The ceremony begins as a knife is sharpened and wiped clean on a white towel hung waist high. We are sitting on a high chair, the chef stands opposite us, a counter between us. I notice the clean lines and scarcity of utensils in front of him and I am reminded how this counters the organic nature of wabi sabi culture in Japan — everything is flawless here. The elegant knife sits on a large, solid wooden board; next to it, I am amazed to see, the largest wasabi root I’ve seen (5 years old), and a traditional shark skin grater. There is also a water bowl, grated ginger and a container with rice. Closer to us, a small refrigerated display neatly packed with healthy looking filleted fish and other exotic sea creatures. He stares at the fish, his eyes glance over the display at us with uncertainty, as if measuring us up, trying to gauge our knowledge of sushi.
Mackerel is his first catch. He expertly slices through the silver black striped skin into the pinkish buttery soft flesh. His fingers dip in water and roll rice into shape as I blink. The long mackerel strip is rested on top of the rice with a hint of wasabi paste in between and a garnish of pale ginger above.
I am brought back to reality as I hold the sushi with my chopsticks. The su-chef runs hastily from the kitchen in her kimono. She foresees I am about to commit sushi-cide by dipping the rice into the soya sauce. Her phone in hand, Google Translate tells me ‘never wet rice, just fish’. She gently removes the chopsticks from my hand, noting ‘hands ok’. I hold my breath and dive into the sushi in my hand. Time stops again as ceremony resumes, I bite into the softest mackerel with a smile. I had Octopus and sea urchin to look forward to.
It strikes me that, just as with tea, the Japanese value rituals. In some way, these rituals ensure the quality of food or drink is respected. You may find and enjoy the popular conveyor belt sushi restaurants everywhere — these are convenient for their speed and fun for their tech, but the focus here is not solely on food. Rituals encourage you to block out the noise, leave your worries outside the room, and focus. You value the tools, the knowledge and the craftsmanship that goes into creating the best possible quality product, pared back to its essence.