Conveyor belt sushi restaurant (回転寿司, kaiten-zushi) is a very popular type of sushi restaurant throughout all of Japan. Such places are known for low prices, large variety of offered food and convenient layout of the dining hall, making it easy to dine with family or a large group of co-workers.
First such restaurant was opened in Osaka in 1958. Owner of a small sushi restaurant Yoshiaki Shiraishi couldn’t serve visitors quickly enough so he decided to build a conveyor belt, which allowed sushi chief to concentrate on cooking, and eliminated need for a large waiting staff. It took about 5 years to perfect the best conveyor belt system and fine-tune plate moving speed.
First wave of popularity for these types of restaurants happened in the 70s, after Osaka hosted the EXPO. Then in the next decade, as popularity of dining out rose. And yet again in the 90s, as inexpensive sushi places became popular after the financial crisis.
You can find thousands of small independent restaurants, and small franchises that have just a few branches in one city or an area. And only 8 large conveyor belt sushi franchises are opened throughout Japan.
Out of those eight, five offer sushi priced from 100 to 500 yens per plate ($1.20 – $5). Each price is designated by the color of the plate. The cheapest 100 yen sushi usually ride on a simple white plate with blue pattern. 500 yen sushi are usually on the red plate with a golden pattern.
Three franchises offer fixed price of 100 yen for any sushi plate, and are fiercely competing in this value-oriented market:
- Kappa Sushi (356 restaurants)
- Sushiro (267 restaurants)
- Kura Zushi (or Kura Sushi, 247 places)
Low prices at these franchises are usually due to a large amount of fish they order.
I’ve never been to Kappa Sushi (their headquarter is in Saitama prefecture) and I prefer to support local places. Both Sushiro and Kura Zushi opened their first restaurants in Osaka. Usually I go to Sushiro but this report is from Kura Zushi in Umeda, center of Osaka.
Due to location this restaurant is very small. Usually such places are about 2-3 times larger.
Large franchises usually have a terminal by the entrance. If there’s a line, you should take a ticket. You specify how many guests, if you have children with you and always indicate if you want a table, or okay with seating at the bar.
Here you can see that there are four groups of guests waiting ahead of us, each from 2 to 5 people, and everyone wants to seat at a table, hence 18 minute wait time.
After entering everything, terminal prints out the ticket. Sushiro has similar terminals but with a different user interface. Some restaurants are not quite that automated and you have to write down everything on a piece of paper. Then they call you by name.
After adding yourself to the waiting list you can wait on the bench by the entrance. Lines are common in the evening and on weekends, when families decide to forego cooking and just go out for a meal.
While you’re waiting, you can look at some leaflets. Here they offer take-out sushi sets, for a specified number of people. You can also order whatever you like, especially if set has some sushi than nobody wants. Order can be faxed in and then picked up at specified time. Usually it takes about 15 minutes to prepare, so sometimes it’s easier not to order in advance, and just wait right here.
Here is a place at the bar/conveyor belt. Chopsticks, wasabi, soy sauce, green tea and teacups. Chopsticks can be reusable (plastic) or disposable. Lately many restaurants switched to reusable chopsticks as that’s more ecologically friendly.
Here is the menu:
Each type of fish has a number in red circle that indicates corresponding section of the electronic menu. There’s also a price — everything is 105 yens.
Sushiro also now includes calories count. On average single sushi plate is 80-150 calories. Which is significant, given that many visitors have about 15 plates of sushi.
Cheap franchises also usually offer other items — soups, udon, karaage, fruits, desserts and juice.
Because everything is a fixed 100 yen, you can see plates of two colors that indicate if sushi contains wasabi. In Japan some adults and many children can’t stomach wasabi, so guests’ preferences are always honored.
If restaurant offers some expensive type of fish, they usually place only one piece of sushi on the plate (instead of increasing the price to 200 yens). Usually there are two pieces.
Sushi with crab is also more expensive. By the way, 100 yen crab is usually watery and not very tasty
Salmon is the most popular fish among foreigners.
