While most of the professors I encountered during my time studying abroad were relaxed and open-minded, I can clearly remember one blue-blooded educator I met who insisted that the food served at kaitenzushi restaurants, the eateries where customers pluck pre-prepared plates of sushi off of a revolving conveyer belt, wasn’t “real sushi.”
True sushi, she said, wasn’t something that you ate to satisfy your hunger, but a flavorful accent to stimulate your taste buds. It had to be prepared painstakingly in an intimate establishment with a proper pedigree, and was certainly not the sort of thing that could be prepared in any quantity similar to the vulgar amounts pumped out by inexpensive kaitenzushi restaurants.
I listened politely, consulted my wallet, and promptly went to a kaitenzushi restaurant. Vindicating my choice are the results of a new survey which shows that revolving sushi restaurants are loved by diners all over Japan, whether they’re out for dinner with the family, on a date, or even just stopping in for a bite alone.
The survey, conducted by food and canned goods company Maruha Nichiro, collected responses from 1,000 people living in eastern and central Japan between the ages of 15 and 59, who said they visit a kaitenzushi restaurant at least once a month.
A whopping 84.1 percent said the majority of the sushi they consume comes from kaitenzushi restaurants, as opposed to markets or more traditional eateries, and 41.3 percent also said their revolving sushi cravings are so strong they dine on it more than once a month.
▼ That arrow makes a convincing argument.
At old-fashioned sushi restaurants, it’s common to leave the exact contents of your meal up to the esteemed chef, who traditional logic holds is better able to pick out a pleasing combination of flavors than the diners themselves. At kaitenzushi, though, that responsibility lies with the customer, and 20.5 percent said their standard opening gambit was salmon, which was also the most popular choice for ending the meal. The second most-popular opener, maguro (tuna), was far behind at just 11.5 percent.
Actually, salmon remains consistently popular throughout the meal, as 40.6 percent said they ate more of it than any other singular type of sushi. Maguro plays second fiddle again with 23.1 percent, followed by hamachi and buri (both yellowtail, although at different ages) at 22.9 percent. Despite its high price, 18.7 percent of kaitenzushi fans say they go through several pieces of the extra-fatty tuna – called chuutoro – and 13.8 percent said the same about the combinatioon of diced tuna, green onions, and seaweed known as negitoro.
The results spoke to the wide appeal of conveyer-belt delivered fish, with 49.7 percent saying they go with their spouse. Kaitenzushi restaurants are also extremely popular for families with children. There’s no need for kids to wait patiently for the waiter to bring them their food, and tykes always seem to get a kick out of grabbing the plates as they go by. Add in the fact that choosing one plate at a time eliminates the problem of kids not cleaning their plates or leaving behind the parts of a set meal they don’t like, and it’s easy to see why 45 percent of the respondents said they take their kids to kaitenzushi, with another 37 percent going with a parent.
Kaitenzushi is also a popular choice for solo diners. The need to place as many customers as possible along the conveyer means they always have plenty of counter seats, so – without a restaurant-themed cuddly friend to accompany them – there’s no need to feel self-conscious about taking up a whole table by yourself. The passing flow of colorful plates and slices of fish can even have a soothing effect, and once you add in a self-served cup of steaming green tea, a kaitenzushi restaurant becomes a surprisingly appropriate spot for a moment of quiet respite from your workaday pressures.
▼ It’s kind of like going to the beach and watching the sea, with the added bonus of all of its creatures leaping out so you can eat them.
Accordingly, 80.7 percent of respondents said they don’t think there’s anything unusual about goint to a revolving sushi restaurant on your own, and 12.7 percent said they often go by themselves.
But with so many kaitenzushi outfits competing for your sushi-buying yen, how do you choose which one to go to? Almost half of respondents said flavor is their primary criteria, with another 37 percent citing freshness as the most important issue. Kaitenzushi’s low price point is still a big draw for 35.9 percent of those answering the questionnaire, which no doubt ties into its popularity as a choice for a meal out with the kids. 29.9 percent of respondents say they’re attracted to restaurants with more than just the bare minimum menu of tuna, salmon, and shrimp, and 27.4 percent said cleanliness plays a big part in their selection process.
▼ Because your stomach can handle fish that’s raw, as long as it’s not dirty, too.
Sushi generally comes with two pieces to a plate, and men said they put away an average of 11.1 plates per meal. The ladies were more restrained, consuming just 8.6 per visit. Aside from being more gluttonous, male diners were also more extravagant, spending an average of 411 yen (US$4.03) per plate to the women’s 396 yen, although both groups of respondents shot far past the baseline figure for nice-smelling Internet writers.
Speaking of pricing, while kaitenzushi may be the most affordable way to eat sushi in a restaurant setting, that doesn’t mean it’s always cheap. 39 percent of diners said they have to resist the urge to order otoro, the cut of tuna with the highest fat content, not to mention price. 18.2 percent said the same thing about chutoro, despite the fact that as we mentioned above, it’s one of the types of sushi the respondents said they eat the most of.
▼ The classic economic conundrum: man’s unlimited desire of chutoro versus his limited ability to purchase it
Other non-budget-friendly temptations were abalone (17.8 percent), sea urchin (16.5 percent), and salmon roe (8.9 percent).
Oddly enough, while the conveyer belts are kaitenzushi restaurant’s claim to fame, several customers frequently bypass them. In an effort to cut down on waste and costs, kaitenzushi restaurants also allow customers to place individual orders, either by calling out directly to the chef or, in an increasing number of chains, using a touch-screen panel located at the table. 60.1 percent of respondents said they primarily order what they eat at kaitenzushi, with just 16.9 percent saying they’re content to leave themselves to the fickle hand of fate and only eat what comes down the line to them.
▼ Some touchscreens even allow you to instantly translate the menu into different languages.
So we’ve seen that there are plenty of kaitzenzushi lovers, but how do lovers in general feel about these casual sushi restaurants? Fairly positively, it seems, with 67.1 percent saying they’d be agreeable to a kaitenzushi date.
Of course, it’s always best to be on your best behavior while on a romantic outing, and respondents offered five etiquette tips for a kaitenzushi date. In all honesty, though, they’re pretty much the same rules and guidelines you should always follow in a revolving sushi restaurant. Don’t put a plate back on the belt after you’ve picked it up, don’t bathe yourself in cloying perfumes and colognes, make sure you eat the rice too, not just the fish, don’t grab plates fro in front of other customers, and don’t get into an eating contest with the stranger sitting next to you. Oh, and just because it’s a cheap joint doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat the sushi properly. There’s nothing attractive about someone who eats sushi like a noob, after all…
See? All common sense stuff, so you can approach a kaitenzushi date the same as any other. And yes, just so you know, the movie date tactic of “Oops, our hands touched by accident when we both reached for the popcorn at the same time,” works just as well with a plate of sushi going by.