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Japanese sushi - what to know

Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sushi

Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sushi: How much do you know?

By Chu Thi Anh | October 18, 2021 

What do you think of when it comes to Japanese food? I bet that most of you would think of Japanese sushi.

Needless to say, sushi is one of the most popular dishes in Japanese cuisine. As a universal food in Japan, sushi has gone beyond the borders for a long time and has been welcomed in many countries from the East to the West. It is so well-known that the Japanese word “sushi” (寿司) became globally accepted. 

Styles of sushi vary widely with countless versions, but the key ingredient is “sushi rice”. When we think of sushi, we definitely imagine it as a small roll of rice accompanied by fresh seafood. Because it is usually raw, if we could not find a good restaurant with quality assurance, we are very susceptible to food poisoning which can lead to an unwelcome stomach ache. But that is most certainly not the case in Japan, where food quality is on top of the game. 

However, did you know that sushi is actually considered just a type of “fast food” in Japan? Or, did you know that the ingredients do not necessarily need to be raw? In Japan, even in an expensive city like Tokyo, you can definitely have great sushi dishes for just 1 dollar. So amazing, isn’t it? Let's discover your next sushi spot!  

If you are a newcomer to Japan, check out more amazing guides on our Japan Switch Blog to learn more about Japanese culture and the Japanese language.

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    Japanese sushi - colorful plate of sushi in Tokyo

    Japanese sushi - all you need to know

    This section will take you only 3 minutes to understand all the mysterious things and facts about the famous Japanese sushi. 

    Why is Japanese sushi such a popular food? 

    Have you ever wondered why Japanese sushi is so popular? In both Japan and anywhere in the world, people all know about sushi as Japan's typical and signature dish. This is because Japanese people focus on the fresh and original taste of fish. They had spent thousands of years in history discovering and developing the flavour.  

    Japanese sushi is a traditional food 

    Most of you may assume that Japan was the creator of sushi, but that is not the case surprisingly. If you spend a little time tracing back the history, sushi originated as a dish from China and was spread to Japan in the 8th century. 

    At first, sushi consisted of fermented rice and salted fish. In the past, Japanese people used to ferment the rice by using rice vinegar and then use that fermented rice to preserve the fish as some kind of wrapper. That fermented rice was then thrown away. However, it was not until the middle of the 18th century that sushi became a beloved staple dish in Edo (contemporary Tokyo). It was so popular that, as one writer in 1852 said, there were 1-2 sushi restaurants for each 100-meter square during the Edo period (1603 - 1868).

    However, due to the lack of refrigeration during those days, sushi was often cooked and served in large pieces. You would be astonished by the size of sushi pieces in the Edo era. If you visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The sushi we know today is quite different. The rice was tossed with vinegar instead of being thrown away, and a small slice of fish was placed on top. It is now called “nigiri”, which literally means two fingers, which implies smaller and subtle flavours.  

    In the simplest terms, Japan is an island country with a scarcity of resources, not to mention the severe effect of regular natural resources. As their nation is not blessed to be rich in food, Japanese people always focus on the in-depth development of what they have and appreciate them. Therefore, the fishery must be the industry with the most prolonged historical development in Japan and became a spiritual existence. Thus, only in Japan could sushi become that popular and delicious. It can be said that sushi is just like art, and the chef is an artist. 

    You can find out more in A brief history of sushi and why it’s so popular today

    Japanese Sushi - a healthy and nutritious food

    Japanese people eat sushi quite often, almost every week. You can easily find several types of sushi boxes even in convenience stores and supermarkets. It is common to see families with children spend time together in a sushi restaurant enjoying sushi, without spending too much money.  

    Sushi’s main ingredients are naturally low in fat and high in protein. Ingredients such as vinegar, fish full of DHA, rice with vitamin B and E, which are considered suitable for your health and the intellectual development of your children. Japanese people have eaten sushi for thousands of years, and have the highest life expectancy in the world. Of course, they do not eat sushi alone, but we never can deny the high levels of certain nutrients in fish. 

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    Why should you make Japanese sushi a regular part of your diet?

