Sun, Dec 23, 2018 - Page 15 News List

In a Tokyo neighborhood’s last sushi restaurant, a sense of loss

Caught between US$300 ‘omakase’ dinners and hyper-efficient, inexpensive chain restaurants, Japan’s small, independent mom-and-pop sushi bars are quickly being squeezed out of business

By Mari Saito  /  Reuters, TOKYO

Masotoshi Fukutsuna, left, chef and owner of sushi bar Eiraku, chats with customers at his restaurant in Tokyo on Dec. 7.

Photo: Reuters

“I’ll have a draft,” Yasuo Fujinuma said, heaving himself down at the sushi counter. He pulls a pack of cigarettes from a frayed pocket of his sweater. From the corner of the restaurant, a small TV hums the noon weather forecast. He never drinks at noon.

“I’ve just come from the hospital,” he said, tapping the filter end of his cigarette on the bar. “My sister died.”

The chef puts his knife down. Another customer peers over the top of his sports pages. After a pause, the chef returns to his cutting board.

“You took good care of her,” he said, placing a sheaf of haran leaf on the chipped black counter, before lining the leaf with a dozen nigiri sushi and handing Fujinuma a mug of beer.

Conversations roll on like this at the Eiraku sushi bar. They start mid-sentence with no hellos or how-are-yous and veer into private thoughts without much fanfare, punctuated by news of ordinary tragedies.

The chef and Fujinuma talked about how his sister was last in the sushi bar a few years ago, stopping by after an evening dip in the public bath across the street. She had her usual sushi and a beer, then walked home with her cane past an abandoned karaoke bar, past the empty tempura restaurant, turning the corner where two more bars used to stand.

Eiraku is the last surviving sushi bar in a cluttered neighborhood of steep cobblestoned hills and cherry trees unseen on most tourist maps of Tokyo. Caught between the rarefied world of US$300 omakase dinners and the brutal efficiency of chain restaurant fish, mom-and-pop shops like it are fast disappearing.

Fujinuma, 76, pops sushi into his mouth and thinks out loud about the arrangements still to be made for his sister. A hospital consent form he just signed is handed around and examined at the bar.

“It’s just me now,” he said, his mouth still half-full with vinegary rice and fresh fish, then nodded at the man and woman behind the counter. “You’re lucky you have each other.”

Chef Masatoshi Fukutsuna and his wife, Mitsue, smile without a word. In the 35 years since they opened up shop, the couple has seen many of their friends move away for a job or family, only to return decades later, often without the job or the family, their absence unspoken.

Absence is a part of life on what remains of the Medaka shopping street, a road so narrow that cars have to drive up onto the sidewalk to let another vehicle pass.

No one can say exactly when the first shop on the street closed. People squint a little and say it was probably the electronics store a decade ago, or maybe it was the rival fishmongers across the street from each other.

Next to close was probably the butcher shop, they say, then maybe the Chinese restaurant after that.

In the past decade, three family-owned sushi restaurants in the area have shuttered. In the empty spaces left behind, fluorescent 7-Elevens have moved in, with microwave lunchboxes and US$5 trays of sushi and men in tired suits smoking alone outside.

Once the sky turns pink and the sun sets, the street descends into shadow, save for the faintest glow from halogen lamp posts.

It is a neighborhood in twilight. More like it are scattered across the city, their corner cafes and stores far from the neon blare of the famous shopping districts.

The number of independent, family-owned sushi bars in Tokyo has in the past decade halved to 750, driven out of business by fast food joints and a younger generation that does not want to inherit them, a trade association said.

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