In Canada, I learned to love sushi through binge-fests at our ubiquitous all-you-can-eat-sushi restaurants. In Japan, I’m all about conveyor belt, or kaiten, sushi. As the name suggests, in these establishments, fresh sushi rotates through the restaurant on a conveyor belt. It sounds fun, but, as is almost always the case for me in Japan, I was worried about making some massive, unintentional faux-pas when we went to our first kaiten sushi restaurant. Everyone else in the restaurant seemed to know all the rules and moved very quickly. Fortunately, a man on the bench next to us saw our confusion and walked us through the basics. So, I’m paying it forward with a crash course in the how-to’s of kaiten sushi dining for all the other newbies.
From our experience, there are 2 kinds of conveyor belt sushi restaurants: one type utilizes touch screen service, and the other does not.
Traditional Conveyor Belt Sushi
In traditional conveyor belt sushi restaurants, the chefs prepare sushi in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by the conveyor belt. The customers sit at bar stools or tables positioned along the length of the conveyor belt. These types of restaurants are usually small and intimate because all of the diners are within arms’ reach of the sushi chefs.
As the sushi passes by you on the conveyor belt, you can just grab any plates that look appealing; or you can use the menu on your table to place a specific order.
There is sometimes an English menu available, and if not, the menu almost always has pictures. If you see something you want on the menu, you can call to one of the sushi chefs by saying “sumimasen”, which means “excuse me” (this is a really helpful phrase to ask for service in any type of restaurant). If the menu is in Japanese, we usually just point to the picture of whatever we want, and say “kore o-ne-gai-shi-mas”, which means “this, please”. The sushi chefs prepare custom orders on the spot, and then pass them directly to you.
This said, it’s not necessary to make any custom orders. It’s perfectly ok to just take plates off the conveyor belt for your entire meal.
Look for a guide that shows the price of each dish based on the plate colour. At the end of your meal, your bill is tallied based on the number and colour of plates on your table. The price is the same whether you custom order the sushi or take the plate off the conveyor belt.
Soy sauce and chopsticks will be on the table, but you typically need to ask one of the chefs for wasabi.
For drinks, there’s usually a self-serve water machine with cups. And you’ll also find a hot water dispenser and powdered green tea at every seat.
There are attendants around the restaurant with whom you can place orders for alcohol and specialty drinks. You also ask the attendants for the bill when you’re ready to pay by calling “o-kan-jo-o-ne-gai-shi-mas!”
Touch Screen Conveyor Belt Sushi
The set-up is basically the same as traditional conveyor belt sushi, except the chefs work in a back kitchen. So, instead of placing custom orders with the chefs directly, you make the orders through a computer system using the touch screen at your seat.
Some touch screen sushi restaurants have an English language option, but even if not, it’s still easy to scroll through the menu, look at the pictures, and then touch the ones that you want to order. The machines make a lot of excited noises when you successfully order a plate, so it’s obvious when you’ve placed an order versus when you’ve cancelled it by mistake.
Like in the non-touch screen kaiten sushi restaurants, you can take plates off the conveyor belt, make custom orders, or do a mixture of both.
Soy sauce will be on the table, and wasabi will pass by on the conveyor belt.
Custom orders arrive differently depending on the restaurant. In some places, sushi orders are delivered directly to your seat by a little, motorized, sushi train on a separate conveyor belt.
In other places, all the plates are delivered on a single conveyor belt, but the custom ordered plates are specially marked.
In the above example, the custom ordered sushi is placed on an elevated plate, so that customers know that this plate is not up for grabs.
Regardless of how your order is delivered, your touch screen will make a lot of noise when it arrives at your table, so you’ll know which plate to take.
Like the non-touch screen restaurants, hot and cold water are self-serve. Alcohol and specialty drinks can be ordered on the touch screen, and delivered directly to your seat by one of the attendants.
When you are ready for the bill, there is usually a separate button on the touch screen that can be pressed to request an attendant to your table.
Are you a fan of conveyor belt sushi? Do you prefer touch screen restaurants? Do you have any dining tips to add? Let me know in the comments!