Shiro Across the Sea

Fifty years ago, a young Japanese chef landed in Seattle and taught us the ways of Edomae sushi. Now with his third restaurant, Shiro Kashiba is doing it again.

By Allecia Vermillion September 19, 2016 Published in the October 2016 issue of Seattle Met

Dinner at a sushi bar is an intimate act.

How much you enjoy it hinges, in nearly equal measure, on the food and the person who prepares it beneath your gaze. At Sushi Kashiba, the row of five chefs who labor behind that glass case are as much a part of the meal as any dining companion. 

This is especially true of the man most people simply call Shiro-san, who arrived 50 years ago this fall and built himself into a Seattle sushi legend, thanks to his way with raw fish and an almost puckish geniality. Here, at his latest semieponymous restaurant, most customers order the omakase, entrusting themselves fully to the man who once presided over the city’s very first sushi bar.

Omakase is Japanese for “I leave it up to you,” a promise that you’ll set aside your own nitpicks and aversions and let the talents of the chef carry you through the night. It’s also an invitation for that chef to showboat—to display the full breadth of his skills, to share the tastes he finds most exciting. Each sushi chef develops his or her own omakase, which can vary by night or even by customer. At Sushi Kashiba, it’s almost entirely nigiri, slices of raw fish pressed over rice. Shiro places one diminutive creation after another on your rectangular ceramic plate until you cry full, usually sometime around the 15th course. 

“Our sushi budget with Shiro-san was more than our mortgage, way back when,” one diner, a doctor, confides, just as the man himself takes his post behind the counter. 

Shiro Kashiba recently celebrated his 75th birthday but still he works five nights a week, tending to these sought-after seats at the end of the sushi bar, where he now turns to the doctor and his wife and asks, “How’s Alexis?”

Dinner has begun.


Tuna: Albacore and Bluefin—Lean, Fatty, and Belly
Shiro arranges four pieces on everyone’s plate. “This is a tuna festival!” 


Kyoto, Japan. 1945. The four-year-old son of Kanichi Kashiba, an elementary school principal, sits transfixed by a chef in a white happi coat. The family isn’t wealthy but occasionally sets aside enough money in the week’s budget to go out for sushi. And every time, young Shiro marvels at the chef, how he’s able to wield a long, well-sharpened knife and carve from the fish before him something beautiful, something that will make his customers happy. 

The Kashibas’ hometown, more than 200 miles west of Tokyo, was spared the ravages of World War II, but in its aftermath, the capital city’s style of sushi has spread throughout the country. It’s called Edomae, meaning “in front of Edo,” the old name for Tokyo. Edomae sushi is made with whatever can be harvested from Tokyo Bay, which spreads out before the city. The occupying American forces have devised a system of rice consignment to revive the nation’s restaurant industry. The plan is based on the predominant nigiri-style sushi, and when the system expands throughout Japan, to cities like Kyoto, so does Edomae sushi.

His fascination with sushi only grows as Shiro gets older. By the time he’s a teenager, he’s eager to become a sushi apprentice, though his father, being an educator, insists he finish high school first. As soon as Shiro has that diploma, he sets off for Tokyo and an apprenticeship at Yoshino Sushi Honten in the Ginza district, one of the city’s three most famous houses of Edomae.

For the first 18 months, Shiro reports every day to the Yoshino branch in the Ginza subway station, under the watchful eye of Jiro Ono. Shiro’s first mentor will later become the nation’s most revered sushi chef and run his own 10-seat, three-Michelin-star restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, in that same underground space in the Ginza station. He’s unrelenting, Shiro will recall. “He taught me almost everything.”

It’s not a glamorous life. Shiro bunks with other apprentices; he spends his days washing dishes or preparing dinner for the Yoshino family. He earns no actual salary, just spending money for his single day off each week. Eventually he’s allowed to accompany chefs to Tokyo’s massive Tsukiji Fish Market each morning, to buy the best neta, or fresh sushi components, possible. 

His education takes years. Sushi rice must be sticky enough to squeeze into small rectangles for nigiri, but not so moist that it won’t absorb the all-important rice vinegar mixture. The drudgery of cleaning fish and washing dishes in the Yoshino kitchen makes Shiro value his burgeoning skill set all the more. He works his way up, literally, from the kitchen to the sushi counter on the second floor to help the established chefs prepare sushi, always Edomae style. His bosses expect him to memorize customers’ preferences. Shiro also absorbs their conversation, which often turns to America. 

For a young guy living dormitory style, facing years of thankless training before he can achieve his dream, the vast nation across the Pacific sounds gloriously full of possibilities.

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Shiro Kashiba and his first mentor, Jiro Ono, at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, June 2014.


