiting), aji, geso (squid tentacles) and tai (sea bream).
The servings are always simple, yet artful — sometimes adorned with scallions, shiso (perilla) or wasabi. Other times, as with the chū-toro (tuna), the composition is restrained: a cut of fish on a pressing of rice, the flesh and the grain ever so delicately transformed. Two highlights were the geso and tilefish, or kuji as it is called in Kyoto. Both have contrasting chewiness, but the tilefish far less so. Both were delicious. The akadashi soup — with chunks of tai — and gari (vinegared ginger slices) provide respite during the fish course. For the adventurous, try the kurama ebi, a prawn fished from the tank, beheaded and served in moments. Be warned, it “dances” in your mouth as you ingest it — a memorable experience, but maybe one you wouldn’t mind passing on, either.
So, Obama, when you’re free of the presidential shackles and back in Japan, and you feel like a sushi summit with “ordinary folk,” pencil in Nanaezushi. You won’t be disappointed.
J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.