Yesterday , I watched a wonderful documentary , “Jiro Dreams of Sushi“, available on Netflix streaming . Released in 2011 , the movie chronicles the life of Jiro Ono , an 86-year old sushi master in Tokyo. He is the proprietor and head chef at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a small ten- seat sushi restaurant which received three Michelin stars and drew the admiring comment ” That is the only rating that we could give him” . The restaurant is located in the basement of a Ginza office building , has no bathroom and its decor is best described as minimalist . It does not serve appetizers or drinks , only sushi. However , that doesn’t keep away sushi mavens who are willing to pay upwards of $ 300 for the experience of dining there.
Jiro Ono’s father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when Ono-san was only seven ; Ono-san had to fend for himself since he was 9. For seventy-six years , almost his entire life , he has made sushi. Even today , at 86, he comes to the restaurant every day and oversees every aspect of the operation from checking the preparation of the rice and fish , finalizing the seating arrangements , deciding the seating arrangements and ,of course, preparing and serving the sushi. Working alongside him is his older son , Yoshikazu , and in the back are three apprentices .
The movie follows him at work in the restaurant and uses interviews with the food critic Yamamoto , with Ono -san’s two sons Yoshikazu and Takashi , various food suppliers , apprentices and others to paint a picture of the man . Yoshikazu works alongside his father and , as the eldest son , will one day take over for him . Takashi was encouraged by his father to leave and now manages the Roppongi Hills branch of the restaurant.
There are segments in which Ono-san talks about his life and work. In one sequence , we follow Yoshikazu as he makes the rounds of the giant Tsukiji fish market to buy the day’s fish . This was a chore that his father used to do himself but he gave it up when he had a heart attack at the age of seventy ; it was also when he gave up smoking. We find out more about Ono-san’s beginnings and early life when he takes a train to attend a school reunion and we meet up with his old schoolmates.
The movie is a visual delight , as the camera lingers lovingly on the jewel-like pieces of sushi as they are expertly formed .Ono-san’s hands are a symphony of motion ; there is not a wasted movement as his fingers pat and caress the rice and the fish into sushi. It is beautiful to watch and one believes him implicitly when he says ” We don’t care about money… All I want to do is to make better sushi.” A former apprentice says “He never takes a day off except for funerals .” Another person says ” They aren’t trying to be special … they just want to work.” His son , Yoskikazu , talks of him as being like ” the maestro of an orchestra.”
At various points , Ono -san talks about his philosophy of life and work ” Once you decide your profession , you must immerse yourself in your work. You must fall in love with your work…. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and the key to being regarded honorably .” This is a man who dreams of sushi and who says that he often wakes up at night with new ideas to try out. He is completely immersed in his work and it is no wonder that he says ” I feel ecstatic all day .”
There is a calmness about Ono-san which is a sign of his inner peace . He may be a hard taskmaster but he treats his apprentices with consideration , passing on his knowledge , demanding perfection, without ever talking down to them . There is not a hint of ego , no condescension when he tells them how they could do better. ( Gordon Ramsay , you should watch this movie !) Books on spirituality exhort us to live completely in the present moment ( “Be Here Now” ), with no thought for the past or the future. In his single-minded quest for perfection , Ono-san seems to have found fulfillment . As someone in the movie says ” Ultimate simplicity leads to ultimate purity.” Those words are used to describe Ono-san’s sushi but they could also be applied to his life.
When Michelin paid a visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro and gave it a coveted three star rating , it was Ono-san’s son , Yoshikazu, who prepared the sushi . It feels good to know that when the inevitable happens , Jiro Ono ‘s skills and traditions will not be lost to posterity.
Since the dawn of time , Man has pondered “What is the meaning of life ?”. It is a conundrum that we can never solve . There are as several ways to answer the question , and many of us conclude that there is no meaning to life . Perhaps we think too much . Perhaps it is best to do as Jiri Ono does and just concentrate on doing our work well , seeking to perfect what we do and to pass along what we have learnt. Particularly in Japan , there seem to be many like Ono-san who follow this path and who lead long ,happy, fulfilled lives. People like Shigeoki Hinohara ( 97) who still works as a fulltime physician and has written 150 books since the age of 75. People like Shigekazu Yamazaki who lives in Ibaraki , and at the age of 82 is still active in civic affairs , serving on four different committees . He walks to town meetings and bicycles to the market every day on his 30-year-old bicycle .
If you get Netflix streaming , don’t miss watching ” Jiro Dreams of Sushi “. You will be glad you did.
P.S: It is very instructive to listen to these octogenarians and others talk about what they believe in as they go about their daily routine . Try and go to www.eightbillionlives which features a series of short films about ordinary people . One of the films is a six-minute short about Shigekazu Yamazaki. Enjoy.