On Jan 22, an elaborately festooned kaiten-sushi restaurant opened its doors for business in Tokyo's Asakusa district. Named Asakusa ROX, its decor is made to resemble a festival day in the pre-modern Edo Period.
Kaiten-sushi refers to sushi dispensed to diners atop a moving belt conveyer, a system first introduced at a shop in Osaka called Genroku-sushi in 1958.
The new shop in Asakusa becomes the flagship store of Kura-sushi, founded in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture, in 1977.
A reporter from Friday (Jan 21) who went to inspect the premises, wondered if the many foreign tourists who patronize the shop were aware of the meanings of the ukiyo-e prints and masks used for interior decorations. Or the hands-on traditional games on the premises, like ring-toss or target-shooting, that were popular activities at Edo-period festivals.
Customers were served by multilingual staff, who were also equipped with hand-held interpreter devices capable of responding to inputs in 104 different languages.
Despite these and other special touches, the set price of a dish with two kan (pieces) of nigiri-sushi is an eminently reasonable 100 yen (before tax).
"The major kaiten-sushi chains have pretty much figured out how to deal with what had once been a contradiction between price and quality," explains economist Takuro Morinanga, who's a big fan of kaiten-sushi. "But more chain outlets have been opening and the market has become saturated. This led to some of them adding new side menus offering items like desserts or ramen noodles, to add to their appeal.
"What's more, in recent years the chains have worked at differentiating themselves in order to expand their customer base."
Among some of the ways Kura-sushi's new Asakusa shop tickles the fancy of customers is by offering a Bikkuri-bon lucky drawing with every fifth plate of sushi, by which winners can receive a Pokemon premium. Customers submit their orders from a touch screen that also offers various options, including requesting that the amount of accompanying rice be reduced by half.
"Be it hamburgers or gyudon (beef bowl) or barbecue, as restaurant services keep growing, their customer base ultimately starts to tire of their offerings," says Nobuo Yonekawa, a well-known "critic" of kaiten-sushi shops. "Then at that point, they switch to places that offer different kinds of cuisine."
Yonekawa continues: "The one great advantage of kaiten-sushi shops, however, is that it's easy to alter the choices to keep customers happy. First of all, seafood items constantly change with the four seasons. The major chains regularly engage in special campaigns, usually at cycles of two weeks, that are based on the items in season. This helps to attract repeat customers and is a big advantage over other types of restaurants."
Another common characteristic of the sushi chains is that they are typically located at roadside buildings in the suburbs, where rents are low. This also makes it easier to attract families.
This business model has become saturated, however, so the chains have presently begun to move to central urban areas. Kura-sushi (which operates 446 outlets nationwide) did so, moving to the East Exit of Tokyo's Ikebukuro station in 2014. Its rival, industry leader Akindo Sushiro Co (with 542 outlets) responded with shops in Ikebukuro and Takadanobaba.
Amidst intensifying competition, sushi chains have been adopting various strategies to attract business. Kappa-sushi, the industry leader a decade ago, was overtaken by Sushiro in 2011 and since declined to 4th place.
Determined to fight its way back, Kappa, which boasts 324 outlets, has begun offering an all-you-can-eat system, limited to 60 minutes, with a flat charge of 1,680 yen for men and 1,580 yen for women. Customers are required to reserve seats via the internet.
Yonekawa also voiced praise for some of the smaller chains. Yamato City, Kanagawa-based Koma-sushi, which operates seven outlets, obtains its seafood fresh every morning from Odawara port.
"They're offering all the alcoholic beverages you can drink for just 500 yen," he says. "That's been them gaining new fans."© Japan Today