Salmon: Sockeye, King, and King Belly
One diner is left handed; Shiro quickly reverses the trio’s order on her plate.


As the Northwest Orient Airlines flight from Tokyo descends toward Sea-Tac, 25-year-old Shiro leans toward the round window to catch his first-ever glimpse of a foreign country. This unfamiliar city is surrounded by green, even though it’s nearly winter—November 30, 1966—and myriad bodies of water reflect the gray sky. There’s a cluster of tall buildings rising from the city center, but Seattle’s downtown seems tiny compared with Tokyo.

No matter. Shiro’s ready to make his way in America. Even if it means apprenticing with a man he barely knows. 

The city that spreads out beneath the plane is busy wrapping up construction of the Interstate 5 freeway. Just three months earlier, the Beatles played a pair of concerts at Seattle Center Coliseum, the future KeyArena. The small Japantown has maybe a half dozen restaurants, serving dishes like sukiyaki and tempura mostly to fellow Japanese, who make up less than 2 percent of the city’s 531,000 residents. None of them serve sushi—at least not the type Shiro worked so hard to learn. He’s going to change that. 

Waiting on the ground is a man named Ted Tanaka, the only person who expressed interest after Shiro sent letters to restaurants in cities like San Francisco and New York, asking if they could use a sushi chef with more than six years of training in one of Tokyo’s most vaunted houses of Edomae. Those letters garnered zero responses, save the one chef who replied that Shiro needed more experience. So when a customer at Yoshino mentioned Tanaka Restaurant, which he frequented on business trips to Seattle, and Tanaka himself visited Tokyo seeking a sushi chef, it felt like Shiro’s only shot.

After their meeting, Shiro started corresponding with the restaurant owner, planning his journey to Seattle and a brand new, unknown life. “To put it in an old-fashioned way,” Ted Tanaka wrote his future apprentice in Japanese, “Be ready to serve as a manservant.”


Yellowtail and Amberjack
Farther down the bar, one of Shiro’s sushi chefs cajoles a diner into trying her first taste of geoduck.


One afternoon at Tanaka, one of Shiro’s regulars presents him with something altogether unexpected, a comical-looking burrowing clam he’d dug off the Washington coast. A long, wrinkly, leathery neck, or siphon, lolls from the saucerlike clamshell. Some say it resembles an aardvark’s snout. Others point to a different part of anatomy. It reminds Shiro of the mirugai clams back in Tokyo. From the first taste, he knows this ungainly clam is something exciting. It’s called a geoduck, tasting of the sea like an oyster, but firm and chewy like abalone. The taste, that almost crunchy texture—“Perfect for sushi.”

Geoduck will go on to become a luxury item, with most of Washington’s harvest exported to restaurants in Asia. But in the late 1960s, so few people eat geoduck that the state doesn’t even have formal rules for fishing it commercially. Shiro’s the first person in Seattle to serve it raw. 

He quickly amasses a devoted following, even though he must send plates forth from Tanaka’s kitchen rather than serve his sushi the traditional way—directly from his hand to the customer’s. 

Later, when Shiro serves more non-Japanese clientele, he’ll charm many an uninitiated diner into trying that tentative first bite of raw, chewy clam. And it works: Geoduck will become one of his signature dishes, and a staple of ambitious sushi bars. 


Spot Prawn, Abalone, Geoduck, Hokkaido Scallop
“Chew long time,” Shiro advises, pointing to the shrimp, alive and registering its wiggly protest just moments ago. “Meat gets sweeter.” 


By day, Shiro takes classes at the brand new Seattle Community College campus, which opens on Broadway the same year he arrives in America. He’s not terribly enthused, but the classes are a requirement for his visa. There’s an informal group of Japanese-born students who hang out between classes, including a young woman named Ritsuko, who goes by Ricky. He’s enrolled in a cake decorating class; she’s studying computers. 

One day Ricky buys a used Buick Skylark, even though she doesn’t know how to drive. Every morning she looks wistfully at her car parked at the curb, then heads to school on foot. A friend suggests Shiro, who has taught several other Japanese-born students to drive.

“Don’t introduce me!” Ricky orders her friend. “I’m going to driving school.” The sushi chef is a virtual stranger, seven years her senior, the same age as Ricky’s brother. No need to owe him any favors, or spend time secluded in a car. Only when Ricky’s brother vouches for Shiro’s character does she consent to lessons. Soon after, they’re dating.

