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Culinary Entertainment with the Ever-evolving Kaiten-zushi

    Small, colorful and fresh sushi carried on a conveyer belt that travels around the restaurant—entertaining and almost theme park-like kaiten-zushi is popular among the Japanese, regardless of age. And the technology and mechanisms of kaiten-zushi keep evolving to this day.

Sushi, a traditional Japanese food

    Made from vinegared rice shaped into ovals with thinly-sliced, fresh raw fish (sashimi) on top, sushi is one of Japan’s most famous. Sushi was originally popular with ordinary people as a preserved food that had fish fermented inside a ball or rice. In time, though, it became a luxury dish featuring fresh fish, and was often enjoyed on special occasions such as celebratory gatherings. Recent years have seen sushi become more affordable, making it a popular food not only in Japan, but overseas as well.
    Sushi toppings are called neta, and the oval-shaped rice ball beneath it is known as shari. Between the neta and shari is sabi, which is short for wasabi, a seasoning made by grating an edible plant that’s commonly used in Japan. This seasoning also prevents food poisoning with its anti-bacterial effects, and is often served together with raw fish. Wasabi, though, has a sharp spiciness that gives a “kick to the nose,” so some people prefer sushi without it. If you would rather have sushi without wasabi, you can order it “without sabi” for wasabi-less sushi.
    There is also a type of sushi called gunkan-maki. In gunkan-maki, the shari is wrapped around the sides with nori and topped with neta. The roll resembles a battleship (gunkan), giving it the name.
    Nori is a popular ingredient in Japanese food—created from dried seaweed, it has a crispy texture and a slight salty taste.

Toro is the delicious part of the tuna belly and has a texture that almost melts in your mouth.

Engawa is the crunchy fin of a flounder.

Gunkan-maki features shari wrapped with nori. The gunkan-maki on the left is topped with salmon roe ikura, and the one on the right is the richly flavored uni(sea urchin).

Ebi (shrimp) is sweet with a chewy texture.

Origins of belt-conveyer kaiten-zushi

    Kaiten-zushi are restaurants featuring a conveyer belt that circles through the customer seating area carrying small plates of sushi. You can freely take sushi plates of your choice off the conveyer belt to eat as they go past. Watching various varieties of delicious sushi parade past your table is mesmerizing! Some restaurants cover the sushi with a transparent lid to keep the product fresh and clean. You could say that kaiten-zushi is like a food theme park, where you can enjoy traditional Japanese cuisine in a fun way.

The cover to keep the sushi fresh automatically pops up when you take the plate.

Take a plate of sushi as it passes by your table.

    A sushi chef came up with the idea of kaiten-zushi. Having more customers enjoy reasonable and tasty sushi meant hiring more chefs and higher expenses. So this sushi chef noticed how he could apply the same idea of conveyer belts in beer factories to a sushi restaurant. Placing plates of sushi on a moving conveyer belt that travels directly to the customers’ seats meant less time and effort in serving the dishes, and lower expenses. The chef wasted no time in developing the kaiten-zushi, but hit a wall on creating curves that carry sushi plates safely. After an amazing ten years of trial and error, he finally succeeded in making a fan-shaped conveyer belt that could safely carry plates of sushi around corners.

A fan-shaped conveyer belt smoothly carries plates of sushi (Photograph provided by Kura Sushi, Inc.)

How to enjoy kaiten-zushi

    The sushi offered at kaiten-zushi usually features one to two pieces of sushi on each plate. After taking a seat, all you need to do is take the plates of sushi dishes you like off the conveyer belt. Each plate is usually reasonably priced, at 100 to 500 yen (approximately one to five dollars), and the plates are usually colored according to price. These colorful plates are also an attractive element of kaiten-zushi. What’s more, it’s easy to calculate your payment by counting up the plates according to color.
    You can also help yourself to tea. Using the cups at the table, simply add a spoonful of powdered tea into cup, and then fill it with hot water from the faucet at your table.

These colorful plates are colored according to price.

Just one spoonful of this powder is enough for a cup of tea.

The water from this faucet is extremely hot, so make sure not to burn your hand.

The evolving kaiten-zushi

    Kaiten-zushi continues to evolve, even to this day. Recent years have seen touch screens installed at tables, allowing you to select the sushi you desire by touching the item displayed on the screen. These touch screens often cater to multiple languages, making it easy for people who can’t read Japanese to order as well. Sushi ordered this way comes to your table on a special trolley, so there’s no need to worry that other customers will take your specially ordered dishes. There are even restaurants that feature trolleys shaped like a bullet train that carry the dishes to your table!.
    Some restaurants offer a gameplay element when you return the plates. They feature a return slot for the dishes and a game that appears when a certain number of plates have been deposited into the slot. If you hit the jackpot you’ll get a prize, making this game fun for children and adults alike.

You can order through the touch screen by looking at actual photographs of sushi.

Some restaurants deliver the ordered sushi on bullet train-shaped trolleys.

Put your finished plates into a slot. A game starts on the screen after a certain number of plates have been deposited into it (Photograph provided by Kura Sushi, Inc.)

    The variation of dishes offered at these restaurants is also expanding. Along with sushi topped with sashimi, there are now unique options such as mini hamburger patties and corn for toppings. Some restaurants offer a broad selection of side menu items such as french fries, curry and rice, and ramen (noodle soup immensely popular in Japan), along with desserts such as cake. This variety makes kaiten-zushi a fun place where you can enjoy a meal, even if you don’t like raw fish.

Along with seafood, a recent trend is to top sushi with meat or vegetables.

The ramen at kaiten-zushi is on par with that of ramen shops.

Kaiten-zushi’s cutting-edge technology

    Kaiten-zushi restaurants have been adding various types of advanced technology. One that especially stands out is the sushi robot, which makes sushi automatically. When rice is inserted into this robot, it goes on to create oval rice balls at an amazing speed—it can create a few thousand rice balls in a single hour! The chefs only need to top these rice balls with sashimi, enabling them to serve more sushi even faster for their customers.

Despite its small size, the sushi robot creates large amounts of sushi.

    Advanced technology also goes into paying the check. Although plates are colored according to price, manually counting dishes takes time and also poses the risk of miscounting. For this reason, some restaurants have introduced IC tags to the payment system. IC tags are attached to the bottom of plates, allowing a special gadget to count and calculate the check. This makes it possible to instantly count and tally a stack of ten plates, resulting in quick and smooth payment.

Improving efficiency by adding IC tags to plates (Photograph provided by CRESCO HOKURIKU. LTD.)

    In this way, kaiten-zushi embodies Japan’s hospitality and advanced technology. It continues to entertain not only the citizens of Japan, but people all over the world as well.

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