A couple weeks after arriving in Kyoto in 2013 I went for sushi in Gion. This evening became known as the Great Sushi Debacle which was documented in an early post here. Other than the local sushi joint in my old Uji neighborhood, and the occasional kaiten (conveyer-belt) sushi, I never really went out for sushi again.
A month ago the Japan Times ran an article about a restaurant in Kyoto where one could get good, seasonal sushi at a reasonable price. The restaurant is called Tsukijisay, which is located in a subterranean space in a nondescript building behind Daimaru department store on Shijo-dori.
I happened to be in this neighborhood and decided to give proper sushi another try. It was more than two years since my previous humiliation and the red in my face had long ago disappeared.
I was not greeted upon entering, as is the custom in most Japanese restaurants, which immediately gave me angst. Oh no. This is not good. Leave. Turn around and walk out the door. Eventually a waitress acknowledged my presence and told me it would be about a 10-minute wait.
I was seated in the middle of the packed counter. Other gaijin must occasionally dine here because they actually had an English menu. The frustrating part about English menus in Japanese restaurants is that they are always very sparse. They extend just to the limit of the owner's English writing ability, which is about 25% of the menu available to native speakers. There was a seasonal special which was, after all, what I had come for, so I ordered that and a beer.
Once the menu disappears your point of reference is gone. It is difficult or impossible to know if what you ordered is in fact the same thing that appears on your plate. I've always found it best to just eat and enjoy what is served and not worry too much about whether it corresponds to my hazy memory of a laminated photo on a slapdash menu made for tourists.
The sushi was divine. I'd almost forgotten how good fresh, made-to-order sushi can be. I nimbly picked up each piece with my ohashi (chopsticks), dipped it in the soy sauce and popped it in my mouth. It was as if I'd been born eating this cuisine. All my apprehension vanished. Each piece tasted better than the last. I could feel the warm, belated glow of redemption.
Then something arrived on my sushi geta (tray) that immediately brought my anxiety back. It was a kuruma ebi (imperial prawn) with its exoskeleton, legs, antennae and eyeballs all anatomically intact. I stared at it for a while. I ignored it and ate around it. There were still several more approachable pieces of sushi to eat.
At last I asked the man next to me, "Sumimasen, doshite tabemasuka?" (Excuse me, how do you eat this?) The chef overheard my inquiry. He made an air demonstration of picking up the prawn with two hands and nibbling it like a small ear of corn.
We all chuckled at his performance. Ha! This time it was the sushi chef, not me, that looked silly. Victory!