As a vegetarian of 19 years, I’ve had to modify my strict no-fish rule in Asia. Korea is nowhere near as meat-heavy as Russia, but I just accept that there will be fish broth in soups, kimchi and rice rolls. Japan is even harder for vegetarians – at least for those without local knowledge – so I became a pescetarian for a week and decided to eat sushi. It quickly became an addiction. I don’t like cooked fish, and the taste of raw fish flesh is a little stomach-churning. But soaked in soy sauce and wasabi, accompanied by seaweed and rice, it’s soft, chewy, salty and spicy. As a vegetarian I have nothing to compare it to, except maybe faux-sushi.
Real Japanese sushi slides around on a conveyer belt, with the chefs standing in the middle. They’re required to shout greetings when you walk in, which is rather nice after a hard day’s touring. You can pluck what’s sliding past, or you can ask them to make you something from the menu by pointing at it. Plates are colour-coded by price, and the closer to major shopping areas you get, the higher they are. But there was no difference in quality between a 160 ($1.60) yen plate in classy Harajuku and a 100 yen plate in seedy Shibuya. This shop, in Shimo-Kitazawa, started at 120 a plate – you can see the colour-coded ovals in the middle – and stood out for me for its plain, 1980s decor:
I was digging the marbled turquoise pleather and faux-granite tiling, but mainly I was digging the food. I got addicted: I could have had pizza, pasta, even Thai food, but about 8pm every night I began craving raw fish. My waistline got pudgier, but I couldn’t stop.
When I saw Life of Pi here in Seoul, and the main character apologised to the fish for killing it, the audience laughed. I remember being mildly offended. But after a week in Tokyo, all thoughts of apology had fled – I wanted raw salmon and tuna. They say bacon is the vegetarian-killer, but I tried it in Russia and wasn’t that impressed. Sushi, on the other hand, is worth depleting the oceans for.