Sushi chefs take raw fish to another artistic level

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Nishiki Zushi restaurant in Saiki, Oita Prefecture, creates a special presentation of two pieces in the shape of colorful nishikigoi carp to look as if they are swimming in a traditional Japanese garden. A line made with rock salt and grated kabosu citrus peel represents a water stream.

By Kenichi Sato / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterSAIKI, Oita — The two colorful nishikigoi carp had arched tail fins, as if swaying while swimming in a stream. I was drawn by the red and yellow patterns that appeared beneath their whitish, translucent backs.

The two koi, however, were actually not luxury ornamental fish. I was at a sushi restaurant in Saiki, Oita Prefecture, admiring the beautiful pieces shaped like — but not actually made of — nishikigoi. On a serving plate, these edible delicacies looked as if they had just been taken out of a pond in a traditional Japanese garden. They seemed at that moment as if they were about to swim.

The body and fins of the sushi pieces were made of thin slices of squid, while the patterns below were created using sea urchin roe, salmon, eggs and nori, all placed atop vinegared rice.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Fish are landed in a public fisheries market in the city’s Tsurumi district.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

“The beautiful shape of the tail fin is the key,” said Koichi Iwasa, 35, the chef who made the sushi at Nishiki Zushi. “These nishikigoi-shaped sushi catch the attention of customers from foreign countries where nishikigoi are becoming popular.”

It was a pity to eat Iwasa’s beautiful works, but eat them I did. The squid had a firm texture that complemented the sea urchin roe, which melted in my mouth.

Saiki is famous for sushi as more than 50 kinds of fish used as sushi toppings are caught offshore. The city is known as a major sushi center in southern Japan, with the honor for northern Japan going to Otaru, Hokkaido. Local sushi restaurants have worked together to promote Saiki’s specialty.

The nishikigoi-shaped sushi was created as part of these efforts.

Mamoru Fukunaga, 79, the owner of restaurant Sushi Gen who has also been making creative sushi pieces, recalled how he was inspired to create such items when he visited Kumamoto’s Suizenji Jojuen park, commonly called Suizenji Park, which is known for its traditional Japanese garden.

“When I saw nishikigoi there more than 10 years ago, I wondered if I could take advantage of the transparency of Saeki’s squid.”

In 2007, Fukunaga and Hiroshi Iwasa, 70, the owner of Nishiki Zushi, visited Dubai as part of a project by Saiki’s chamber of commerce and industry to promote the city’s sushi overseas. There, they presented sushi in the style of a traditional Japanese garden using nishikigoi-shaped sushi and other creative pieces. These items surprised members of the royal family there, who asked if they really could be eaten, according to the chefs.

At the two restaurants, nishikigoi-shaped sushi cost around ¥800 to ¥1,000 each. They have also been the signature product for sushi catering company Tansho, which was jointly established by Fukunaga and Iwasa.

In Saiki, you can find various products made from the bounty of the local waters. For example, some restaurants offer sushi whose toppings are large enough to completely cover the vinegared rice, while a bakery sells bread containing chirimenjako dried young sardines. In the Yonouzu district, a specialty sushi dish uses a whole mackerel marinated in vinegar before being stuffed with vinegared rice and wrapped with red shiso leaves.

“Saiki faces the Bungo Channel, where the Seto Inland Sea and the Pacific Ocean meet each other,” said Kentaro Ikeda, 43, an official at the Saiki municipal government’s fishery section. “More than 350 kinds of fish can be caught, and there are 37 fishing ports in the city. We also have many calm bays with ria coastlines that are home to many aquaculture businesses.”

I received permission to visit a fisheries wholesale market in the Tsurumi district of the city early in the morning. Yellowtail, horse mackerel and squid — just to name a few — were among the seafood coming ashore. The waters off Saiki are like a garden that brings forth delicacies.

“We’re having a good amount of catches,” an official of a local fishermen’s cooperative said. “Today, we hauled in more than 100 kinds of fish, all caught in nearby waters.”

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