Shin Hinomoto, Tokyo
Every few minutes, rumbling comes from the vaulted ceiling as a bullet train passes on its way to Kyoto and beyond, with a more frequent rattle from the Yamanote-sen, the green circle line around the limits of inner Tokyo.
Waitstaff ferry tankards of draught beer, glasses of clear but potent shochu – the Japanese equivalent of vodka – and dishes of raw and grilled fish to groups of increasingly flushed office workers. The chatter level rises. The “office ladies” no longer hide their mouths behind their hands in modesty when they laugh.
The Shin Hinomoto − a poetic way of saying “New Japan” or “New Rising Sun”− is one of the less formal dining and drinking places, known as izakaya. It’s located in the heart of the capital, at Yurakucho under the arches of the great railway viaduct streaming southwards from Tokyo Station. So popular, it’s virtually impossible to get in without a booking.
Yet presiding over this nightly binge of traditional food and drink is Andy Lunt, 59, from Leicester, England. It’s not what he expected when as a young rock vocalist he met Japanese student Etsuko Nishizawa. After their marriage, she persuaded him to move to Japan and learn her father’s business. The apprenticeship took 24 years, before Andy took over as shachou (boss) six years ago. Now the signboard has both the kanji (Chinese characters) for the old name, and the phonetic katakana for “Andy’s”.
Before sampling his menu, I’ve spent parts of the day with Andy on his daily round, meeting early morning at Tsukiji just beyond the Ginza on the shore of Tokyo Bay. We walk across to the famous fish market, threatened with a move to less convenient quarters but possibly reprieved by discovery the new site is benzene-soaked from its previous occupant, a gas plant.
Before dawn, its 1200 wholesale stallholders have bid at auction for fish, crustaceans and shellfish flown in from around Japan and the world by the four big seafood companies. Now they’re selling to restaurants and shops.
We two gaijin (foreigners) walk in unchallenged. This is unusual. “How would you like to go into the same workplace you’ve been going to for 30 years, and still have the security staff refuse to admit they recognise you?” Andy says. “It still happens nearly every time.”
But inside there are friendly ohayo (good morning) greetings. First stop is the outer vegetable market. Andy goes to one stall he always buys from, and orders box-loads. There’s no point shopping around, as this is a fixed market. “The margin is gone,” Andy says. “Everything is pristine, cleaned, packaged. I am paying almost as much as a housewife in a supermarket, though it’s fresher.” In return for Andy’s “considerable business” though, this stall will receive all his fish purchases as well, and deliver the lot to the pavement outside the Shin Hinomoto by 11am.
We walk further into the vast shed. Incandescent bulbs light up the calligraphy of the stall signage, polystyrene boxes and freezers filled with fish of all sizes, whelks, huge Hiroshima oysters, squid, octopus, a bloody cube of whale meat, a pink slab of still-frozen tuna. Heads of giant fish lie under the tables, to be ground up for cat food. The floor runs with melting ice and water. Deliverymen drive electric trolleys down the narrow aisles.
This is the critical part for Andy. The margin on vegetables is narrow, as is the margin on drinks: Japan’s four big breweries charge identical prices. “My entire business depends on my performance as a buyer with my fish,” Andy says.
But the best fish is very expensive, and the izakaya is cheap eating. “So how can I possibly be buying the most expensive fish and serving them in an izakaya? But that’s what I do, and that’s why I’m fully booked every day of the year,” Andy says.
The secret is the relationships built over 70 years by his wife’s father and grandfather, and Andy himself with about 15 stalls. “I’m a stopper,” he says. “I stop these guys from losing money, and enable them to take the risk to make more money.”
These stalls are not the ones that buy large amounts of cheap fish and rely on turnover, but those that buy expensive fish at the auctions and make bigger margins when they sell. “The problem is that, if they have any left over, they’ll lose money,” Andy says. “I take that risk out for them by being here every morning, and promising to buy whatever they’ve got left, no matter the quantity, as long as it’s the right fish. Obviously I am not paying the same price for it, but it’s enough for them to make their money back. That’s how I survive.”
We progress from stall to stall. Andy orders sea bream and Spanish mackerel for grilling, where quality doesn’t have to be perfect. For sashimi, the speciality of the Shin Hinomoto, only the best will do. “I will not compromise when it comes to my sashimi,” he says.
Colour, taste and texture depend on the best fish from the best location according to the season. Only tuna comes frozen, as the big tuna yielding the prized fatty belly meat are now rare around Japan and come from distant oceans. The only farmed fish Andy accepts are salmon from one company in New Zealand.
He prods a metre-long yellowtail or kingfish, sitting in its own box, from Aomori in the north of Japan. “That’s okay, within my parameters, from a good location, pretty good, but there are better fish around,” he says. If he buys, this one will cost about 40,000 yen, or close to $500. We look at some beautiful red snapper, with eyes like gold coins. Another stall brings out a medium-sized aji, or horse mackerel from Seki. “Everybody knows Seki aji is the best,” Andy says. “A lot of people won’t have eaten it, as it costs three to four times as much as the common horse mackerel. It’s the Louis Vuitton of horse mackerel.”
The orders pile up, and we part company midmorning. When I call in at Shin Hinomoto at 4pm, empty boxes are piled outside. From 11am until 2pm, when his staff arrive to start helping, Andy has been cleaning, gutting and filleting fish on his own. Now chefs Watanabe and Sekine are busy in the kitchen downstairs. Andy, his wife and sister-in-law are taking bookings.
Andy is writing out the Japanese menu of daily specials based on what he bought at Tsukiji this morning: abalone, whitefish, ribbonfish, sweet prawns, squid, fried oysters, cod sperm (“everyone’s favourite”), sea bream, small shellfish, chicken-liver mousse, but alas not the Seki aji. “The guy didn’t put it in,” he says, “I tried to buy it. It means he didn’t come down to the price I was willing to pay.”
Later in the evening, a friend and I do what most customers do and ask for a selection of specials. The cod sperm, or shirako, is white, folded like raw brains, and tastes faintly fishy. Its viscous texture must be the thing. Several tankards of beer and glasses of shochu later, we are new friends with a table of Westerner stockbrokers working for finance company Nomura.
The subway shuts shortly after midnight, so customers leave obediently. “The vast majority of Japanese are very well behaved,” Andy says. “If I had a business anywhere else serving this much alcohol, I would spend as much time in court as I would in my restaurant.”
The staff head for the last train as well, leaving Andy and the Nishizawa sisters to the final clear-up before finishing at 1am – the end of a day that started at 6am. “That’s the monster that I’ve created,” he says. “I’m happy and comfortable with that, because I have to do it, it’s a family business. It’s great food and I can stand there and watch 200 people leave with a smile on their face because they haven’t been overcharged. Until one of my daughters brings some poor idiot to take my place, it’s my job.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "Sushi train". Subscribe here.