Come to Sushi Bar Nakamaru for the fresh fish, stay for your 15 minutes of Facebook fame.
Step through the curtains hanging outside most Japanese sushi restaurants and you could wind up eating sea urchin, live prawns, even whale. That’s certainly true at Sushi Bar Nakamaru, but there you’ll also end up doing something different: posing for a photo with the chef and seeing it posted on Facebook.
The chef, Toshikazu Nakamaru, is 65 years old, but his Facebook page looks like it belongs to a college student. In the early hours of every morning, after he’s finished work, he posts new photos of him with smiling customers, many raising glasses of sake.
Nakamaru said he learned how to use Facebook in 2009 when Americans started visiting his restaurant.
“I thought it would be nice for my American customers to take home some photos for their families and friends, so I started taking photos, printed them out and handed them out to them later,” he said through a translator. “One day an American customer recommended to me that if we become Facebook friends, there is no need to print the pictures out, and I can just tag their friends and families there to send those pictures. I thought that was so convenient.”
He said most Japanese people weren’t on Facebook, but he decided to join. And he quickly learned American social networking manners.
“I understand the importance of protecting everybody’s privacy, so I always ask before I post,” he said. “Almost everyone on my Facebook page is American. Most of my Japanese customers I ask for permissions refuse. They say: ‘Don’t show my face there. I wouldn’t like it because I am not wearing makeup.’”
Nakamaru began working as a delivery boy at a sushi restaurant in 1966.
“As an apprentice, I only got paid small stipend, but got free room and board, so I ate a lot, and felt full all the time. That was fantastic,” he said. “Life in big cities suited me, perhaps.”
He opened his restaurant in Sagamihara, a small city 30 miles west of Tokyo, in 1980. It started with just 10 barstools and focused mainly on sushi deliveries.
“But within four years, the space couldn’t cope with the demand, so I rented the adjacent space and created table seats, feeling the economic boom,” Nakamaru said. “Following that, I owned three sushi restaurants, but realized I had more of a craftsman temperament and not so suited to management, so I decided to downsize and focus on this original restaurant only.”
While lots of Japanese restaurants use social media to promote their businesses, Nakamaru said he’s the only restaurant owner he knows who takes photos with his customers and friends them on Facebook. He also allows customers to make reservations using Facebook messenger, and uses Google Translate to respond to them.
“I learned how to use personal computers and Facebook all by myself,” he said. “When I don’t understand, I ask my daughter and students who work at my restaurant part-time.”
“If I couldn’t use [Facebook], I don’t think there would be as many Americans that come to my restaurant,” he added.
That’s true of Parrish Glass, who’s been to Sushi Bar Nakamaru several times. She and her husband live on a Navy base not far away and heard from friends about the “awesome sushi bar in town with a great owner who had become friends with several American military members.”
So Glass friended Nakamaru on Facebook and made reservations using Facebook Messenger. She’d seen his Facebook page, so she knew pictures would be part of the evening. But she wasn’t prepared for everything else.
“After asking us if ‘all fish was okay,’ asking if we would openly try everything he gave us, he pulled an octopus tentacle out from the fish case and threw it on the cutting board,” Glass said. “It curled and moved slightly, and that is when he explained that the octopus was still alive. If it did not move like it had, that meant the fish was bad and he would not serve it to his customers. He cut pieces of the live octopus and served it to us with a drizzle of peanut oil and some cherry tomatoes. That was our first baby step into our sushi eating adventure at Nakamaru’s.”
On a later visit, Nakamaru stepped up the eating—and Facebook posting—experience.
“At one point during the evening, he had a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he pointed to the fish tank at the end of the room and looked at me to say, ‘I need you to fish out four prawns, with your hands,’” Glass said. “He came out from behind the bar with a large metal bowl and had me stand on a stool so I could reach into the top of the large tank. I grabbed the first prawn, but lost my grip on it before I could get it out of the tank. I may have shrieked a little, too. My second attempt at prawn number one was successful. It was at this point that I turned to ask Nakamaru-san, ‘Four?!’ to which he replied, ‘Four!’ I had three more to go. It was also at this point that I noticed he was video recording my prawn fishing with his camera.”
Once she’d caught the other three unlucky prawns, Nakamaru filmed Glass and her friends snapping the prawns’ heads off and eating them. (Full disclosure: I also visited Sushi Bar Nakamaru, and when the time came for me to snap the head off a prawn, I excused myself to the bathroom.)
“The next morning, I saw that the pictures and video were both posted to Facebook, capturing my squealing and weird faces from the prawn catching and peeling the night before,” Glass said. “I am not above laughing at myself and it was another fun night with Nakamaru-san, so I did not mind everything being posted to Facebook. I guess maybe I wish I did not squeal so much in the video, that’s all.”
Nakamaru has a special appreciation for American military—fairly unusual in Japan, where relationships have become especially strained.
“One day, two American Navy guys were peeking through the windows and I invited them in. They lived nearby,” Nakamaru said. “Then they began to bring their friends and family members. I was thinking that I could practice English with them.”
Soon after, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, killing thousands and causing meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
“These Navy officers, even though that was their job, helped the Japanese, while being irradiated,” Nakamaru said. “I just couldn’t be just here sitting safely and exposing these young men to danger. So, I decided that while they are stationed in Japan, they could eat the real sushi as much as they want at discounted price. That’s at least I can do. It’s the spirit of a sushi chef.”
Nakamaru said he loves the chance to show Americans what top-quality sushi is—he serves whatever he buys that day fresh from the fish market. And if that means posting photos and answering Facebook messages at 2 a.m., he’s up to the challenge.