Sushi Yachiyo: A sushi restaurant with more than 100 years of history

While sushi may be wherever you look in Tokyo, it makes sense to seek out quality at a great price….such a combination can be found at Sushi dokoro Yachiyo 鮨処八千代 located in the heart of Shinjuku city. Founded sometime during the Edo era (the exact date is lost in time), they have suppliers in every corner of Japan, and their thriving business has enabled them to open four more branches throughout Tokyo. Not an easy feat in a country that, according to some sources, boasts arounds 24000 different sushi places. Read on as we go into detail about the most famous sushi restaurant in Arakicho.

2018-09-05   Arakicho, Bars & Restaurants, Araki-Cho, Tokyo,


A Company employee who became the owner of a sushi restaurant business

 The Yachiyo brand has existed since the Edo era. However, the original store was totally destroyed during World War II. After the war ended, a new owner took over and rebuilt the shop in the same location. The current owner, Nakase-san, used to work as a “salari man” or company employee, until the day he married the daughter of the previous owner and inherited not only the business but also the name. This is actually a common practice in Japan, and the owner of Yachiyo has had the same name continuously for the past 70 years.

 Although at first he was new to the sushi business, he now regularly travels all over Japan to negotiate with current suppliers and find new ones. Fresh fish is of course delivered daily from Tsukiji, the world’s biggest fish and seafood market in the world, but, in order to obtain high-quality products that are only available in certain areas and times of the year, some of their fish is delivered directly from local suppliers. For example, in June he gets high-grade “hamo” (conger eel) from Yamaguchi prefecture and “namagaki” (raw oysters) from Hiroshima.

 The Yotsuya store is located on the right hand side of Sugidaimon Dori street, the central semi-pedestrian road that runs through Arakicho town. The storefront features an engraving of a geisha about to pop a piece of sushi into her mouth, a nod to the rich past of Arakicho as a geisha town. One shouldn’t be surprised that she is eating the Japanese national dish with her fingers – this is the traditional way of eating sushi and it is absolutely fine to eat it that way if you are unsure of your own chopstick skills (or if you want to impress the other diners).

Geisha enjoying sushi the traditional way
The restaurant can seat up to 60 people

The lunch set, a unique selection of sushi at a great price

 Stepping inside Yachiyo, I discovered a spacious interior, unusual for a place serving sushi. In a way, it’s a testimony to its long history, dating from a time when space wasn’t of such a premium importance in what was yet to become one of the largest cities in the world. In addition to a two-sided-counter, there are several four-person tables, so it’s ideal if you want to go there with a group. I’ve only seen sushi restaurants with so many tables in the vicinity of  the Tsukiji fish market. Handwritten strips of paper hanging on the walls indicate which items have been recently delivered from local suppliers, and the wooden blocks show the daily recommended items.

 Since I was feeling hungry, I ordered the 15 nigiri lunch set (“nigiri 15 kan” にぎり15/1290). They also have 8, 10 and 12-piece sets, as well as a seafood rice bowl, all priced around or under 1000– very reasonable, considering the quality and variety of the fish. At this stage you may be wondering what’s the difference between sushi and nigiri. The first is a more general term which refers to any combination of vinegared rice and seafood (for example “makizushi” – a conical shaped sushi wrapped in seaweed). Nigiri or “nigirizushi” (握り寿司) means “hand-pressed sushi” and refers specifically to sushi that was shaped by pressing the rice into the palm of the hand with 2 fingers and adding the fish on top. It was invented nearly 200 years ago in Tokyo (or Edo as it was called then). However, in this article, I will use the terms “sushi” and “nigiri” interchangeably.

 I was there at the end of lunch time (11am-2pm) so I got a seat at the counter, directly in front of the sushi chef preparing my food, and was able to observe each piece being made, before having a plate with 15 pieces of nigiri placed in front of me. I could easily recognize 10 of them:

  • “inarizushi” (rice inside a pouch made of tofu)
  • “samon” (salmon, pronounced the Japanese way)
  • chutoro” (medium fatty tuna, the best piece in my opinion)
  • negitoro” (minced tuna topped with spring onion),
  • ika” (squid, a little rubbery and great when fresh)
  • tako” (octopus, the tentacle part)
  • ebi” (shrimp – don’t eat the tail bit!)
  • kanpachi” (the greater amberjack, only available in the summer)
  • kani gunkan maki” (warship roll crab, a special kind of nigiri, wrapped in seaweed and resembling a ship)
  • “tamago” (sweet egg omelette, should be eaten last)

 You may have noticed from the picture below that the “tamago” is missing its rice. This is normal and also quite typical in higher end sushi restaurants. Since making a good “tamago” requires some skill, it is preferable to eat it by itself (without rice and without dipping it in soy sauce), in order to enjoy the taste properly. Since it’s a little sweet, it should be eaten at the very end, like a dessert.