    How often do Japanese people eat sushi in Japan? Here are some reasons that you should consider Japanese sushi as a part of your weekly diet.  

    You can have sushi fast and almost everywhere 

    Sushi restaurants are almost everywhere in Japan. Sometimes, it is just about finding a restaurant with a reasonable cost for your decision. During lunch breaks at work or school, you can order and consume sushi quickly without rushing or wasting time in the long queues. Be aware that sushi restaurants are usually crowded at lunchtime, and you may have a few minutes to wait. You can avoid the queue by making a reservation beforehand from their websites. Aside from that, there are always many options of sushi for you in convenience stores or supermarkets where they serve a set of sushi in plastic trays. 

    As there may be a few foreigners who can not eat raw fish, don’t worry! There are many other kinds of fish that are cooked on the sushi menu.  

    It is very reasonably priced

    In my experience, sometimes it is cheaper to go out to eat sushi rather than buying raw fish at the supermarkets or trying to cook a dish. It is hard to have fresh, tasty fish at a reasonable price and it also takes time and effort for trial and error when cooking. There are many 100 yen sushi chain restaurants around, so I’d recommend you’d rather go there instead! Additionally, sushi boxes in supermarkets are also relatively cheap, ranging from 500 yen to 1500 yen for differences in size and types. You can find many options from What are the best and most wallet-friendly Japanese sushi options around?  

    But there are still health risks when eating Japanese sushi 

    Although sushi brings along a variety of nutrients, it can still potentially put your health at risk. Sushi contains white rice with a combination of vinegar, sugar, and salt, which may increase the saturated fats you intake. Besides, some types of fish like tuna may lead to mercury poisoning when consumed in large amounts due to the levels of methylmercury they harbour.

    The small risk of quality issues of sushi and raw fish in Japan is inevitable but still very small. They always sell a certain amount of sushi within the day, even in supermarkets or convenience stores. Thus, almost all sushi restaurants in Japan allow you to choose sushi dishes with a smaller amount of rice, usually in half. If you do not want to intake too much rice and carbohydrates, you’d better keep this in mind.  

    Japanese sushi - Enjoying a Geta of sushi in Tokyo

    The difference between authentic Japanese sushi and sushi in Western countries 

    If you are from a Western country, especially the US, you may already have been familiar with Sushi as there are plenty of restaurants in America. However, how are they different from authentic Japanese Sushi served here, in Japan? Let’s discover it!

    Difference in ingredients

    Traditional Japanese Sushi is lower in both calories and fat than Western Sushi. This is because Japanese Sushi remains simple and is usually made of three to four ingredients. Typically, Sushi is only fish and rice, which are filled with minerals and vitamins. The core value in Japanese Sushi is the freshness of the fish, which is only taken from local markets or famous fishing spots. Many restaurants will also adjust their menus bases on the quality of fish they have that day. In addition, wasabi is added slightly between the fish and rice so that customers can enjoy the natural tastes of the fish. 

    In contrast, Western Sushi tends to be larger in size with many toppings and condiments, for example, tempura, avocado, mayonnaise, cream cheese, etc. Therefore, it has a significant amount of calories. 

    Moreover, the used rice also differs between the two. Sushi rice in Japan is known to be minor, white and glutinous, which is very chewy. However, in Western sushi restaurants, many restaurants use brown rice or even quinoa to attract people who are on a diet or those who want to avoid white rice.

    Difference in styles

    A significant difference in the sushi styles of Japanese and Western Sushi is how sushi rolls are made. Sushi rolls in Japan are most commonly done with the nori wrapped on the outside of the roll, while the idea of putting rice outside the nori was to appeal more to the Western aesthetic. 

    Besides, Japanese Sushi does not come in as many styles as the West, and they keep their sushi pieces simple and traditional. However, in the US, many sushi places serve several creative sushi such as thick sushi roll, sushi stack, sushi doughnuts, deep-fried Sushi,... Although the main components are still rice and seafood, they are very colourful with many side ingredients. On that note, Japanese Sushi is trying to be more creative these days as well.

