Setting the stage
Everyone calls him Gin-chan but that’s not his real name. The nickname is derived from Ginsushi, Silver Sushi, the name of the restaurant he and his wife Minako run in Hamasaki Japan. I’ve known Gin-chan for as many years as I’ve lived in Japan. He was my introduction to authentic sushi and continues to be the benchmark against which I compare other experiences. I’ve long dreamed of drawing back the curtain to observe him choose and prepare his ingredients. That opportunity came recently when he allowed me to tag along for a glimpse of what happens in the many hours before 6 to 8 customers are seated at his long cypress counter and the performance begins.
At 6:10am Nobuhisa Abe emerged into the dark March morning. Climbing behind the wheel he commenced his morning commute. Though he lives in an apartment behind the restaurant in Hamasaki, he makes the 45-minute drive to Fukuoka every morning to purchase fish. “What time did you get up?” I inquired. “Ten minutes ago,” he said with a chuckle. “So, you roll out of bed and into the car?” “Mmm hmm,…”
Abe aims to get to the fish market by 7 or 7:30. Many of the venders aren’t even open yet, but, as he says, “you have to go early to get the best fish.” He would prefer to shop locally but finds that there isn’t enough top quality variety to sustain his business.
We rode along quietly for a while, both parties somnolent and shy. Abe turned on the radio. Zipping along the highway, the sky began to brighten. “Just a week ago, it was still dark at this hour,” he remarked. With longer days, spring will also bring a wider variety of options at the market. “Winter is a tough season, Sakana ga sukunai,” he said. “There’s not much fish available.” And when hard rains fall and strong winds blow the fishing boats don’t go out as far or for as long. Catch is further diminished. But Abe often says sakana ga sukunai these days irrespective of season or weather. In fact, the frequency with which I’ve heard him utter this refrain over the last couple of years leaves me considering the greater meaning behind it. Few outside those whose livelihoods depend on it have much occasion to feel the effect of critical overfishing as directly as he must.
Abe parked the car and walked quickly down a back alley. He turned right into an arcade and entered the first shop on the left under a blue awning. “Welcome back, Ginchan!” the proprietress, Naoko Ito, beamed to him. He’d been gone a week making sushi at events in Tokyo and she seemed genuinely happy to see him. Then she said, “Sakana ga sukunai…”
Taking a look around, he made a few inquiries and then walked further down the narrow arcade to a second vendor, a large open space on the corner. Abe stood in front of a case of pink fillets for a long time, particularly interested in the snapper. “They aren’t so good” he murmured to me. “How do you know?” I asked. “The color. It’s thin.” He gently pressed the flesh of one to feel its consistency. Walking over to a stack of Styrofoam containers, he pulled the tape off one and opened the lid to reveal a neat row of kuruma ebi, Japanese Imperial Prawns. “These aren’t so great either,” he whispered, again noting the color. Walking back to the first case, he settled on a piece of kanpachi, amberjack.
We walked back to the first shop. Inside the atmosphere was warm and friendly. Ito brewed us each a cup of hot coffee. As we chatted with her, two young men stood facing each other gutting and filleting a few items that Abe had chosen. Abe looked around some more and chose threemizuica, Bigfin reef quid. The longer we stayed, the more he inquired, and settled on further purchases. I should decide what I want before I get here,” he mentioned. “I always buy too much.” Ito stood at a counter measuring out portions of mozuku a jelly like sea vegetable resembling angel hair thin noodles. Her husband pulled a large snapper out of a tank stunned it with an ice pick to the forehead, then sent a long wire down its spine. As he let it bleed out in a basin of ice water I realized I had just seen ike jime firsthand for the first time.
Abe has been making sushi since he was 18, first following in his father’s footsteps. After high school, he left to study at a sushi restaurant in Fukuoka. But just three months later his father fell ill with heart troubles. “I had to return quickly,” he explained. “I worked with my father for a few years until he passed away.” He has been on his own since.
An encounter in his mid twenties with a local patron unexpectedly opened a new door. With this support and encouragement Abe began a journey down a new and unexpected path. He was introduced to Kiyota, a sushi master in Tokyo also nicknamed after his restaurant, as well as other notable chefs. “Besides my father, I learned the most from Kiyota-san. He didn’t exactly teach me but I could watch and learn. I looked closely at his nigirikata, his grip on the rice and fish. It’s so beautiful how he does it. And his kiritsukekata, how he holds the sashimi knife and cuts.”
Back in the car, Abe pulled on a pair of worn, thick black cotton gloves with glow in the dark hand bone decals. I took it to be another of his eccentricities. Abe is a former punk-rock vocalist with a current preference for American classic rock. He has a fascination with pop-culture and celebrity that can seem at odds with the distinction of his profession. But in fact he wears the gloves because Kiyota had advised him years ago to mind his hands. Making sushi is a performance. At just an arm’s length away from his guests, a sushi chef prepares each piece of sushi in his bare hands. In an unusually intimate act, he rests it on the counter before a customer who in turn is asked to promptly pick it up and eat it. Hand to hand, a morsel of food is passed between chef and guest. Kiyota had counseled Abe to keep his hands clean, manicured and his skin ivory, and in a style all his own, Abe had heeded those words.