Since Ricky’s still too young to go for drinks, outings involve drives in Shiro’s red Toyota Corona when they can find time between work and school. Both their fathers are educators who raised their kids with an appreciation for tradition: Ricky will later take up calligraphy and Shiro, of course, makes sushi. He walks the piers on Seattle’s waterfront and watches fishermen clean salmon, dumping their tiny, luminescent orange eggs into buckets to use as bait or, worse, throw away. He asks for that roe—cured salmon eggs are a sushi staple—and for salmon skin, another throwaway item. He takes to the forests around the city to forage for matsutake mushrooms. His talents aren’t limited to raw fish—when he and Ricky get married the next year, he bakes the cake for their wedding. 


Fried Spot Prawn Head
“We have a chance to serve live shrimp maybe three months in a year. Frozen shrimp head is not the real taste.”


The biggest obstacle for Seattle’s first-ever sushi bar isn’t convincing people to eat raw fish. It isn’t even the health department. It’s the liquor board.

“They thought it was a bar bar,” Jean Nakayama will later recall. Her husband is a chef at Maneki when Shiro goes to work there, after his first boss in Seattle, Ted Tanaka, dies unexpectedly.

The owners of Maneki agree to build Shiro a proper sushi bar—no more preparing omakase hidden in a kitchen. Seattle in 1969 is swarming with Japanese businessmen here to do deals—shipping, lumber, imports, Boeing. And they want to seal those deals the best way they know how: at a sushi bar. But first, the liquor board needs convincing that a sushi bar is merely a counter where the chef stands, making food and presenting it directly to diners. 

Shiro isn’t easy for customers to find, but through Maneki’s dining room they go, past the tatami mat rooms with diners’ shoes spilling into the hallway, to the back, where six chairs attend a modest wood counter. He stands behind a glass case of neta, assembled from his daily trips to several fish markets, slicing it with the knives that his original mentor, Jiro Ono, gifted him when he left for America. 

In two years, Shiro will open his own place. But that sushi bar will remain in the back room at Maneki—Jean Nakayama’s husband passed away in 1998, but she and her family still run the venerable Japanese restaurant in 2016—a sort of unofficial monument to a giant leap in sushi culture. 

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Shiro harvesting oysters with friends on the Washington coast in the early 1970s.


Uni Hand Roll
Shiro brandishes the small wooden box, rows of uni, or sea urchin, lined up inside, like little rows of cantaloupe-colored tongues being stuck out in tidy formation.


In 1972 he and a business partner buy a restaurant called Nikko, its entrance near King and Rainier framed by a large red torii gate. Finally, Shiro has accomplished the dream that fueled all those unanswered letters from Tokyo years ago—his own sushi restaurant in the U.S. 

After having a son, Edwin, the previous year, Ricky decides to work in the dining room. Some of the waitstaff, inherited from Nikko’s previous owners, are Japanese women who wear kimonos; it’s like working alongside her mother. Ricky has to learn fast: Regulars follow Shiro from Maneki, and back in Japan the economy is expanding at the fastest of clips. Nikko’s dining room is full. 

“They know what real sushi is,” Shiro says of his customers here on business from Tokyo. Their Western associates, for whom a high-end meal usually means steak or buttery French sauces, soon learn to rely on Nikko for entertaining Japanese clients. This particular sushi chef has a knack for making the unfamiliar feel comfortable. His limited English, augmented by animated hand gestures and little jokes, acclimates the Westerners, who will eventually outnumber his Japanese customers. 

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Shiro and Ricky Kashiba behind the counter at Nikko in the 1970s.



Mackerel and Herring
Local herring, one pickled and one lightly smoked, and more silver-skinned fish flown in from Tsukiji: “Spanish mackerel from Japan.”


Once they discover Nikko, a young doctor named Ludwig Allegra and his wife, Arlene, come maybe three times a week, driving to the far edge of the International District from their home near Sammamish, 20 miles away. Arlene’s a financial planner and one of her clients, a fish broker, tells her about this chef: “He’s the best fish buyer in the area, and everybody knows it.”

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Shiro outside the original Nikko location.

Shiro jovially schools the food-loving couple in the finer points of eating sushi: The Allegras eat nigiri by hand rather than with chopsticks and use soy sauce sparingly, practices that are less common as a creation out of early-’70s Los Angeles, known as the California roll, converts more Americans into sushi fans. Shiro’s nigiri, by contrast, look simple but crackle with just the right calibration of wasabi and a parting sweep of nikiri—soy sauce diluted with various ingredients—to enhance the fish’s natural flavors. 

 When Arlene finds out she’s expecting a baby, the Allegras keep coming regularly, savoring smelt and raw geoduck and uni.

One day in March 1985, Ludwig shows up for dinner without Arlene; Shiro sends a lacquered box of sushi to Northwest hospital to celebrate the arrival of their daughter, Alexis. Her first solid food is a tiny taste of uni her parents offer her one night when they come in for omakase.

