What is this?
Low end but strangely fascinating way of eating sushi cuisine. The cooks stand in the centre of a service island, preparing sushi of all types; the sushi portions are put on color-coded little dishes, and the dishes are placed on a refrigerated conveyor belt that loops around the island.
The customers sit outside, and they grab what they like off the belt. At the end of the meal, they call a waiter that counts the number of the dishes and shouts a total to the cashier.
In "traditional" kaitenzushi restaurants, the conveyor belt forms a large oval and the sushi masters stand inside, sometimes taking orders for a particular kind of sushi. Recently, constructions became popular where the conveyor belts form a series of tight long loops, with customers sitting on both sides and the sushi makers at one end of the room. This allows more customers to sit, but makes the whole thing a bit more fast food like than it already was.
Is it traditional?
kaitenzushi in Japanese means "revolving sushi". Also known in the west as a sushi train. This popular method of displaying and vending sushi was invented by Yoshiaki Shiraishi, whose inspiration was seeing bottles moving around conveyers in a brewery. He opened his first kaiten zushi-ya in Osaka in the year 1958.
Shiraishi-san died in August 2001, in Osaka, of liver failure (he was aged 87).
These establishments are not known for being of the highest quality, but if visited at a busy time, should provide adequately fresh and inexpensive meal in urban Japan. Watch out for the excessive use of wasabi, often an attempt to hide tastes that are not perfect.
Kaitenzushi goes for between 100 and 200 yen per little dish. It is not difficult to run up a bill of 1500 yen.
The customer has also access to gari (pickled ginger) in large amounts, hashi (aka chopsticks), green tea bags, mugs and intriguing little taps. Those little taps let out scalding hot water for your tea. Trying to use them to wash your hands could be a very exciting experience, and if you do it could you please send me some pictures?
If you want some specific or unusual type of sushi that is on the menu but not on the conveyor (like eel or sea urchin), you can always ask the cook. Some times the fish can be unpleasantly cold; let it rest for some minutes, otherwise it will have almost no taste in your mouth.
This writeup has assimilated kaiten sushi, kaiten zushi and kaitensushi. I have been convinced that the one true spelling is this one. Thanks to simonc and -brazil- for contributing large fragments of their knowledge.