Sushi Adventure in Pre-COVID Japan

Two years ago my sushi-obsessed husband and I traveled to Japan to revisit places I’d lived as a child, to indulge him with the freshest and best sushi in venues from markets to fishing villages to Michelin-starred restaurants, and to take a cruise around Japan. In January 2020 we returned with two other enthusiastic couples to spend a week in Tokyo and two more touring Southeast Asia on the Diamond Princess. Not planned was ending up as canaries in the coal mine of COVID-19.

One of the highlights of our previous trip had been delving into the experience of sushi. We started with a pre-dawn visit to Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world, where master carvers slice 500-pound tuna with sword-length blades and exacting buyers place orders for more than 400 species of seafood.

The market has since moved to a more modern facility, but the area around the old market remains a foodie’s paradise. As we wandered the narrow lanes of shops selling kitchen equipment, I was smitten with the famed knives and almost bought one until a friend reminded me knives were not permitted on our ship. When we passed Sushi Zanmai, a favorite from before, Phil insisted that everyone taste and compare three grades of tuna despite our having just finished breakfast.

It’s almost impossible to get this quality outside of Japan,” Phil said, pointing to the fattiest, called otoro. “It’s melting in my mouth.”

If Phil had his way, we would have had sushi for every meal, but for the sake of the group we dined as well on various noodle dishes, a typical salaryman’s lunch of miso soup and tonkatsu pork cutlets, and Kobe beef at a steakhouse. Phil was patient because he knew we had scored reservations at an haute sushi establishment. The complicated process required a Japanese-speaking intermediary. By emailing two months in advance with the concierge at the hotel, we had secured seats at Sushi Kokoro — but only after assuring her that we would be on time, which means 15 minutes early to the Japanese, and that we knew not to make typical gaijin — foreigners’ — mistakes. I even had to sign a form promising to keep the reservation or pay the full price, with my credit card information as a guarantee.

The Prince Gallery Hotel in Tokyo boasts stupendous views from its top floors while offices and apartments share the building’s lower floors. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

Our trip to Sushi Kokoro turned into an adventure entailing not only a subway ride but a mistaken address, a thunderstorm, two separate taxis and a serious risk of being late. After all of my promises and assurance, fate had arranged for us to be 10 minutes late anyway — a major faux pas.

“Welcome, welcome,” Chef Tsutomu Oba said with a wide grin once we arrived as he tried to set us at ease.

Chef Tsutomu Oba delights with his creative sushi delicacies at Sushi Kokoro in Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter

Oba spoke wonderful English and not only announced each dish but also pointed out what he was doing at every step. His fluid fingers were as agile as those of an origami master.

“Monkfish liver pate.”

Almost in unison, we each popped the whole piece, chewed, smiled, bowed and wowed.

“Grilled amberjack. No. 1 with wasabi; No. 2 with soy sauce.”

“Oishii desu,” several of us said in unison, using the Japanese term for “it’s delicious.”

Hot scallops in a seaweed wrap, squid with sea urchin and caviar, abalone — on and on the tastes flowed. Three kinds of tuna, sardines, fish roe, and then the chef paused and waited till he had our attention.

“Fugu? It’s OK?”

For some reason he stopped in front of my seat, waiting for me to respond.

“Ah, pufferfish?” I asked as he nodded.

You try?” he asked only me.

The truth was I had always wanted to taste this fish that people said was so delicious it was worth risking their lives. Our son had bragged about having had it several times.

“A chef who serves fugu has to train for about 10 years before he can get a license and then has to eat all the dishes he prepares for a final exam,” he had explained.

I did a rapid risk assessment. Surely it was safe to eat fugu presented by this renowned chef.

“I would love to try it,” I said, “because if I die tonight, I die completely happy.”

Everyone laughed. He set a frothy dish in front of me. I admit my heartbeat quickened with a surge of adrenaline before I ingested the light, creamy delicacy, without a hint of anything fishy or briny. Subtle, sublime and otherworldly-it was like nothing I had ever tasted.

“Fugu shirako,” the chef said.

The chef’s wife, who had just poured more tea, whispered in my ear. “Fugu sperm.”

Oishii desu,” I said, truthfully.

The next course — miso soup with little clams — was already being served, so I decided to wait to tell Phil what we’d actually consumed until we were back in our hotel room.

“Sperm?” Phil laughed later. “No wonder people are afraid of fugu.”

“Well, it didn’t kill us, did it?” I said, assuming that we had just survived the most dangerous part of our trip. Little did we know.

Two days later, we boarded the Diamond Princess without a care in the world. We had heard about a new virus that had appeared in a distant Chinese province a few weeks earlier, never imagining it would have anything to do with us — let alone change the world forever.

Japanese women sometimes rent outfits for Lunar New Year’s celebrations in Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.


Prince Gallery Hotel:

History of Tsukiji fish market:

Sushi Zanmai:

Sushi Kokoro: