To many overseas visitors in Japan, conveyor-belt sushi joints are relaxing and convenient places to dine. They don’t have to worry about perusing a menu; in fact they don’t even have to dictate an order. The sushi and other dishes are placed on a rotating surface for all to see, and customers choose them simply by removing the dish from the moving lineup. When I’m travelling in Japan, invariably with a packed itinerary, I choose these restaurants for their efficiency – precisely the intention of the person who started this style of restaurant.
Conveyor belt sushi was invented by Yoshiaki Shiraishi. He started out with a standing-counter sushi place, which attracted customers with its low prices and good eats – but he struggled to hire sufficient staff to serve them. During a tour of a beer factory, Shiraishi became inspired by the conveyor belts and thought of using this system to deliver ready-made sushi, which would eliminate the staffing problem. In 1958 he debuted the world’s first conveyor-belt sushi restaurant in Osaka, eventually showcasing his idea at the 1970 World’s Fair held in the city. The concept spread across Japan.
Most conveyor belts move four centimetres per second – said to be the ideal speed, giving customers enough time to consider what’s moving in front of them and grab the dishes before they disappear. Watching your potential food go by creates urgency, so this serving method works to entice.
Today, the rotating surfaces also carry snacks and noodles, and they can do more than transport: some automatically recall unwanted dishes, collect used plates to calculate the bill or gather data on customer selections to more accurately predict demand.
Every region in Japan has its local sushi specialities, such as seagrape sushi in Okinawa. But for the most outstanding conveyor-belt sushi experience, head to Kanazawa (which incidentally is the world’s main producer of sushi conveyor systems): because it’s close to the fisheries, seafood is delivered to restaurants not once but twice a day, ensuring utmost freshness.
Next time you pick up sushi off a rotating surface, notice that the belts are formed with nestling crescent-shaped discs, designed to make smooth turns around a counter. They speak to Shiraishi’s inventiveness: he came up with this mechanism by watching poker players fan out their cards.