2000s Archive

For Sushi's Sake

Originally Published October 2001
What's sleep got to do with it? We follow the footsteps of a passionate Tokyo chef.

Nai mono ha nai"—"There's nothing that's not here"— my old friend Fumio Sato declares, leading the way through the kaleidoscope of Tokyo's TsukiČji fish market. As I struggle to keep up, dodging careening carts piled with frozen tuna carcasses, Sato-san moves with practiced determination and speed, bouncing from vendor to vendor, calling out greetings and questions. Poking at a display of sardines, he makes a rapid mental calculation (involving everything from the day of the week and the weather to the state of the economy), then places an order, checking off "sardines" on the Excel-generated fish list he carries on a clipboard. Moving on, he sticks a finger under the gills of a shiny snapper and nods, satisfied. Another check on the list. A mackerel catches his eye. He hardly decelerates to stroke its skin, then frowns. No check. In all the commotion—Tsukiji is the world's largest fish market; at six in the morning, it's like Times Square on caffeine—I sometimes lose track of Sato and have to scan the crowds for his red parka and Mickey Mouse baseball cap.

Sato is a sushi chef. I met him more than a decade ago when I was living in Tokyo and wandered into Sukeroku, his sushi-ya just behind the Kabuki Theatre in Ginza and around the corner from the publishing house where I worked. The sushi at his shop was always fresh, and the bargain lunch-time assortment came on an aspidistra leaf instead of on a plate. It was served with the most delicious miso soup I'd ever tasted. And Sato, boyishly handsome and charming, had a streak of irreverence that was a relief to me.

Conformist Japan has a saying: "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." The only American at the magazine office, I was that nail. Unable to keep my opinions to myself, I was increasingly ostracized by my coworkers. Looking for solace, I started to visit Sato regularly, for I had detected a bit of the "nail" in him, too. He referred to sushi as Japan's fast food.

The Japanese tend to eat lunch promptly between noon and one, so I would arrive at the small restaurant late, when it would be empty, and I could have Sato to myself. Despite our language problems (he spoke about a dozen words of English and my fluency in Japanese waxed and waned), we became fast friends.

It was a symbiotic relationship. Japanese restaurants can be as daunting as Japanese offices; there is a proper way to behave, to order, and to eat. I was often the only blue-eyed foreigner in sight; it was easy to feel like a bata kusai (stinking-of-butter) barbarian. Sato taught me to stop worrying and enjoy myself. And I allowed him to relax, too. I wasn't Japanese, so he could say and do whatever he wanted in front of me.

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