105 N. Columbia St., Chapel Hill
My dad is a sushi chef.
He used to tell me how to differentiate the good sushi restaurants from the bad ones: The modern new places might look fresh and inviting, he would say, but the ones with the truly best sushi were stripped-down and bare, randomly decorated if at all. Kuramalocated in a squat redbrick strip just off Franklin Street in Chapel Hillwould fit his old-school standards perfectly. And yes, Dad, the sushi is pretty good.
Inside, little trinkets adorn both the walls and the sushi bar. A Japanese style curtain, or noren, displaying a geisha in an elaborate orange kimono, is all that separates the tallow-colored seating area from the rear kitchen. Maybe a hundred yards from the campus of UNC, Kurama’s ceiling is painted in the obligatory Carolina blue hue, a color that lights up the interior when the sun shines through the large glass windows.
But there is one distinct and rare physical draw that lures customers: a large, round conveyor belt on which rolls of colorful sushi and appetizers pass between waiting customers gathered in wooden chairs and the chefs, working rapidly to keep the gray paddles that slide between stainless steel rails loaded with food. This is kaitenzushi, a decades-old system for satisfying customers not by taking and filling their orders with menus and servers but by tempting them with the actual food as it floats by. Grab what you want, and pay later.
Some conveyor belt-style sushi restaurants in New York and on the West Coast have more lavish interiors. In Japan, many even boast electronic menus beside booths. At Mizu in North Raleigh, the kaitenzushi takes the form of a train.
But Kurama was the first Triangle restaurant to incorporate kaitenzushi, and it remains the basic, economical standard. Well into its second decade, the homey, unassuming Kurama is steadfast in simplicity, much like the belt that spins at its center. It’s the kind of place you could pass the day just by drinking green tea and savoring the sight of an array of sushi as it makes laps.
It’s 11:30 a.m. on a weekday.
Kurama has just opened, and already, the belt is crowded with plates of colorful nigiri and rolls ready to be plucked by hungry customers. Pieces of salmon lay perfectly centered on top of keenly shaped mounds of rice. Tempura flakes top several rolls of flavorful sushi. Despite the humble setting, Kurama keeps a busy kitchen, preparing everything from sushi rolls and sashimi to appetizers like edamame and dumplings. They serve ramen, too.
After an extended Christmas break, UNC students are back for the first day of classes. Students and parents begin to trickle in as soon as Kurama opens, just as owner Hiroyuki Osada predicted they would. In this college town, Kurama’s cost is hard to beat. The restaurant boasts $1 California and avocado rolls and $7 ramen bowls; the most expensive item on the menua “UNC roll” stuffed with eel, tuna and shrimp tempuratops out at $10.
A visual pricing diagram for the plates hangs from the wall. A yellow plate means $1, a blue plate $2. Looking at the color-coded chart and then watching the plates pass by one at a time, I begin to understand just how much sushi you can have at Kurama for very little money.
As the customers arrive, Osada greets them with a kind “Happy New Year,” even remembering many of their names. He is the friendly neighborhood sushi chef, the self-made mascot of his mom-and-pop establishment. Kurama, after all, represents the fulfillment of his dream.
Osada and his wife, Vickie, took over the small kaitenzushi parlor in 2005, just four years after the shop opened. The restaurant’s owner, Hirofumi Ono, had decided to sell his company, consisting primarily of Kurama steakhouses scattered throughout the Southeast, including one seven miles away in Durham.
Both Osada and Vickie had been working at the Kurama steakhouse in Hilton Head, South Carolina, when they received the offer to buy the sushi outlier. With two daughters then aged 3 and 5, they decided to take the chance on a state they’d never visited.
“We knew that Chapel Hill had a great school system,” says Vickie. She grew up in Britain and met Osada in Hilton Head; remnants of a British accent still linger in her speech.
Osadaor Hiro, as Vickie and the other employees call himis a seasoned sushi chef. His culinary career began in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo as a chef at a hotel’s French restaurant, but Osada soon moved into the sushi business.
“It was for survival,” he says. He knew that expertise in sushi could take him places he wanted to gonamely, the United States. “It was my dream to come here.”
Soon enough, in 1994, Osada learned of an opportunity to work in South Carolina as a sushi chef for the Kurama chain. When he arrived, he spoke almost no English. He didn’t have a car, either. Standing behind the sushi bar, he recalls attempting to walk to a South Carolina Wal-Mart near his apartment not long after his arrival.
“I didn’t make it there,” Osada says. “It was too far, and I ended up buying a bicycle halfway and then going home.”
There was pronounced culture shock upon arrival, too. He was fascinated by his apartment complex’s pool, for instance, and confused every time a friendly American said “What’s up?”
“I kept thinking, what is ‘What’s up?’” he says, laughing. “Like the sky?”
When he wasn’t working, he would call his family back in Japan from a grocery store pay phone and collect Camel cigarette coupons to mail in for merchandise.
“I remember being so excited when I got my hat in the mail,” Osada says. “I felt like an American; I felt cool.”
Only a few years later, in 1999, the craft that brought him to America took him to the Masters golf tournament, where he built sushi rolls and sliced sashimi for the Champion Dinner, the meal chosen by the tournament’s defending victor, Mark O’Meara. Osada still calls that moment his crowning achievement as a chef; a Japanese golf magazine even printed a photograph of him in an article about the event.
Once Osada starts talking about his past, he doesn’t like to stop. He speaks fondly of his experiences struggling as an immigrant, sharing one memory after another as if he’s slowly uncovering dusty, forgotten corners of his mind. “Are you sure this is what you want to hear?” he asks, as if catching himself mid-recollection. He continues as he prepares more sushi, sliding it onto the belt.
As Osada speaks, I realize that this job now seems like second nature for him, as though he could make sushi in his sleep. But even after a successful decade, Osada explains, running a kaiten shop is taihen, or difficult, full of unique challenges. Because the nature of a kaiten shop means making an excess of sushi from which customers can pick, rather than making it to order, waste can be an issue.
“We stop making sushi for the belt two hours before we close,” he says. “We ask customers to make direct requests to the sushi chef after that. Otherwise, we have too much waste.”
And given the lack of kaiten-style sushi restaurants stateside, Kurama has to order repair pieces for the conveyor belt directly from Japan. And then there’s the issue of standing 10 hours each day to make more than 400 rolls of sushi. Ever since Kurama’s other long-time sushi chef, Andy Chen, left in late 2015 to manage Akashi in Durham, Osada has been the one making almost all of Kurama’s sushi.
“I have to ice my hands every night after I go home,” Osada, now 50, admits.
Since August, a former regular, Max Silva, has been working as the apprentice sushi chef at Kurama. He applied during one of his visits, and he helps produce sushi for the belt, occasionally learning a new roll. He hopes to help take a little of the load off Osada’s hands.
“It’s my favorite place,” Silva says. “I still eat out here on my days off.”
But Osada doesn’t seem eager to hop from behind the conveyor belt just yet. He explains the nuances of being a good sushi chef with pride and how it’s not just about making sushi; to him, it’s about remembering people’s orders and delivering the same quality every time. He even speaks of his hope to open up a hibachi restaurant in Chapel Hill.
But for now, he focuses on the mound of rice and piece of fish at hand. He’s got to get them in line for the kids.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Round and round”
Sayaka Matsuoka is a local freelance journalist, avid tea drinker and dog enthusiast.