I flew 5,974 miles to eat at Sushi Yu, and it was worth it…
Like most travellers, I like getting out of airports as quickly as possible. So when I landed at Tokyo Haneda Airport, I quickly began zigging and zagging, wheeling my case around as many people as possible in hopes of getting in a cab and taking that all important deep breath: we made it.
To put it most simplistically, a proper Tokyo sushi experience forces a much more meaningful deep breath out of you.
It demands calm, tranquility, honour and respect, and when you live in cities where none of those things are regularly on the menu, it’s all the more meaningful. Sushi in Tokyo is a life experience worth every penny, and even if for a couple hours – it will change you. It always does, me.
A proper sushi den is a transformative experience, and often one with just 8-12 seats. There’s no loud party groups, rainbow rolls, or dance music here, and if you want to fit in, you need to give the meal as much attention as the sushi chef puts into each immaculate piece. You can genuinely feel the love in each grain of rice, perfectly textured unlike anything else in this world.
Fresh fish is purchased from the market, special rice is hand selected and real wasabi and beautiful brush strokes of varying soy make every piece a thing of perfection, without the need to do anything but eat it one bite. And yes, every piece that lands on your gorgeous ceramic plate should be eaten in one bite.
But for many travellers like myself, caught up in the hustle and bustle and pace of life elsewhere, it often takes a little bit of time to find your stride. I had the immense pleasure of eating in Sushi Yu, a beloved hidden gem in Tokyo this last week, and I was instantly reminded of the therapeutic and healing nature of travel. I sat down, rushed through two courses and caught up with the group of locals to my left, and I did it all way too fast.
It was when I noticed that I, the bull in a china shop American had actually gone ahead in the non existent race to finish each morsel, despite being last to the seating, that I was doing it all wrong. I was stressed, and when I’m stressed, I eat – fast. I quickly had a word with myself, took a deep breath and realised that the true art of sushi is about creating immense beauty and flavour in the most minimalist way possible. To get a full appreciation for each delicately balanced morsel, you must sit back, relax and tune everything out.
Eating in a proper sushi den, in the purest Omakase form demanded better of me, and I freaking love that. Without a word, the chef transformed my mindset. I slowed down, let each heavenly taste linger and slowly sipped the beautiful cold sake to cleanse my palate, but it was a pace I could never let myself savour at home. By piece 4, of the roughly 15-20 piece omakase service, I was finally in Japan in both mind and body, and embracing it all in a mindful way I rarely experience anywhere.
To say I think about the meal every day is an understatement, and I should, because omakase is an expensive and special occasion. A trip to Japan is rarely inexpensive, and staying in Tokyo hardly ever is either. To make matters worse, a proper omakase, chefs selection style meal will generally set you back at least $100, but more often $200 per person. And yes, some dens which rely more heavily on foreign guests can go way north of that too.
But to the point of this story, the $200 buys you much more than the most beautifully sourced daily seafood and some perfectly seasoned sushi rice. By learning to appreciate and reflect on each bite individually, I realised how crucial it is to slow down in life sometimes, to put the phone away and to just be in the present. It all sounds simple, but I’d argue that we’re all guilty of this from time to time. A great omakase meal can be like a therapy session, reminding you of the simple pleasures and joy in the littlest things.
By most western standards, you can get great sushi in a 7/11 or Lawson’s on just about any street corner in Japan, and if that’s all you can do, you’ll enjoy it very much. But if you can reach for a once in a blue moon occasion, there’s simply no other dining experience on earth like watching one passionate proprietor wow you, making pieces sized perfectly for you, and no one else. As far as the greatest “a-ha” travel moments go, you just can’t go through life without a true sushi experience in Japan.