Kumamoto-san is an old school man. You will not find his personal website, even if he is one of the most coveted sushi chef in the country. You will also not find the home page of the Pension Bisezaki, the 3rd oldest pension in Japan, which he inherited from his father. Nevertheless, if you can read Japanese, the internet is full of rave reviews of the ultimate sushi experience which he offers to his guests, to no more than 6 people at time, and only few nights a week. If you are looking for some informations in English though, this page here is probably the only one you will find.
“There’s no way you can keep it out of the Lonely Planet, and once that happens, it’s countdown to doomsday.”
With that warning from Alex Garland I pondered for a while if I was doing the same by writing this article. In my mind “Lonely Planet” in the above quote could easily be replaced with “Google.” Was I going to spoil what Kumamoto-san calls the “one Mong package?”
With a 10.000 Yen note, the biggest in circulation in Japan, you can sleep one night in his guesthouse, have the special dinner and a traditional breakfast. Actually, the exact price is 9.800, which at today’s exchange is 100 euro or US$125. While this is an expense barrier that will keep away many people, when you compare it to the cost of the accomodation in the North of Okinawa and the cost of the dinner in Umi, the Sushi Restaurant where Kumamoto-san has been working for years (menu starts at 20.000 Yen per person), you realize immediately that this is a steal more than a bargain.
Tokyo may have the money and the fashion, but Okinawa is home of the highest percentage of centenarians on Earth. The Okinawan land and sea are a unique blend of rich nutrients, tasty flavors, and different cultural influences.
Kumamoto-san’s Pension Bisezaki is less than 2km away from Ocean Expo Park, but is hidden away in the fields, behind a secondary road. The white decrepit wall outside will make you think of an abandoned house, but the interior is impeccably clean, like any japanese Ryokan, and cozy enough. This is not a luxury hotel, but it is rich in personality and character. It’s all in the style of old Japan.
I don’t know why Ayako, my girlfriend, was picked with me as one of the chosen six for that night. All of the 10 rooms of the guesthouse were full and she did not have any personal or direct connection with the chef. She just found the raving reviews on internet, booked a room, and asked if she could be at the sushi table. She was accepted. It felt like winning the lottery. Sitting next to us was a wealthy couple from Tokyo who are regulars at the poshest restaurants of the capital, Umi, Nobu, you name it.
Kumamoto-san likes fishing said that he personally collected the seaweed and some of the shells he prepared for us that night. He usually spends three hours each day on the ocean. As a real artist he will never prepare the same meal twice, and if you are ever one of the 10-20 foreigners per year who find their way onto the guest list you will have something different that what we were served. But I can tell you that that it wasn’t just sushi on our plates. There was shrimp in a deep fried asa (a local seaweed, Ebino A-sa koromo age and a fatty pork rice stew called Rafutei no kome ni. All were beyond oishiii, delicious.
We sat at the table at 7pm and did not leave until after 10:30, happy, exhausted, satisfied, and drunk.
For how much the food was good, what makes this the ultimate sushi experience was Kumamoto-san himself. Usually an introvert, very poised and calm if you will see him around the guesthouse, Kumamoto will trasform into a clown and entertain you during the dinner — showing up into improbable masquerades and cracking jokes while explaining the secrets of his cuisine. This is why he accepts no more than 6 people at his table. He is looking for an intimate connection, to give you a personal unique experience that he also wishes to feel unique.
Personally I generally like sashimi more than sushi and I challenged the revered chef. I told him I believe some fish like tuna taste better alone that mixed with rice. Rather than arguing, Kumamoto-san picked up a piece of his tuna sushi and stuffed it directly into my mouth. It was the most tasteful piece of tuna sushi I’ve ever had. The rice that was so soft it was melting right after it made contact with my palate. I had to eat my words, literally.
That moment I finally realized why sushi can be so expensive. When that simple piece of tuna and rice reach my palate I finally saw the light. My senses and my breath arrested for a long second.
I don’t need massive doses of wasabi to open my taste senses. Forget the soy sauce, too. Accept the fact that even if you don’t understand the rationable behind the action, a little difference in the way a fish is cut or the rice is cooked can make a great difference in how your mouth perceives the sensation of the food. It’s a mystery that can’t be solved.