As Abe’s skills improved, so did the caliber of his offering and his confidence. In 2006 he took out a loan and renovated the restaurant. With a celebrated reopening, Abe had created a top-level restaurant in a small town in western Japan. He was awarded a star by the Japanese Michelin club. He did well the first few years. The quality was excellent and the novelty of a great, new, out of the way place enticed a curious crowd willing to travel.
But the initial swell has receded. Perhaps the novelty wore off, or the expense of traveling so far for a meal became prohibitive. And while Abe’s idiosyncrasies can be seen as endearing and oddly charming by those who know him, those same qualities can also be misconstrued. He approaches his work with a sincerity and artistry that simultaneously afford his finesse and thwart his business. He has been known to turn customers away at the door if they arrive excessively late. Sushi rice is timed precisely to a reservation and Abe is unwilling to serve an inferior product, even if it means lost income.
Abe now relies on die-hard fans, tourists, and Michelin devotees who travel and eat by the guide. But with characteristic frankness he questions whether a Michelin star did him any favors. Of course it brings customers through the door, “but there’s something about the Michelin crowd in Japan,” he said, sounding discouraged. “Customers spend the evening talking about how great this or that sushi was.” It bothers him that they are not fully present. “At least for the short time while they are eating at Ginsushi I want them to enjoy eating at Ginsushi, and not spend that time thinking or talking about other restaurants and experiences.” Meanwhile the price point and atmosphere have alienated the local clientele who once frequented his father’s establishment in the same location. “It’s tough,” he said in a deflated tone. “I’m only open on the weekends now.” Though he has considered moving to a more urban area, the fact is, he said, “I’ve invested so much in this place.”
Back at the restaurant Minako was in the kitchen. A small bag containing river water and a few dozen shiro-uo, ice goby, sat on the counter. Working alongside Abe, she prepares seasonal dishes to compliment his sushi. That day she would incorporate the miniscule fish intotamagodofu, a savory egg custard. “Did you always love to cook?” I asked. “Not at all!” she exclaimed. “I got married not knowing a thing about food. I had no idea I would end up in this position.” Her cooking has also evolved to match the transformation of the restaurant. “In the Kyushu countryside we use a lot of sugar. The flavor is strong, quite sweet and salty. I was raised with that taste so I assumed that was good.” But now she makes lighter dishes, quite different from the local tastes. “As a base, I learned to make dashi from a chef in Ginza. From there, I looked at different books and such and try to make those dishes without all of the sugar. That’s pretty much how I learned.”
With his purchases unloaded, Abe’s first order of business was to turn on the radio. “Always,” said Minako. “He always plays music.” He began by sending skewers down the belly side of the prawns to keep them rod straight. While they simmered, he began filleting several anago, saltwater eels. Securing the head in place with a pin, he ran his filleting knife down the spine and opened the eel. He ran his knife down the length a second time to remove the spine, separated the meat from the head and folded it neatly on a basket. When the timer chimed, he removed the prawns and set them in a basin of slow running cool water. He was prepping for seven dinner guests. “Today is not so bad,” he said, “but when I have a reservation for lunch, I’m racing to get this all done in time.”
The morning continued in this way. For a couple of hours we danced around each other in the narrow kitchen as he set about filleting several varieties of fish. Some were salted to draw out moisture, firm the flesh and concentrate the flavor while others were left as is. Though Abe seeks out the freshest fish possible to purchase, there are some varieties like snapper that, once properly cleaned, filleted, and refrigerated, he believes get sweeter with a 24-36 hour rest.
When each fillet was ready he took it to his cutting board behind the counter in the restaurant and considered a few final trimmings. Abe only uses the best cuts of fish but he must often purchase a much larger piece of fish to get it. “There will be leftovers,” he said, trimming a yokowa, babay tuna, fillet. “But half of this wouldn’t have been enough…” I imagined the feast that could be prepared with the surplus. But Abe had no interest. “I never eat it. Since I was a kid, I saw so much fish. Every day I saw fish. I grew averted to it. I have no problem not eating fish. I prefer meat. Minako likes it. Not me.”
Abe finished his work a little before noon. “About 2 hours before service I’ll do a final clean up of the restaurant and a few other simple tasks. But this is the bulk of the preparations,” he concluded. He said he’d rest a bit before that. “Mornings are early and nights go late. I have to nap. If I don’t, my energy wanes.” We said our goodbyes and I left, envious of the guests who would spend a few hours that evening in the warmly lit restaurant enjoying a fine meal.