Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

August 1, 2013

Osaka and Conveyor Belt Sushi (Kaiten-sushi)

Osaka often seems to be playing second fiddle to Big Brother Tokyo, but it actually is a city of many firsts. Pocket calculators were invented here in 1964, the first automatic ticket gates appeared in Osaka earlier than elsewhere in 1967, vacuum packed foods as curry were introduced in this food-conscious city in 1968, and the famous cup noodles made their first appearance in 1971 - before going on to conquer the world. And of course we should not forget "conveyor belt sushi" (Kaiten-sushi), which greeted the rising sun in 1958. The first revolving sushi restaurant in the world, called Mawaru Genroku Sushi, opened its doors in April 1958 in Fuse, in what is now Higashi-Osaka.

Fuse is just a few minutes by Nara-bound Kintetsu train from Tsuruhashi on the Osaka loop line and the sushi restaurant sits almost in front of the station (on the block of shops to the right when you stand in front of the south exit of Fuse station). This is an old downtown neighborhood with impressive classical shopping arcades and shops and other establishments that are pleasantly old-fashioned.

[Mawaru Genroku Sushi in Fuse, Osaka]

In a Kaiten-sushi restaurant the plates with the sushi are placed on a rotating belt that winds around the counter where the cooks work, and moves past every seat. Customers pick their selections from a steady stream of fresh sushi snaking by in front of their eyes. A great invention from the city of Kuidaore, "eating until you drop down," and symbolic for the Osaka mentality of "value for money."

As the Daily Yomiuri writes:
Operator Yoshiaki Shiraishi equipped a sushi restaurant counter with a revolving belt after seeing a conveyer belt at a beer factory and thinking that it could reduce the work of waitstaff. At the time, a bowl of ramen noodles cost about 40 yen, and one plate of four sushi pieces was priced at 50 yen.

Sushi-go-rounds, as they are sometimes called, became known across the nation after one opened near the 1970 Osaka Expo venue.
Mr Shiraishi did his invention due to staffing problems. And indeed, besides the sushi chef(s) behind the counter, there is often only one waiter or waitress who seats you and handles the cash register and besides that, at most takes care of special drink orders as beer. The rest is available at your table: from soy sauce to wasabi and chopsticks. Interestingly, there is even a hot water faucet, so that customers can make their own tea.

[Kaiten sushi - note the white hot water faucets for making tea]

The belt moves at 8 cm per second, clockwise, and is constantly replenished. In some shops, it is also possible to ask the chef for special types of sushi that are on the menu on the wall, but not on the conveyor. The belt also carries things as deserts. In Genroku Sushi a second belt has been built on top of the first one, carrying such things as cups, ash trays, paper napkins and other accessories. Besides offering traditional fish (tuna, salmon etc.) and shellfish, Genroku Sushi goes along with the times in providing sushi with raw meat, calbee, chicken, and sausages - and mayonnaise as a flavoring. The Japanese names of the plates are indicated with little flags, but there is also an English picture menu.

In Kaiten Sushi restaurants the bill is calculated based on the number and type of color-coded plates the customer has amassed and is never an unpleasant surprise. There are even sushi shops where every plate is priced at a fixed price, say 130 yen. Kaiten Sushi made sushi, until then a luxury food, available to ordinary people. Sushi shops became family restaurants. When I visited Genroku Sushi, in the early evening of an ordinary weekday, the other visitors were mainly locals who would eat a few plates and then go back home again. By the way, considering that conveyer belt sushi was originally started to reduce staff, a surprisingly large number of staff was on duty, to seat the customers, count the plates, and keep everything running smoothly. The chefs were also working at high speed to keep up with the pace of consumption.

There are about 3000 Kaiten Sushi shops in Japan and the industry is still going strong. Many belong to chains as Akindo Sushiro, Atom Boy, Genki Sushi, Kappa Sushi, etc. Of the original inventor chain, Mawaru Genroku Sushi, there are still 11 shops in the Kansai.