We’re most likely all familiar with the regular fare served at sushi chains and all-you-can-eat buffets. Salmon rolls, tuna rolls, avocado rolls, but also sashimi, fish eggs, shrimp tempura… I’d eaten them my whole life, believing myself to be quite the sushi connoisseur (spoiler alert: I was wrong). In Japan, another type of restaurant is popular: kaiten sushi, also known as "conveyor belt sushi" or "sushi train." At kaiten sushi restaurants, dishes are delivered on a conveyor belt that runs around the restaurant. And though we all know that the sushi experience in Japan is quite different, few of us realize just how vast those differences are.
My first experience with kaiten sushi proved to be quite transformative. Not only was I exposed to sights and flavors I’d never encountered before (not to mention remarkable freshness and quality at an affordable price), but I also got to see some pretty interesting dishes glide past me on the conveyor belt. In addition to serving more types of raw fish than you’ve ever imagined, Japanese kaiten sushi restaurants also offer a plethora of unusual (and often downright bizarre) items as part of their regular menu. Some of these are Japanese staples, others simply novelty items, but here are ten things served at Japanese kaiten sushi restaurants that you’ve probably never seen before at your local sushi joint (I'm not going to recommend that you try all of these though because I sure didn’t! Proceed with caution.).
10 Tea Dispensers
First thing to know about kaiten sushi restaurants in Japan is that each seat around the conveyor belt comes with its own built-in hot water tap that activates at the push of a button to make your own green tea! You’ll find a box of teabags or a tin of loose leaf tea so you can brew as many cups as you want throughout the meal. Talk about convenience!
9 Pickled Eggplant Nigiri
Nigiri is a type of sushi that consists of a molded ball of rice topped with… well, pretty much anything you want. While it’s usually a nice slice of salmon or tuna, a common sight in Japan is this vividly purple pickled eggplant nigiri. Pickled vegetables are actually quite popular in Japan, and come in many variations.
8 Raw Horse Meat & Mane Nigiri
And on the topic of weird nigiri…here’s one I personally spotted at Musashi, a kaiten sushi restaurant in Kyoto. Yes, those are indeed pieces of raw horse meat as well as the fat underneath a horses’ mane. Definitely not for the faint of heart. The dish is called “Sakura”, or cherry blossom, perhaps in reference to the flowers’ characteristically pink and white petals.
7 Quail Egg and Natto
At the top of my list for most unappealing sushi is anything involving natto. For those who don’t know, natto consists of fermented soy beans and is generally eaten as part of a traditional Japanese breakfast. Though it's considered to be very healthy, its pungent odor and slimy texture generally serve as a massive turn-off for the uninitiated. In sushi, natto is served either by itself or in combination with other ingredients, such as fish or vegetables. Here it is paired with some raw quail egg. Bon appétit!
6 Cheese Hamburger Sushi
Tired of looking at weird raw stuff? Japanese chefs aren’t afraid to combine ingredients you’d never expect on top of sushi rice. The Genki Sushi chain in particular is known for offering a cheese hamburger nigiri. Perhaps the best way to satisfy both your sushi and American fast food cravings while overseas…
5 Corn Mayo Sushi
Sushi purists may be surprised to discover that the Japanese enjoy mayonnaise in their sushi. Kewpie mayo (a special mayonnaise made with rice vinegar which is sweeter and creamier than its North American counterpart) is often drizzled on top of regular nigiri or combined with fish, meat and vegetables. This mushy mixture is corn and mayo salad, and it can often be found alongside its equally unexpected peers, tuna salad, potato salad and egg salad, at most conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
4 Salmon Cheese Nigiri
Melted cheese is also a pretty popular topping. Pictured here is salmon nigiri topped with half-melted cheese slices and a basil pesto sauce, which can be found at Sushiro, a kaiten sushi restaurant in Yokohama. Fusion cuisine at its best!
3 Blowfish Nigiri
Now on to a classic: fugu, the notoriously dangerous blowfish. We’ve all probably heard that sushi chefs need decades of experience to handle this fish which, if not cleaned and prepped correctly, can contain traces of a deadly toxin. Before going to Japan, I thought this was only something you could sample at fancy, expensive restaurants. In reality, fugu is available at regular kaiten sushi chains. Looks innocent? This thing could KILL you. Well no, actually, it’s supposed to be pretty safe, but I still decided not to try it, juuuust in case…
2 Jumbo Eel Nigiri
Who said everything in Japan has to be small? You’ve probably seen barbecue eel nigiri at all-you-can-eat sushi chains in North America, but here’s its big brother, the jumbo eel nigiri. Whereas the eel is generally cut into small, manageable pieces, many kaiten sushi restaurants in Japan also offer a whole barbecued eel on top of a small mound of sushi rice. It’s a bit more expensive, but also indubitably more delicious.
1 Kanpyo roll
Last but not least, kaiten sushi restaurants also offer maki, but some of the very traditionally Japanese ingredients can be very unfamiliar to Western palates. This Kanpyo roll is a prime example. Kanpyo is essentially dried gourd shavings, a popular ingredient of Edo style cuisine. It is cooked, seasoned and often used in maki rolls, so if you see this around, don’t mistake it for fish or meat!