    The Top 4 most common types of sushi that you should definitely try in Japan

    Here below are 4 common types that are served in any sushi restaurant in Japan. Have you tried them all? 

    Nigiri-zushi

    Nigirizushi (握り寿司) is one of the most traditional and popular sushi forms in Japan. It is also fundamental with a slice of fish served on top of palm-pressed sushi rice and a little bit of wasabi placed between them. One point here is that the fish is not always raw, sometimes they also serve Nigiri with fried fish, meat or vegetables.

    Several types of Nigiri in Japanese sushi -
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    Makizushi

    Makizushi (巻き寿司 is mostly what people think of when it comes to sushi rolls. This type of sushi uses seaweed to wrap outside the rice and toppings rolled together in a long cylinder form. It is also very easy to cook at home as you can customize what goes into it. See the simple homemade sushi recipe below. 

    Makisushi served at Japanese sushi restaurant

    Sashimi 

    Sashimi (刺身) is just fresh fish, or shellfish (sometimes meat) served alone in thin pieces with no rice. This is the best choice for people who want to lower the intake of carbs and those who love to flavour the fish or shellfish alone. You can buy a sashimi box from any supermarket as the taste is not too different from restaurants. 

    Slices of sashimi in Japanese sushi -

    Chirashi

    Chirashi sushi (ちらし寿司) means Scattered Sushi in English, is often eaten on special occasions like Girl’s Day or other events in Japan. Traditionally, it is a homemade dish that has a generous amount of seafood such as tuna, salmon, shrimp, sliced vegetables, etc. placed on top of the rice bowl. It is the inspiration of Kaisen-Don, a rice bowl with a variety of sashimi on its top. However, chirashi sushi is more decorative with several types of cutting seafood, sometimes meat or fried fish. This brings along a bright and colourful dish to celebrate a particular day.

    Planning for a trip to Okinawa? Discover its features in our article Okinawan Food and Cuisine. 

    A bowl of Chirashi in Japanese sushi

    Japanese Sushi Vocabulary you should remember

    100 yen sushi restaurants usually have a menu in English accompanied by a monitor, so it may not be a concern for you when visiting those places. They are also served in conveyor belts to pick what you like without having to communicate with the chefs. However, in classic restaurants, especially when you sit at the counters and order dishes directly with the chef, you’d better know some essential Japanese words and sentences. 

    You can just remember a simple sentence to order:

    すみません、えび一個お願いします。(すみません、えびいっこおねがいします。)

    (Sumimasen, ebi ikko onegaishimasu

    (I’d like to have a dish of shrimp?) 

    Shrimp can be replaced by other seafood such as: 

    甘鯛 (あまだい amadai):tilefish

    鯔 (ぼら bora) : striped mullet

    河豚 (ふぐ fugu) : blowfish, pufferfish

    いか ( ika ) : squid

     鮪 (まぐろ maguro) :tuna

    鰻 (うなぎ unagi) :eel

    There are many more types of fish served at the restaurants, you can find more from Sushi Vocabulary.

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    What are the best and most wallet-friendly Japanese sushi options around?

    Where to get the best Japanese sushi value for your 100 yen? 

    In this section, I will recommend some affordable Japanese sushi restaurants that can be found anywhere in Japan. Are they familiar to you? Have you tried all of them? All of those chains have a menu in English so there is no need to worry about the language barrier. 

    Sushiro (スシロー)

    The first bullet point in this list is Sushiro. This is the biggest franchised 100 yen sushi restaurant in Japan. Although most of the Sushi dishes served here are 100 yen, the prices also vary depending on the quality or type of seafood. Side dishes like Ramen or desserts cost about 150 yen to 300 yen and are worth trying. 

    Sushiro is quite popular, so it is normal to see a long waiting queue there, especially at lunchtime or dinner. Therefore, to avoid wasting time in the line, I recommend you book a table in advance through their phone app. 

