Three sushi masters who practice their highly acclaimed art in the Kyushu region of Japan, each garnering nationwide and worldwide popularity, are featured in these excerpts from the book SUSHI SHOKUNIN—Japan’s Culinary Masters by Andrea Fazzari.
Photography and text by Andrea Fazzari
Isao Amano—one of the most revered, respected and beloved sushi shokunin in all of Japan—grew up in Kokura, an ancient town in central Kitakyushu, where the historic castle for which it is named still stands. He comes from a close-knit sushi family: His grandfather was a sushi shokunin in Shikoku, and his highly regarded father, Tokio, founded Tenzushi as a street stall in 1939, eventually moving the business indoors ten years later.
Amano was just three years old when he first tasted his father’s inventive Kyushumae (Kyushu style) sushi—distinguished by his use of local kabosu (Kyushu-grown citrus) and salt in place of shoyu (soy sauce). From then on, every evening for dinner, his four siblings and parents would enjoy sushi left over from the restaurant with their evening meal. “I loved it when my father made sushi,” he remembers. “He took extra care. I thought he was very cool.”
Later, in grammar school, around the time of the 1964 Olympics, Amano would eventually declare his own desire to become a sushi shokunin. “I said, ‘When I take over Tenzushi, I want everyone in Japan to know about this restaurant,’” Amano recalls. “My dream was to make it the best sushi restaurant in Japan—so, the best in the world!” Every day after school, Amano would rush home to help his father at Tenzushi; later, during high school, he became his father’s apprentice.
Amano’s skills as a sushi shokunin serve as an extension of his father’s own expertise; he asserts, however, that he will never surpass his father’s level of excellence—a sentiment that, in itself, is distinctly Japanese, and that conveys unwavering gratitude, respect and humility. Amano worked beside his father for forty-two years, until his death seventeen years ago.
Today, Tenzushi occupies the ground floor of a modern building in Kokura that was constructed by Amano, and that also bears his name. He moved the restaurant to this location seventeen years ago, shortly after his father passed away. “I do everything—and nothing—differently from my father,” he explains; and it is thanks to this inherited and innate creativity, acumen, and dedication that Amano has managed to launch Tenzushi into the highest strata of Japan’s sushi scene; reservations must usually be booked more than a year in advance.
This popularity stems from the fact that Tenzushi, to diners, is much more than just another fine sushi restaurant—it is the destination for Kyushu style sushi, and one of the few top-tier restaurants in the country that offers patrons this regional food at such a high quality.
Seated at the five-seat counter at Tenzushi, the celestial adventure begins with sweet, dashi-marinated chutoro (medium fatty tuna), and lightly salted otoro (fatty tuna belly), a notable departure from Tokyo where tuna is usually the crescendo of the meal. Another distinguishing characteristic of Tenzushi Kyomachi is the absence of both otsumami (appetizers) and alcohol—a policy initially put into place by Amano’s father, who sought to create a more welcoming environment for both women and children.
Amano employs the Kyushu-style practice of addition, as opposed to the practice of subtraction and minimalism in Edo style sushi. This is a more decorative and playful approach—unexpected toppings, colors, and seasonings like pepper, ume (plum) and generous amounts of kabosu underscore the fish’s freshness, and pack bursts of atypical flavor. Because Kyushu’s waters provide varied fish year-round and sushi developed here after the advent of refrigeration, Kyushumae sushi shokunin never developed preservation techniques, as Edomae (Edo style) chefs had before them.
One of Amano’s most spectacular nigiri is his signature akaika (neon flying squid, page top). Sculptural and regal, like a modernist crown, it is cut to accentuate parboiled strips of curled flesh. This pure white cephalopod is topped with local sea urchin, tobiko (flying fish roe), tricolor sesame seeds, sansho (Japanese pepper), Kyushu sea salt and kabosu. As I marvel at its appearance, Amano asserts, “If you have good shari (seasoned rice), everything else will go smoothly.” He explains that his rice includes a bit of sugar, unlike the shari most commonly prepared in traditional Edomae sushi. His Shiragiku rice vinegar—the same type that his father used—and his pesticide-free rice are both produced locally, in Kyushu.
Find out more about award-winning photographer and author Andrea Fazzari’s adventures discovering the art of 20 celebrated sushi masters, in SUSHI SHOKUNIN published by Assouline (www.andreafazzari.com/my-books) and available through Tsutaya Roppongi and Daikanyama in Japan. Also available on Amazon Japan.
Also look for the KIJE 2021 Spring / Summer issue due out in March, where KIJE will explore the artisanship of these sushi shokunin in Kyushu and other parts of Western Japan.