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A few years ago, when I first moved to the city of Sendai,
through a friend I was invited to a party with lots of local business owners,
and I felt pretty out of my depth.
I was in my 20s at the time, and everyone there was at least 2 or 3 times my age.
However, there was one guy who I struck up a conversation with who was in his early 30s,
a really friendly, unassuming guy who had lived overseas for a short time,
in a mysterious land known only as Canada.
And when I asked him what it was that he did,
it turned out he was the president and owner
of one of the largest sushi businesses in all of north Japan.
His name was Satoshi Ueno, and today, after many years of talking about it,
we're finally gonna go and film inside one of his restaurants
and see and hear what it's like to own a sushi business in Japan.
With 30 restaurants across Japan and 800 employees,
Satoshi Ueno has the daunting task of running his sushi empire,
passed onto him by his father just 7 years ago.
I've come to hear his story today inside Ueno-san's flagship luxury restaurant, Sushimasa.
Together we'll witness every aspect to running the business,
from sourcing the finest seafood at an intense market auction,
[fast-paced bidding in Japanese]
to spending an afternoon with the charismatic and highly-skilled head chef of the restaurant,
Yuji Yoshikawa,
who will also share the one thing never to do during your meal.
Y'know what, hopefully by the end of this week
I'll know everything I need to to set up my own sushi restaurant in London.
Filming inside a friend's restaurant?
More like industrial espionage.
While I have been lucky to dine at Ueno-san'srestaurants many times before,
I'll admit, I've never set foot in his most high-end restaurant Sushimasa,
which is inconspicuously hidden off a bustling street in downtown Sendai.
Ascending the grand staircase, I find Ueno-san patiently waiting for me at the entrance.
- Welcome! - Hello.
- Hi, welcome! - Hello!
Long time no see!
Good to see you.
- Oh, thank you very much. - Thank you so much for giving me the time today.
We haven't seen each other in maybe... 3 years?
- Yeah. - 3 years.
How do I look?
- Muscle. - It's- It's a little bit...
Muscle! That's what it is.
Let's go.
It's so, kind of... warm and vibrant.
How many people can you have in the counter?
- 12.
- About 12 people? - Yeah, 12 people.
- And then you've got two rooms - private rooms - here. - Yes.
I feel like I've stumbled into an art gallery, let alone a restaurant.
Ueno-san has carefully selected suzuri calligraphy and artwork,
and immaculate wooden finishings, with an interior that feels contemporary, yet steeped in tradition.
When it comes to the interior of a sushi restaurant,
what's the most important things to look for?
What's the most important thing when you're creating it?
- The counter is important.
- The counter? - Yeah.
This is nice.
Often at sushi restaurants, the counter is very big and there's a lot of glass.
Whereas here, the sushi is really beautifully presented and integrated within the counter on the top.
And it's cold. This.
Oh, that's cold. Wow!
And what about lighting?
The lighting is so good.
There's so many different lights highlighting the fish, the chef...
- Yeah. This is important too.
Meanwhile, tucked away on the third floor are extra special hidden rooms
for guests looking to dine in private.
What kind of customers use these kind of private rooms?
Company orders, and also families.
- Right. - Yeah.
What do you prefer out of the counter and the private room?
- Sushi at the counter is better.
Good for a family, maybe good for a date?
- Yeah. - Hmm, good for a date.
But yeah, I think the counter, for me, is probably better.
Just because you can watch the chef.
We've had a great tour, Ueno-san.
Thank you for the tour of the restaurant.
I'm very eager to try something.
Shall we eat some sushi? Shall we dive in?
Uhhhh, not yet...
- Not yet? - Not yet.
The seafood market.
- Seafood market? - Yeah.
You should look.
Ahh, right. Where you get the fish from. Okay.
Should we go now?
Noo... Tomorrow morning.
Tomorrow morning... What time?
There's nothing quite as intense as coming into a Japanese fish market at 4a.m. in the morning.
When everything's kicking off and everyone's buying things and auctions are happening...
It's... It's so intense.
It's a great way to wake up, though.
I'll say that much.
With 30 restaurants to supply, Ueno-san has an army of buyers around the market,
though he still visits weekly to peruse what's on offer.
So arguably the busiest part of the market - the most prized fish, of course, is tuna.
The only place I've seen more tuna would've been Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo,
but there's about 100 here, each one costing a staggering amount of money.
A single tuna typically sells for around $10,000.
And to make sure it's money well-spent, before the morning auctions kick off,
buyers carefully select their tuna by examining a section of the tail.
[intense & fast-paced Japanese auctioning]
With one of Ueno-san's top buyers nestled at the back placing the winning bid on their tuna,
it's promptly wheeled off across the market
to be cut and prepared for distribution to the restaurants.
A single 500lb tuna can make 10,000 servings,
and naturally, the best cuts today will be enjoyed by the lucky customers at restaurant Sushimasa.
Which is me.
Very fresh!