    Hamazushi (はま寿司) 

    When coming to Hamazushi shop, you will meet a robot serving as their front door named “Pepper”. Pepper will warmly welcome you, give you a waiting number and assign you a table. Hamazushi is the first sushi restaurant that hires robots to place at their gate.  

    Like other competitors, Hamazushi serves sushi dishes at 100 yen, but sometimes they manage to lower the price to only 90 yen, typically during weekdays (except for holidays). 

    Hamazushi offers a wide range of soya sauces, from rich to mild flavours for your choice. Deep-fried dishes and Nankotsu are highly recommended at Hamazushi! 

    You can find the nearest locations by visiting its site or simply type its name on Google. 

    Kura sushi (くら寿司)

    Kura sushi has several notable features that you may find interesting. Japanese rice served here is high quality and well-selected, while seafood products are very fresh. They are kept in special covers to remain fresh and hygienic on the conveyor belt. In addition, there are many unique vinegared rice options like curry dishes, curry ice bread or rice coke. 

    You, of course, should try every dish here to find out your favourite one, but my recommendation for you is the cheesecake and grinded ice.

    The best thing at Kura sushi is that you can play a little game after every five plates. You just need to slide the empty plates into the slot attached to your table and press the start game button on the screen. The game is like a kind of lottery. If you are lucky, you will get a small prize if you win (usually a tiny cute toy). 

    Kappa sushi (かっぱ寿司

    Kappa Sushi is a pioneer of the 100 Sushi industry, who first started conveyor belt style in Japan. Although it does not have many branches like Sushiro or Hamazushi, it is still nationwide beloved in Japan. 

    At Kappa sushi, you can order an “all-you-can-eat” course to enjoy a variety of 100 yen sushi dishes, side dishes like Ramen or desserts, and free-flow soft drinks limitlessly within 60 minutes. After 60 minutes, you can pay 550 yen for every 30 minutes if you wish to have more time. However, remember to make sure that you should not leave dishes, or there will be a penalty cost for you!  

    The all-you-can-eat price at Kappa sushi (including taxes): 

    Adults: 2200 yen/person

    Senior over 65: 1700 yen/ person

    Elementary school children: 1200 yen/ person

    Children from 4 to 6 years old: 500 yen/person

    Children under 3 years old: free

    You can make a reservation on their website or using the phone app before you go. Sometimes, Kappa sushi offers a 100 yen off coupon if you do their small survey. So interesting, isn’t it? 

    Want to open a credit account in Japan but it is too complicated? Let’s us help you by checking out How to make debit and credit card? 

    Japanese sushi - large plate of sushi in Tokyo

    Must-try classic Conveyor Belt Sushi Restaurants

    100 sushi chain, although popular, but at a reasonable price, they can not serve the best sushi dishes for your experience. So in this session, let's take a look at some other fancier sushi restaurants. You may be interested in celebrating a special occasion with your friends or family there. 

    Katsumidori Meguro Branch

    Katsumidori is a sushi chain restaurant that has several branches around Japan. They are trendy and often featured on TV. Here, you can enjoy delicious sushi dishes at affordable prices. In Tokyo, the most famous one is located in Meguro. Probably, the branch is viral owing to the elegant neighbourhood of this area. 

    Katsumidori Meguro Branch is noteworthy for its remarkable diversity in the menu, which serves more than 200 fresh items in sushi rolls. Dish prices here vary from 110 yen to 610 yen. 

    The branch, unfortunately, does not accept reservations. Many people will line up for it, so waiting is unavoidable. The inferior inside is in wood grain which will make you feel very bright and relaxed. There are both counter seats and table seats available so you can enjoy the meals with your family and friends at leisure. 

    Edokko Kanda Branch 

    As its name suggests, this sushi restaurant is located in front of Kanda Station, which is known as an academic area with many schools, businesses around. It is also one station away from Tokyo station. Therefore, it is very convenient to drop in after work or visit the extremely crowded Tokyo station. 

    The menu at Edokko is filled with sashimi, snacks, Japanese sake, other side dishes and drinks. It is also popular to gather for drinking parties, so the drink menu is diverse enough to suit most people’s tastes. The cheapest dish here cost 187 yen, and they offer sushi sets from 2000 yen to 4000 yen. 