This place has a large piece of fish cut out from the fatty part of salmon, hence only one piece on the plate.
Kura Zushi usually keeps wasabi in a jar on the table. Sushiro usually puts small individual packages on the conveyer belt. Usually Kura Zushi’s wasabi tastes better, though, of course, you can’t compare that with freshly grated one that you can get in small and more expensive sushi places.
Usually there’s a “nameplate” that rides before plates, that indicates what kind of dish this is. Also, it usually says if dish contains wasabi.
And this is what followed that nameplate.
Here’s what else you can see on the conveyor belt:
Sushi with herring seem weird to most Russians, including me.
Even though omelet is not a fish, it’s still tastes very good.
Regular boiled shrimp. There could be almost a dozen different kinds of shrimp, from tiny to large. Different cooking methods too. I think raw shrimp is better at Kura Zushi.
Scallop could be raw or boiled. Sushiro offers one raw medallion or two boiled ones on a single ball of rice.
Octopuses and squids are also not to everyone’s liking. Meat is a bit hard and some people can’t chew through it.
I love salads. Usually there are pieces of shrimp, or seafood medley, with crab meat and other things instead of expensive fish, plus some vegetables and mayo. Result is very juicy. This one is like cucumbers with crab sticks.
Also look out for special offers. This time they offered better and fatter tuna meat. 210 yens per plate
This plate usually rides on a special placeholder. You have to take them off the belt at the same time, so the waitstaff would know that this is a more expensive dish.
Sushi goes well with tap beer, especially after a long day
Inexpensive franchises also try to add some variety to the menu not just with salads and omelets, but also with meat-based sushi.
Pork, chicken, beef, bacon — you can find it all here
If you don’t find something you want on the conveyor belt, you can place a special order via computer. There’s a set of instructions next to each seating place.
You can also see the process of ordering in the vide at the bottom of the page
When the plate with your special order arrives you’ll hear a distinct beep-beep and a note on the monitor. In this case it says “Single plate of shrimp without wasabi coming up”
And here it is. Red plate with “Special Order” note we leave on the belt.
In Sushiro there are no computers, so they use a different way to place special order — human will take your order via intercom next to a table or bar place. Each intercom has a different color. So if your is green, then your special order will arrive on the green plate. That’s the only way to recognize your dish, no notices or screens in there.
Of course the fact that you have to actually speak to a human complicates things as well — you need to speak Japanese. You could, of course, call a waiter to your desk and just point at the pictures in the menu.
Each plate has a barcode on it. That’s how your order is tracked. Also number in the bar-code indicates time this piece of sushi was made. If plate rides the conveyor for 30 minutes and nobody picks it up, it will be removed. So you practically never see old dried up unappetizing fish there.
There are teacups and dry tea on the table. Both wasabi and tea are free. You can drink as much as you want.
Some restaurants have bagged green tea.
Here are some photos of sushi that you’ll never see in any fancy restaurants (those that offer only classical sushi with fish)
Sometimes you can find photos of homemade sushi and sushi rolls. Where because people run out of fish they throw whatever is left in the fridge at it.
Skeptics sometimes say: “Riight, what’s next? Sushi with cutlets?”. Well here they are, sushi with cutlets.
Lunch with omelette, shrimp in batter, cutlet and karaage with mayo
Salads made out of odd for foreigner’s taste things: natto, okra, etc. After the main course you can order some dessert.
Here’s a replica of a cheesecake trying to seduce you into ordering one
Warabi-moti — one of traditional Japanese desserts.
Different kinds of sweet potatoes are also dessert
Replica of a chestnut dessert (a seasonal offer)
In the end I ordered a mousse with cream and nuts
Afterwards we called for the waiter who counts the number of plates and total for the meal.
All this is added up on the checkout sheet which is paid by the cash register. Here we have 16 regular plates, one sour, one 200 yen special offer. Total is about $30.
Here’s a small 2 minute long video that shows restaurant’s interior, atmosphere, and how to place an order via computer: