There’s a fine line between having enough Japanese touches to feel authentic, and having so many it starts to feel fake.
Back in the fall, popular sushi restaurant chain Itamae Sushi announced that it would be opening a new branch in Tokyo’s swanky Akasaka neighborhood. But while Itamae Sushi’s other branches have relatively contemporary interiors, this new restaurant, called Itamae Sushi Edo, would be all about celebrating the glory days of the Edo period, the final chapter of Japan’s feudal era and being ruled by a shogun, which lasted from 1603 to 1868.
The eatery is now open for business, so we stopped by to give it a try for ourselves, arriving so soon enough after the grand opening that there were still flowers lined up outside from the restaurant’s business partners and other well-wishers.
With its mission being to provide a taste of both Japanese culture and cuisine, customers are asked to remove their shoes immediately upon entering, as all of Itamae Sushi Edo’s seating is on traditional tatami reed mats. However, we were surprised to find a rack of kimono right inside the entrance, which customers have the option of wearing during their meal so that they can really get into a Japanese mood.
And that’s just the start of the hyper-Japanese aesthetics of the restaurant. Look up at the ceiling, and you’ll see a tsuriyane, the “hanging roof” that’s always seen in major sumo arenas, but rarely, if ever, in restaurants.
▼ And even sumo venue tsuriyane don’t have a giant paper lantern hanging from them.
Other unorthodox decorations include numerous sake barrels hanging upside-down above diners’ heads, set in indentions modeled after rectangular lacquerware sake cups.
▼ Here’s hoping that either those barrels are empty or that their lids are on extra-tight.
Even the food is unique. We ordered a 2,980-yen (US$26) course meal that started off with a salad, mixed tempura vegetables, a deep-fried tuna cutlet, and stewed daikon radish.
The main dish was the Koborainbow Sushi, a play on words with koboreru, Japanese for “spill over.” It’s definitely colorful, with maguro (tuna), ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin), and kani (crab) heaped over a serving of vinegared sushi rice.
The salad wasn’t so impressive, but everything else tasted just fine. But while there’s no problem with the food, Itamae Sushi Edo might have another issue to contend with. As odd as it may sound to say this about a sushi restaurant situated in central Tokyo, it wouldn’t be out of line to say that Itamae Sushi Edo is trying too hard to be Japanese. There are so many visual cues that’re trying to remind you “Hey, you’re in Japan” that they end up having the opposite effect. Rather than looking like an authentic Japanese restaurant, the place ends up looking like something out of a Hollywood movie or foreign TV show with a scene that takes place in Tokyo, so the set designers try to cram as many Japanese things as they can into every frame that’s filmed.
It’s sort of like if you opened a hamburger joint, put American flag tablecloths on every table, painted a bunch of bald eagles on the walls, and had “Yankee Doodle” playing on a continuous loop. Fresh-faced tourists might get a kick out of it, but for even slightly experienced travelers, and especially for locals, it’d come off feeling like a surreal parody, good for a laugh, but not something you could take seriously.
It seems like Itamae Sushi Edo is yet another venture hoping to capitalize off the influx of foreign visitors that Tokyo will be receiving while hosting the 2020 Olympic Games. With a couple of years left until then, hopefully the restaurant’s managers will take another look at their business plans and come up with a bit of a softer sell of the Japanese eating experience.
Itamae Sushi Edo / 板前寿司 江戸
Address: Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Akasaka 3-9-2 No.R, Akasaka Mitsuke 1st floor
東京都港区赤坂3-9-2 No.R赤坂見附 1F
Open 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
[ Read in Japanese ]