His father may have been ridiculed back in those early days,
but his fortunes couldn't be any more different today as one of the biggest buyers in the market.
This morning alone, Ueno-san has spent $20,000 on fish for his chain of restaurants.
Obviously, the fish market is a very exciting, very intense, crazy place.
How do you feel when you come down here, Ueno-san?
You've been coming here many years now.
How do you feel when you walk amongst the places and speak to everyone?
How many people do you know in the market?
When we were walking through earlier, everybody was saying hello.
That's a lot of people.
Let's go to sushi. Sushi!
Let's do it!
Let's go!
So hungry...
Even with the finest, freshest ingredients from the local market,
it'd all be completely wasted without a skilled chef.
And fortunately, Ueno-san's right-hand man and head chef Yuji Yoshikawa
has dedicated over half his lifetime to honing his craft and preparing sushi for the family business.
With all the skill and craftsmanship that's gone into preparing the immaculate plate of sushi,
from a customer perspective,
it can be a little bit intimidating not to screw things up at the final hurdle.
Thankfully, though, according to Yoshikawa-san,
there's only one thing that rubs him the wrong way.
And, it's easily avoided.
Yoshikawa-san has handed me this beautifully prepared assortment of tuna,
freshly brushed with soy sauce and glistening in the light.
And away we go. I'm gonna start with...
I'm gonna start with akami.
It's the most flavourful one.
Oh, wow...
Oh, bloody hell, that's good.
So good!
It's all about that balance of flavours, right?
Everything has gotta be right, and that -
it's just absolutely perfect.
The vinegar in the rice, the wasabi underneath the fish,
and of course the fish itself - it's the star of the show.
It's so juicy and flavourful.
And then, chutoro.
Bloody hell. Alright. I think chutoro's my favourite.
Because it is quite fatty, it does have the melt-in-your-mouth kind of sensation.
The trouble with having something that is so good, that is so perfect,
is going back to anything else feels like a crime.
And, uh...
This is certainly gonna make dining out at other sushi restaurants a whole lot more difficult going forward.
Ohh, god...
So bloody good!
After poor, old Yoshikawa-san has watched me stuff myself with his carefully prepared tuna,
we're joined once again by Ueno-san,
who opens up about the pressures of running a large family business from such a young age,
almost unheard of in Japanese culture,
where the average age of a company president is 59-years-old.
I think the most impressive thing for me, Ueno-san is, you're 38 now?
- Now 38.
But you're the president of a massive company - 30 restaurants.
In Japan, that's pretty rare, right?
To have someone who's young - someone who's under 40 running the company.
I became the president when I was 31.
- 31! I'm 30, so one more year afterwards. - Yeah, yeah.
- So... yeah. - That's a lot of responsibility.
Well, my father said, 'You are young, but still I'm young', he said, so...
If I'm old, and my planning and thinking is also old...
- Right, yeah, yeah.
Or hard...
- Not innovative, maybe? -Ah, yeah yeah.
In fact, last year he retired.
- He completely retired? - Yeah.
Lucky man.
- Lucky man, yeah!
How old is your father?
Uhh, 60... almost 4.
64, wow.
What's been the most difficult thing for you as the leader?
What's the most difficult thing?
Ummmm... Hmm...
I don't think of myself as an 'employer'.
I don't- I want to be a friend.
- Do you get what I mean? - To your staff?
Ah, building trust with the staff.
- Trust.
- With the staff.
With the staff, yes.
It's most important.
- It's most important, and very difficult.
- It takes a lot of time I imagine. - Yeah, it's difficult.
When I started as president, at first I was talking with the staff.
Every staff.
- Everyone?
How many staff is there?
8... 800?
800 staff?! Everyone?!
3 years work! 3!
- It took 3 years! - Yeah!
Then, I was thinking...
What is 'president'?
What is a president working at?
Many thinking.
President... I guess having a goal or a dream.
Having a vision for your business.
And Ueno-san certainly has vision.
In recent years, the company has been planting trees along Tohoku's tsunami-affected coastline,
albeit not necessarily for the environmental reasons you might think.
- Like it's close to the... - Yeah, yeah.
Very interesting.
Yeah, I'd never thought about that.
I'm so grateful to Ueno-san for letting us come in here to film,
for dragging me around the market - an incredible experience.
The food, the restaurant - it's just such an amazing restaurant, Sushimasa.
And to hear what it's like to own a restaurant has been just... such an amazing experience.
Everything about this restaurant is a 10 out of 10,
and if you ever find yourself in Sendai, I highly recommend coming to Sushimasa.
It will be an experience that you'll never, ever forget.
Well, it's been an amazing 2 days, Ueno-san.
Thank you so much for showing us around your restaurant,
showing us how the whole business operates.
I think I've learned so much about the industry.
- Thank you very much, too.
Thank you so much.
See you.
And now, I will open my sushi restaurant in London.
- London.
- N-No?
Never, never.
- No? Oh...
Take care.