What is Kaiten Sushi 回転寿司 ?
You have heard about it before, you have probably seen them many times if you have already visited Japan. Kaiten Sushi or conveyor belt Sushi have been a revolution in the history of Sushi Restaurant. The concept of Kaiten sushi revolves around a revolutionary self-service system. Most of the time the layout of the restaurant is made so a belt runs around the middle of the restaurant. The plates come directly in front of you on a rotating conveyor belt and you just grab the items you want to eat.
The chefs are often located at the centre of the restaurant, preparing the sushi in front of you before placing them on the conveyor belt. The ambience at a Kaiten Sushi restaurant is always pretty casual. You tend to have both counter seating and booths for larger parties.
In a Kaiten Sushi restaurant, the sushi are served on plates with different colours or patterns to indicate the price of each item. Each colour or patterns representing a different fixed price.
In Japan, Kaiten Sushi restaurants are present everywhere. They are part of the modern Japanese culture with an industry representing more than 500 billion yen every year. To review this topic further we will now talk about the history of Kaiten Sushi before presenting some examples of the Kaiten Sushi you can find in Japan.
The History of Kaiten Sushi:
The concept of Kaiten Sushi aka conveyor belt Sushi has been created by Yoshiaki Shiraishi (1914 – 2001), founder of Genroku Industry. Yoshiaki Shiraishi was inspired by the conveyor belts used in beer factories. During a visit to a beer bottling plant, Yoshiaki Shiraishi realised that the use of a conveyor belt could help serving more customers in his restaurant. After several trial and error, he managed to create the first conveyor belt sushi, at the time known as a Kitchen counter with a conveyor.
In 1958 Yoshiaki Shiraishi opened the first Kaiten Sushi restaurant, Mawaru Genroku Sushi in Higashiosaka. In Yoshiaki Shiraishi’s days, Sushi was a very expensive dish. His idea was to serve affordable sushi to the mass.
Several years later in 1970, Yoshiaki Shiraishi presented his system of conveyor belt Sushi at the international world fair exposition in Osaka. The concept was a hit and it helped spread the culture of conveyor belt sushi all over Japan. Following this first mass adoption, a second wave of interest for Kaiten Sushi emerged in the eighties. At that time it became really trendy to eat outdoors and people gathered at Kaiten Sushi joints. The third wave of interest appeared in the mid-nineties after the financial crisis when cheap and affordable restaurants became even more favoured.
At his peak, Yoshiaki Shiraishi had around 250 restaurants around Japan. Nowadays there are more than a thousand Kaiten sushi in the greater area of Tokyo only.
The Different Types of Kaiten Sushi:
Now that we have discussed the history of Kaiten Sushi I would like to introduce you to the different type of Kaiten Sushi that you will find in Japan. For this post, we will focus on the Area of Tokyo to provide you with some examples of Kaiten Sushi.
The Gaijin Friendly: Genki Sushi
Genki Sushi is a super famous Kaiten Sushi located in Shibuya. It is probably the first recommendation you could receive as a Gaijin (foreigner) if you ask around for a Kaiten Sushi.
The conveyor belt system at Genki Sushi is super futuristic and completely automated. You order the sushi you want on a touchpad and they arrive directly in front of you on a delivery platform. You then just press a button on the touchpad and the small delivery platform automatically goes back in the kitchen.
Genki Sushi is super foreigner friendly, meaning that the digital menu on the touchpad is both in Japanese and English. In fact, you will mostly find foreigners at Genki Sushi.
Regarding the menu you will find a wide range of sushi: Nigiri, Maki, Temaki, and several Occidental options (even French fries). It is nowhere near a traditional sushi joint but the quality is quite acceptable for a very cheap price. Genki Sushi is a good entry level Kaiten Sushi if you want to try new fish on a budget. A place to visit at least once if you are in Tokyo.
Cost: Very competitive
Quality: Good quality for value
The Average ones: All around Tokyo
The Average Kaiten Sushi restaurants are the one you will find at every corner of Tokyo (Do not misinterpret the name, it is not intended to be pejorative). Most of them are pretty decent quality for value, and some others are,…, well, attractive when it comes to price… On average, their menu starts at a pretty low price point with options around ¥100. Some of them are even offering a single fixed price for all of their Menu; If you want to go down that route i can recommend you Kura Sushi the ¥100 Kaiten Sushi. Needless to say that you get what you pay for. In general, the quality of an Average Kaiten Sushi can vary from one to another. The price is usually a good indicator of what you could expect. Some Kaiten Sushi will offer a wide variety of very cheap options. Beware of that, some of these cheap restaurants can be really disappointing. On the other hand, you can have some pretty good surprise; It happened to me quite a lot when i was travelling in Japan. As usual in this country, if you are not sure of where to go just follow the crowd. If you see a line of Japanese people waiting to get into a restaurant it is often a pretty good sign.
Average Kaiten Sushi are pretty good spots if you want to eat sushi without ruining your budget. Take note that, for most of them, they are usually crowded with locals around lunch time and dinner.
Cost: From Competitive to Very competitive
Quality: Can be good quality for Value to disappointing.
The Premium Kaiten Sushi: Toriton Sky tree
All Kaiten Sushi are not created equals; You can find pretty decent Sushi served on a Kaiten Sushi restaurant. (A recent example for me is Marukatsu Suisan in Hakodate, this place was amazing for a Kaiten sushi). However, it is not always easy to find the high-end Kaiten Sushi. Most of the Kaiten Sushi you will see while randomly walking in Tokyo are quite average. Unless your lucky, i would recommend you to do some research before if you want to visit a top notch Kaiten Sushi.
In Tokyo, a good example of a premium Kaiten Sushi is Toriton. The restaurant is located on the 6th Floor at Tokyo Solamachi SkyTree (a famous department store). The place is often crowded (last time I went I queued for an hour) and the quality of the sushi served there is pretty good for the price.
Quality: Very good quality for value
The Occidental Kaiten sushi: YO! Sushi
I could not finish this article without mentioning the occidental version of the Kaiten Sushi that you can find everywhere in Europe nowadays. Yes, I am talking about you YO! Sushi.
I won’t keep it long tho, once you had the chance to visit a decent Kaiten Sushi in Japan you will know that YO! Sushi isn’t worth all the money you are spending there. If the concept is entertaining for someone who does not have the chance to travel to Japan; You will pay a high price tag for that! In the UK the slices of Yellowfin Tuna served at YO! Sushi are priced at £6.25 (almost a thousand yen, crazy right?) and we are talking about a standard yellowfin Tuna, not a premium O’Toro.
One last piece of advice if you want to evaluate the quality of a Kaiten Sushi: What I usually do is order a premium item like a Botan Ebi to assess the quality of the place. It is usually a good indicator. If the Ebi does not look super fresh or is chewy well… you guess what it means. However, if the Ebi is good looking and the chef starts using a torch to sear the head before serving you the plate, it is a guarantee that you are in good hands.