Saturday, May 4, 2013

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

DB~ was out on Thursday night, so I watched a documentary that I didn't think she would be too interested in called Jiro Dreams of Sushi.  The documentary, all in Japanese with English subtitles, is about this little Japanese sushi master (Jiro) that has been making sushi for over 70 years.

His restaurant is located in the Ginza Street subway station in downtown Tokyo and seats only 10 people.  The main driver of the documentary is a food critic named Yamayoto, who claims to have eaten at every sushi bar and restaurant in Tokyo, and is of the belief that Jiro is the finest one of the them all.

I've long admired the artistry of sushi, which is what drew me to putting this movie in my mental queue in the first place, but it is revered as an art form over in Japan.  Yamayoto refers to Jiro's sushi as minimalist and says that "Ultimate simplicity leads to purity".  Jiro's sushi consists of hand formed rice (itself a full time job -- more later) and a piece of fish on top.  Each piece is then slowly brushed in one simple movement with what I believe is soy, giving it depth of color and flavor.

The 85 year old Jiro (as of this movie at least) is single minded and borderline manaical when it comes to his daily routine and execution of his craft.  He takes the same train, at the same time each day, and stands in the same spot on the platform.  Every.  Day.  He only takes off when it is a national holiday.  He never takes a vacation.

Keeping in mind that he's 85 and has been doing this for 70+ years, he still says he trying to improve every day and that he has not served the perfect meal yet.  As for that meal in question, his menu has no appetizers and no bar component.  It is a 20 piece tasting menu that costs 30,000 yen.  My yen to dollar conversion is a little rusty, so I looked it up during the movie....that comes to $300 U.S. dollars.  You don't linger at Jiro's restaurant either, as he keeps the train moving.  He says that a fast eater can be done in 15 minutes, so that's a really pricey experience!

Jiro is not a 1 man operation.  His son Yoshikazu, himself at least 50 years old, has been patiently at his side lo these many years waiting to take over full time.  He is a master sushi man, as well, and handles going to the fish market each day in lieu of his father.  Jiro went every day to inspect and select the fish until he was 70, as he had a heart attack and collapsed right there.  After that he gave up smoking and turned that duty over to Yoshikazu.  There are also 4 "apprentices" who work in the kitchen as well.  They will work as apprentices for 10 years (!!) under Jiro and then be considered to have enough skill and acumen to be their own sushi masters.  Some apprentices have lasted only 1 day under Jiro.

In a very Japanese custom, Jiro's other son Takahashi decided to forge his own path as a sushi master, rather than serve under his father and older brother.  His restaurant is located in Roppangi Hills, which I assume is another neighborhood in Tokyo.  The restaurant is an exact copy of Jiro's, except it is a mirror image in its layout, due to the fact that Jiro is left handed and serves food from left to right, while Takahashi is right handed and serves right to left.

Jiro's attention to detail is so fine that he notes if a person eats with their left or right hand after their first piece of sushi and then adjusts where he places the plate at the counter accordingly.  Jiro's restaurant, all of 10 tables and located in a subway station, was awarded 3 Michelin stars in 2008 -- the equivalent of saying that it is worth traveling to this COUNTRY to try a restaurant.  And who does Jiro look up to?  Joel Robuchon.  All roads lead to Robuchon.

The rice is the secret component to his sushi.  They cook their rice "under pressure" by putting heavy lids and other vats filled with water on top of the rice as it cooks.  To say nothing of the top of the line rice vendor that they deal exclusively with, of course.  All of Jiro's vendors are fiercely loyal and honored to be working with him.  Each of them is considered an expert in their specialty, whether it is shrimp, tuna, squid, or rice.

Jiro was abandoned by his parents at age 9 and forced to be on his own, which is absolutely mind boggling to me, especially in such a rigid country as Japan.  There's a piece in the documentary where he goes to visit their graves with Yoshikazu and he says he doesn't know why he visits people that never loved him.  It is heart breaking to see such a strong and solemn man just want to be loved.

As I was watching the movie, I found myself thinking of my cousin Ken from Baltimore.  Just Jiro he is an older guy (he's around 82) and he's also continuing to work in his field to keep himself young.  For Ken it is adult literacy and he also is constantly working to improve his own skills to help other people.  Neither of them takes vacations.  Plus they both wear those "old man caps" that Jiro wore throughout the movie.  People who are so focused at staying on top of their games, sometimes to the detriment of their relationships with other humans, is fascinating to me.  There's something to be said for dedication, but there's also something to be said for enjoying the rest that life has to offer.  That is a foreign concept to Jiro.  He has dreams and visions of sushi while he sleeps.

Much like his sushi itself, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a delicious bite-size of a movie at only 80 minutes.


  1. My bride and I watched this last year and loved it.

    It was sort of fascinating, in a morbid sort of way, that his son is basically sitting around waiting for his father to die so he can be given the accolades that he deserves(since he's probably almost as good as his dad is at this point)....but all these people saying how great the son is in his own right also say in the same breath that, basically, Yoshikazu's never going to be able to live up to the Jiro legacy. They feel that though Yoshikazu's excellent, world class even, he'll be trying to replace a legend....and you don't do that.

  2. Yeah, it was a very Japanese movie. That just doesn't play here in the States, the whole "wait in the shadows thing".

    The younger son was living life...make outstanding sushi under your dad's flag, but not his shadow. He didn't have to live up to his standards. But yeah, Yoshikazu is in a no win situation.