 I had to ask the chef to identify the last five pieces for me

  • kaiware wasabi” (radish sprouts, a veggie sushi)
  • tobiko” (flying fish roe, reddish in colour, it looks like “ikura”)
  • geso” (squid tentacles, white with black spots)
  • engawa hirame” (meat at the base of the fin of the flounder fish, white in colour)
  • hotaru ika” (a whole firefly squid)

 As expected, every piece was delicious, and I especially enjoyed the taste of the flying fish roe sushi and the flounder sushi. I am not a big fan of eating anything whole like the firefly squid but once it’s inside your mouth, it is actually very tasty. During my previous visit, my lunch set included “ankimo” which is short for “anko no kimo” (monkfish liver) which I also thought tasted great. I’ve been in Japan for over ten years and I still keep discovering new delicious things to eat. The actual pieces included in the lunch set vary, depending on what is available according to the season. One last word on the rice used to make sushi (called “shari”): Yachiyo uses koshihikari” rice cultivated in Toyama prefecture, mainly because the grains adhere well to each other, creating just the right amount of stickiness that is needed to make great nigiri. Something which always astounds me is that Japanese people judge the quality of the sushi by the quality of the rice and not the fish, something which I think I will never be capable of doing!

The sushi chef putting on the final touches
The 15-nigiri lunch set
The 12-piece nigiri set is served on a beautiful plate

Some tips for eating sushi properly

Before eating a piece of sushi, you should dip it into some soy sauce – be careful to dip the fish part and not the rice (which may crumble). This is the one part that requires some skill, and if you do not trust your chopsticks skills, then, as explained above, use your hands! The sushi chef noticed that I would dab my sushi for quite a while in the soy sauce. He mentioned that this was actually quite usual among non-Japanese customers, however it is preferable to use just a little soy sauce to avoid overwhelming the taste of the fish. After dipping or dabbing the piece, make sure to eat it in one whole bite!

 It is important to note that most pieces will come with a dab of wasabi. If you’d rather not have wasabi – the Japanese version of mustard – you can ask for your lunch set “sabinuki”, meaning without wasabi. Between each piece of sushi, you can eat some “gari”, thin slices of pickled ginger, to clean your palate. You can help yourself from the pot with the wooden lid on the table or counter. Finally, every set comes with a seaweed miso soup which is typically eaten at the very end of the meal. This article has more information and some good graphics on how to eat sushi the proper way.

 If you can’t make it for lunch, or if you want to be able to choose your own sushi, Yachiyo is also open for dinner (till 10:30 although last order is at 10pm). There is a menu in English with translations under pictures of each item, so ordering is a breeze. Some sushi that aren’t usually available in other sushi places are “Anago sugata nigiri” (conger eel in the shape of a nigiri), and “nama kuruma ebi sushi” (Japanese tiger prawn). The head of the “kuruma ebi” is boiled in seawater and edible, thus you can enjoy 2 different tastes in one dish. Both are highly recommended. While enjoying some cold beers with your food, notice that the glasses have a small hole at the base. This allows the glasses to be filled automatically, while creating just the right amount of foam – quite a wonderful Japanese invention, just like sushi!

Eating sushi by hand is perfectly acceptable!
Conger eel sushi, a must-eat item at Yachiyo
The Asahi Tornado system for easily filling beer glasses

Interview with Yachiyo Sushi owner, Nakase-san

Nakase-san

One member of our team, Misuzu, went to interview Nakase-san, especially for this article, and for her own version in Japanese. Here is an approximate translation of some of the questions and answers from the interview.

 Misuzu: How do you feel about the move of the market to Toyosu?

 Nakase-san: I don’t have any strong feelings about it. On the one hand, since transportation is less convenient, it will take more time to get the goods from the dock to the store, so I am worried that prices may increase. On the other hand, the new location will be more hygienic when it comes to handling food.

 Misuzu: Which type of sushi has become more popular over time at Yachiyo?

 Nakase-san: Maguro (bluefin tuna)! Actually Maguro can be quite pricey, but since we have several stores we can buy in bulk, which reduces the price. So our maguro is good value for money, by which I mean it has relatively good quality at a reasonable price, compared to other sushi shops. It’s the type of sushi that our customers prefer the most.

 Misuzu: Is Maguro also the most popular choice among your non-Japanese customers?

 Nakase-san: In that case it’s salmon!

 Misuzu: What sushi do you recommend people try?

 Nakase-san: I recommend “umibudo gunkan” (sea grapes battleship, an Okinawan specialty)

 Misuzu: For people who don’t want to eat raw fish, what can you say to change their mind?

 Nakase-san: We offer some of our sushi broiled. For example “aburi samon” (broiled salmon) so please give those a try!

 Misuzu: With younger people eating more and more meat, what do you think about the future of sushi?

 Nakase-san: That can’t really be helped! I believe that during a person’s life, there are times when they prefer to eat meat, and there are times they have a yearning for fish. If the time for eating meat is when you are young, then there will come a point when you’ll switch to fish. I’ll be waiting for that moment.

 Misuzu: I noticed that you use the kanji “” for sushi instead of the more common “寿司“ in your store name – why is that?

 Nakase-san: They both have the same meaning. However, the second one, the two-character one used by most shops, is a recent invention. In the past, sushi shops used the single character one. Since our shop has been around for a long time it makes sense to use the older and original writing for sushi.

 Misuzu: I have one last question – why is your store called Yachiyo?

 Nakase-san: Apparently, and this is just a rumour that dates from before World War II, it was named after the girlfriend of the first store manager.

Yachiyo’s storefront, which has been there for over 70 years
Entrance to the Shinanomachi branch of Yachiyo, which is relatively close to Arakicho and in a nice brick buildind

If you’d like to visit Yachiyo, you might be interested in our ‘Eat like a local in Arakicho‘ exclusive food tour.

For smartphone users, please click the link below to go to the Tadaima Japan website which includes additional location details:

Sushi Yachiyo: A sushi restaurant with more than 100 years of history

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AUTHOR

David

David

Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.