25 June, 2010

All aboard the Sushi Train!

Japanese food is one of my favorite cuisines, if not my most favorite. Although New York City has tons of Japanese restaurants offering sushi, yakitori, ramen, and even curry, I haven't really found one that offers conveyor belt sushi.

There are probably a few places out there that I'm not aware of, but they're far from being ubiquitous, unlike in say, Australia, where the conveyor belt sushi ("Oh, the sushi trains!", exclaimed my Aussie friend) places are everywhere, usually operated by proprietors of Japanese descent. Great for them, but why not NYC? Isn't that strange?

Sushi Train video

If you've never heard of conveyor belt sushi, that's exactly what it is. The sushi plates are placed on a rotating belt that moves around the sushi bar, with prices varying according to the color of the plate. As the plate that catches your fancy passes by, simply reach out and grab it from the belt. Your bill will be tallied up after wards according to the number and color of plates you have consumed.

Fortunately, my vacation in Japan gave me a couple of opportunities to hop aboard the sushi trains, so to speak. Not that I made it a point to do any research on kaiten sushi places, but rather stumbled upon them while sightseeing - one in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and the other in downtown Kyoto.

During my initial conveyor belt sushi experience, it took me a few moments after sitting down at the counter to figure things out, like where the tea cups were and how to get water from the nearby spigot. Everything is truly self-service, although the staff is happy to assist if you wish to ask the chef for a custom order.

Watching the sushi rolling merrily along the train tracks proved quite entertaining, though the signs puzzled me since I don't speak any Japanese. Sushi plate prices are clearly indicated on a chart and start at around $1.50 for two pieces of fish (e.g. tuna, salmon), and increase for more special items (e.g. eel).

Sushi Train video

I found the conveyor belt sushi dishes to be quite fresh and delicious, contrary to some people's dismissive attitude towards kaiten sushi places as being "fast food sushi". Since they're part and parcel of Japanese culture, some of the world's most meticulous consumers, I wasn't surprised about the high quality standards though.

On each occasion, empty plates 8 or 9 deep were stacked up in front of me at the end of the meal. The self-service aspect also meant lunch took less than half an hour, leaving more time for on-a-full-stomach post-meal contemplation: why aren't conveyor belt sushi restaurants more common in New York City (or the USA in general)?

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