All Aboard for Kaiten-zushi
Over the past few decades, Japan has developed a bit of a reputation for some of the weird and wacky ways it presents food. A few months ago, I wrote an article here for HSE Illuminated about how Kentucky Fried Chicken became a staple on Japanese dinner tables at Christmastime. My own first experience with unusual Japanese food came in my very first trip to a restaurant in Japan: I ordered a serving of fried chicken, but what I failed to realise is that they would fry EVERY part of the chicken, including the heart, stomach, and feet. Of course I didn’t realise this until I had already started to dig in.
Ever since that fateful first day, my relationship with Japanese food has grown to become a true passion. Although it is perhaps most well known for its raw fish and white rice, Japanese cuisine has something for everyone, and more often than not if you just try it, you will be pleasantly surprised. But out of all the strange and surprising culinary encounters, I must say the most unique one that I had the pleasure of experiencing was kaiten-zushi (回転寿司).
The “zushi” part of “kaiten-zushi” pertains to sushi, probably the most well-known Japanese dish; however, sushi in its homeland might be a bit different from the rolls you can order in Russian restaurants. One plate of sushi from a kaiten-zushi restaurant typically consists of the following: two portions of cooked white rice, about a finger’s length and a centimetre in diameter, with one slice of a various garnish spread out on top of each. This style of sushi is called “nigiri-zushi” (にぎり寿司), meaning “hand-made sushi”, in contrast to “maki-zushi” (巻き寿司), which are the rolls you might be more familiar with. The topping of each sushi is traditionally a slice of raw seafood, such as tuna, salmon, shrimp, squid, eel, roe, etc. However, there are plenty of options for those who would prefer their toppings to be cooked, such as smoked salmon or grilled beef; there are also vegetarian toppings like cucumber and nori. A single plate of sushi typically costs between 200 and 250 Yen (120 to 150 Rubles at time of writing), but prices are higher for certain premium toppings such as beef tongue, scallops, and snow crab. For those not keen on rice in general, various sides can be specially ordered, including fried chicken and french fries; most kaiten-zushi restaurants also offer a seasonal dessert menu, which I would very highly recommend.
What makes kaiten-zushi restaurants special, though, is not the food that they serve. Instead, it is the way in which it is served that makes kaiten-zushi a unique experience. Allow me to explain how a kaiten-zushi restaurant works in a few simple steps.
These restaurants usually have two options for seating: single counter seats or table seats for groups. If you’re by yourself and in a rush, the counter seating is your best bet, as people usually don’t take much time there, but for more than one person, a table is more comfortable. Once you enter the restaurant, an attendant will ask you where you’d like to sit: if you don’t speak any Japanese, don’t worry, because the attendant will know where to seat you based on the size of your group.
In fact, one of the best things about kaiten-zushi restaurants is that there is little to no Japanese language required. Once seated, everything you need is right there in front of you: toppings like soy sauce, wasabi, and shichimi are available for no extra charge, and there is even a box of powdered matcha and a hot water tap at each station for self-serve green tea. Be careful though, when I say “hot” water, I mean it!
Once you take a seat, you’ll immediately notice the most recognisable part of kaiten-zushi: the conveyor belt. Because of this, kaiten-zushi is also commonly known as “conveyor belt sushi”. Running in a continuous and non-stop line in front of all seats, this small conveyor belt carries on top of it various plates of the most popular varieties of sushi. There are also smaller condiments if the supply at your table runs out. If you see something you might like, feel free to just reach out and take it from the belt! Unless, of course, it was specially ordered. But what does that mean?
Sushi not usually seen on the conveyor belt can be delivered to you in a variety of ways. At each station there is an electronic touchpad containing the menu. Again, worry not, because they always have multiple available languages. Menu items are split into different sections for seafood, vegetarian, side dishes, and desserts. Just tap what you’d like to order, hit confirm, and you’ll usually hear a small confirmation sound. Now, there are three main ways that your specially ordered dishes could be brought to you.
- The most common way is also the most subtle: each table or seat will be colour-coded; the colour will usually be indicated on the seats themselves or under the conveyor belt where it passes by the station. This colour corresponds to the colour of the dish your specially ordered sushi will arrive on. Regular, non-ordered sushi will be on grey or white plates, but if you sit at the green table, for example, your sushi will ride the conveyor belt on a bright green dish. Once you’ve ordered, take special care to remember your station colour, and keep an eye out for your sushi as it passes by. There will usually also be an audio notification that your sushi will soon be arriving. Make sure you don’t take from a dish that’s not of your station colour!
- Specially ordered sushi might also be brought to your station directly by an attendant. In a few restaurants, they even have automated mini-trains that run on tracks parallel to the conveyor belt and drop off the sushi right at your station. You take the sushi from the train, press a button, and it zooms back to the kitchen.
A typical meal at a kaiten-zushi restaurant usually consists of three to four dishes per person. Of course you can always order more; I’ve seen families with what must have been a hundred plates of sushi between them. As you finish your food, stack the plates on top of one another at the end of your table. Once you’ve had your fill (and hopefully a dessert as well), press a button on the table and an attendant will come to your station. The attendant will count the plates and calculate the total price based on the colour of the plates. They will give you your bill, which you can bring to the register and pay on your way out. Just like that, your kaiten-zushi adventure is complete!
Don’t take specially ordered sushi from the conveyor belt if it’s a different colour than your station.
Don’t touch anything on the conveyor belt if you don’t intend to take it.
Don’t place anything back on the conveyor belt once you’ve removed it.
At first, the rules and etiquette of kaiten-zushi may seem a bit daunting and hard to remember. However, like most things in Japan, they essentially just follow basic human manners, and once you’ve had the experience, it is all very natural and easy to follow. Kaiten-zushi is a wonderful way to experience cheap, traditional Japanese cuisine without worrying about having to speak the language, although the chefs would certainly always appreciate a nice “gochisōsama deshita” (thank you for the meal). These restaurants have become a quintessential part of Japanese culture, and if you ever find yourself in Japan, I highly recommend you to give it a try. Just like the conveyor belt, I guarantee you’ll come back around for more!