Eating Out In Japan: Sushi With Attitude

by David Stormer

At the sight of the foreigner walking in, the sushi bar hums in curious amusement and echoes to cries of welcome. There are only three other customers here, outnumbered by twice that many sushi bar staff.

One of them is a gargantuan young man with a sumo wrestler's silhouette who, red-faced and pouting, stirs a pot on a stove. Another a gaunt middle-aged model of chefly probity, maintaining an imperious air of dutiful authority.

Of the other four, another man-mountain, slightly taller and a lot less dour, motions me smilingly to a seat in front of where he is standing, only a long glass showcase of various freshly dead fishes between us.


Doyama-cho Osaka


Outside is the main street - more a generous alley - of Osaka's gay quarters, Doyama-cho. This is a part of Osaka where the city shows part of its heart.

Stalked by prides of young men in cheap baggy suits, belts pulled too tight under jackets with sleeves that are a bit too long, cheaply dyed hair flopping over their faces, practicing poses of territorial attitude between expending their patter on old drunken men and horny gullible youths.

People bumping into each other and hardly noticing: a self-involved in-group preoccupation at the expense of anything outside its narrow confines, cured of its incest only by remarkable things such as sudden loud noises, and never by such commonplaces as the occasional homeless men shuffling by cursing or pissing against the wall.

A general unhurriedness, a languidness, punctuated by mutual ejaculations of surprise, disgust, pleasure, or whatever - under which all lies the longing for something novel, something vivid, something cute.

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The big man displays relief and hospitable pleasure. We discuss what I want and agree on a course of various sushi chosen and prepared by him. I order a beer, 'Bottle or cup?' - is his excursion into solicitous English. I go for a pint 'cup' and settle back for the fare to come.

From now I start paying for my welcome. Before long certain staff are looking my way and exchanging the odd glance. The fat man looks my way and whispers something to his partner with a slightly sour look on his face. Me a baldy, I catch the phrase 'E.T.', and a stifled giggle. My requests are met with less and less good grace, but . . . well, this is Osaka.

Osaka where things that are taken seriously are taken so seriously that you'd rather not know. Where getting serious is an unfortunate rarity involving quixotic and dangerous gestures sometimes matched by equally serious results; and conversely where anything below that level is of little account: gusts, squalls, things that are said and then float away forgotten.

And more than just being Osaka, this is a sushi bar: a cultural institution, as pent-up and rigorous as Japanese baseball, which owes nothing to anyone, but which is there to be appreciated, valued, and praised; which follows the prescribed exactitudes and flair when it comes to what it delivers you, and its tongue when it comes to what it feels.

The real business is conducted like a translucent veneer over personal likes, dislikes, foibles and opinions.

Moments after the sour muttering and mumbling, my big man is again beaming as he hands me another plate of impeccably prepared and delicious twin blocks of sushi.

I dip them in soy sauce, top them with ginger, perhaps a dash of mashed sour plum, and hanging between the points of my chopsticks, place one in my mouth where uncooked fish and boiled rice and a touch of horseradish become something truly memorable - then take another swig of my big ice cold beer.

By the time I'm almost through, a group of three Japanese men come in and in the time it takes them to cross the threshold one by one, the staff, positively presiding from behind the counter, have dismissed them in just audible mutters, murmurs and guffaws as 'a gangster', 'a tramp', and 'a pimp'.

As 'E.T.' I realize I actually get off quite lightly! My heart light's glowing, and not even a bill that comes to close on $40 for the twenty-minute chow can cause it a flicker.

Tsuji Culinary School

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