A beginner’s guide to Japanese sushi

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Ask anyone what foods come to mind when they think of Japan, and sushi will almost certainly be the first item on the list. What many people don’t know is that this quintessential Japanese dish actually originated in Southeast Asia before making its way to Japan. Additionally, there are more varieties than the standard sushi and sashimi. This is a crash course guide on the history of Japanese sushi, the various ways it can be prepared, and how to eat it properly.


The concept of storing fish in fermented rice began in Southeast Asia as a means of preserving the fish for several months at a time. Known today as nare-zushi, or salted fish, the rice was not meant for consumption and would be discarded before the fish was served. This method spread to China and eventually, Japan, where vinegar was added to the rice to enhance flavor as well as improve preservation. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), chefs began serving the fish over vinegared rice rather than discarding it; once perfected, this would become known as nigiri-sushi, the most common type of sushi served today.

varieties of sushi on a plate


There are several ways to prepare sushi as well as a number of regional sushi dishes in Japan. These are the most common:

  • Chirashizushi – Literally, “scattered sushi”, a selection of various types of fish and vegetable garnishes are served atop a bowl of rice. In the Kansai region, the fish is often mixed into the rice.
  • Inarizushi – Sushi rice is served inside a pouch made of lightly sweetened fried tofu. The dish is named after the Shinto god Inari, whose messengers supposedly had a particular fondness for fried tofu.
  • Makizushi – This dish consists of a selection of fish, vegetables, egg, and rice rolled into the shape of a cylinder. It is then wrapped in nori, or dried seaweed, to hold it together.
  • Nigirizushi – Literally, “hand-pressed sushi”, this is what most people are referring to when they talk about sushi. Some of the most common fish are tuna, salmon, and octopus.
  • Oshizushi – A specialty of Osaka city, the fish is placed into a wooden mold, topped with rice, and then pressed into the shape of a block. After the block is formed, the chef cuts it into smaller pieces to be served.


Also known as “conveyor belt sushi” and “sushi-go-round”, Kaitenzushi is a unique dining experience in which plates of Japanese sushi placed on a conveyor belt that winds through the restaurant. Customers are free to pick and choose the plates as they pass in front of their seat, with the plate colour/design indicating the cost of each dish. There is at least one chef constantly preparing sushi for the belt at all times to ensure customers have a variety to choose from. Alternatively, requests can be made if a specific item is not on the belt.

The concept was created by Yoshiaki Shiraishi, a struggling restaurant owner who came up with the idea after a visit to Asahi brewery, where he saw beer bottles moving throughout the factory on a conveyor belt. Shiraishi opened the first Kaitenzushi restaurant in 1958 and would go on to open over 250 restaurants throughout the country, most of which would eventually shut down. Still, kaitenzushi is hugely popular in Japan and has recently gained traction overseas as well.

With so many delicious varieties you’ll want to try them all. And you know what’s even better than trying the various types of sushi? Learning to make them yourself! Go! Go! Nihon is partnered with the esteemed Tokyo Sushi Academy, which offers programs of various weeks teaching students how to prepare various fish and sushi. If you want to know more, simply head on over to their page on our website, or contact us for more info!

For more useful tips about life in Japan keep following our Go! Go! Nihon blog.

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