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    Nemuro Hanamaru KITTE Marunouchi Branch

    Nemuro Hanamaru is a fantastic restaurant where you can enjoy fresh fish from Nemuro (Hokkaido area). Most of their branches are located in Hokkaido, and there are only two spots in Tokyo. The Kitte Marunouchi Branch is highly recommended as it is close to the Tokyo station. 

    A recommended sushi topping for you at this branch is the soft roe of Pacific cod called Madachi. They have many other great toppings, such as live surf clam or live spiral-shelled snail, but you can only taste them if you go to Hokkaido. So how about note this restaurant down for your list when you travel to Hokkaido? 

    At Kitte Marunouchi Branch, you can have sushi dishes starting at the price of 198 yen or have a set with different types of fresh fish from more than 1000 yen. It is also a kid-friendly place, and the staff are efficient within a dash-and-dine environment. 

    They also have a variety of take-out sets that you can buy home for your family. 

    Numazuko Ginza 1st

    If you usually watch TV shows in Japan, you probably have heard that Numazuko Ginza 1st was a winner in the show TV Champion. It is also one of Japan's top classic conveyor belt sushi restaurants, where fresh sushi toppings are served with fish caught at Numazu port

    Located in Tokyo's most high-end spot, you can feel the fancy atmosphere within a spacious, vast restaurant while enjoying first-rate sushi at a high level of freshness and quality. One of their most famous dishes is the sushi assorted in the shape of Mt. Fuji, which is hand-shaped sushi with large pieces of ingredients. 

    The items in their menu are priced between more than 150 yen to 250 yen, and sets are offered from 1650 yen. You can also choose its all-you-can-eat pack to enjoy all dishes from sushi to side options within 120 minutes. This course costs 4200 yen for women, 5300 yen for men, 2500 for elementary school children and 1500 yen for younger children.

    Japanese sushi - homemade recipe for making sushi in Tokyo

    A quick and simple homemade sushi recipe

    If you love cooking, why don’t you try making sushi at home? Although it may be different from the way it tastes at your favourite restaurant, making it is still enjoyable and worth trying for your next gathering with friends. Rolling sushi might be the easiest to make at home, and you can put all your favourite ingredients into the custom roll. In addition, there is no need to heat it up, so it can be perfect for a lovely lunchbox or picnic day.

    Basic Ingredients: 

    Here are some essential ingredients for your references, and you can probably add in anything you like. Most of them can be found at the supermarket. 

    • Sheet of sushi seaweed (のり)
    • Sushi rice mixed with rice vinegar
    • Soy sauce (I always use the Kikkoman Light Soy Sauce because it is low in sodium) 
    • Fish/ sausage/ vegetables/cheese/… (depending on your preference - I personally love eggs, cucumber and bacon because it’s easy to prepare and always delicious)

    How to make Japanese sushi 

    1. Prepare sushi rice. You can see details from How to make sushi rice?
    2. Place the seaweed on a bamboo mat (you can buy it on Amazon or 100 yen stores).
    3. Cover the seaweed in sushi rice, then use a paddle to flatten it into an even layer
    4. Place fish/sausage/vegetables/cheese/… on the rice and roll it up tightly 
    5. You can slice the roll into pieces or enjoy it as is with a soy sauce dip (or any sauce of your preference if you want to get experimental!). 

    For more easy homemade sushi recipes, you can take a look at a video from NHK

    Conclusion

    Getting back to the question I asked at the start of this article, how many of the things that we talked about did you already know? 

    I hope you have an overall picture of Japanese sushi and note down some following restaurants to visit. Japanese sushi appears to be very delicate and meaningful to Japanese people as a traditional dish and a cultural symbol. Chefs from Japan and around the world have spent thousands of years learning and developing several sushi types that are served in different ways. You can also make a move and try creating your own styles at home, too! 

    If you want to know more about Japan, check out our blog homepage at Guide about Japan. We also have several articles to help you out with your Japanese learning journey and your life here in Japan!  

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