With each passing year it’s more common to see Westerners at Nikko, like the mild-mannered computer programmer named Bill Gates or chefs like a young Tom Douglas, busy blazing serious culinary trails at Cafe Sport but not yet our town’s premier restaurateur. “I don’t think I’ve used wasabi or soy sauce on the side since then,” Douglas will recall of Shiro’s lifelong charm offensive against overgilded sushi. All around the country, chefs like Douglas are fusing Japanese flavors with Western traditions. Little Alexis grows up as conversant in sushi as she is in pizza.


King and Snow Crab
“I don’t serve Dungeness. Everybody serves Dungeness.” 


Fueled by Japan’s hard-charging economic era now known simply as “the bubble,” the Japanese Aoki Corporation buys the Westin hotel chain in 1988. Adding a Japanese restaurant to the Seattle outpost can only help capture business from across the Pacific, and there’s no more desirable candidate than Nikko—where there’s always a wait for seats, where customers rave about Shiro’s sushi, not to mention dishes like his famed broiled kasu cod, or strips of raw squid topped with ginger, green onion, and quail egg. 

Other opportunities had come his way over the years: preparing meals for Japan Airlines flights to Tokyo, a sushi restaurant called Hana on Capitol Hill that ferried food to diners on little boats. But none compared to the Westin’s offer to buy Nikko and reopen it downtown in 1992, with Shiro presiding over the gleaming 33-foot cedar sushi counter of his dreams, not to mention a teppanyaki bar, a robata grill, and 186 seats. The room is hung with origami-inspired art and oversize metal wall sculptures of edible sea creatures, illuminated by light that filters through glass shades styled after Japanese paper parasols. Sushi had hit the big time. A campaign of enthusiastic, if culturally clueless, bus ads billing the new Nikko as “Zen-sational” portended the refraction of this American embrace. 


Tuna Belly Hand Roll
“Two and a half bites—eat it fast!” The nori is still so crisp the crackle is audible. 


“Irrashaimase!” Shiro’s wearing his trademark white happi robe, traditional blue and white head rag twisted around his head. But he’s not at Nikko’s posh new digs in the Westin. He’s speaking his first line on the set of Northern Exposure, playing a bit part in the CBS drama—set in fictional Cicely, Alaska, but filmed in and around Roslyn, Washington. It’s a small scene in season three, an episode where a vanload of camera-toting, squealing Japanese tourist caricatures descend upon Cicely to copulate under the northern lights, in hopes of conceiving a gifted child (no, that is absolutely not a thing). 

Actor Rob Morrow, who plays fish-out-of-water heartthrob Dr. Joel Fleischman, frequents Nikko. Another regular involved in the show asks Shiro to audition for a small scene that requires a sushi chef. Shiro remembers it was between him and a guy from Benihana. In his big national television debut, he offers a plate of tuna to the show’s indignant former astronaut turned unabashed capitalist. Shiro’s unflappable grin melts into an inscrutable poker face as the astronaut rejects the sushi brusquely; it’s maybe 10 seconds of active screen time, but the comedic timing is impressive. Though after a quarter century behind a sushi bar, Shiro has probably logged more hours of sheer performance than anybody else on set. 


Yellowtail Scraping Maki
“Leftover special. Nothing wasted.”


Having the most elegant dining room in town doesn’t guarantee happiness. After being his own boss for two decades, Shiro has layers of Aoki Corporation management above him, and those people don’t face the customer every night the way he does. “I found myself doubting my choices and not enjoying my work,” he later writes in a memoir. In January 1993, just 13 months after Nikko reopened amidst a shower of publicity, Shiro gives notice.

He travels to Vietnam and Tokyo and comes home to figure out what’s next. His son, Edwin, is studying at the University of Washington, and spends his evenings immersed in Seattle’s grunge scene. Edwin tells his dad about the neighborhood surrounding one of his favorite music venues, the Crocodile, and how it’s developing: “You should open a restaurant there.”

The elder Kashibas know nothing about this part of town, even though it’s just west of the Westin. “I didn’t even know the word he used, Belltown,” Ricky remembers. 

One wintry afternoon, Shiro asks his wife to come see a restaurant for sale in a brick-faced building at Second and Battery. He and Ricky eat at the teriyaki shop operating there at the time. “Really, this restaurant?” she asks him. “This is going to be the final, final restaurant in your life? Why do you want this one?”

Her husband is always certain in his decisions. “I like this one,” he replies. “Ricky, this is going to be our restaurant.”

The owners tell the sushi chef they already have another buyer. But he offers to pay in cash, and suddenly Shiro’s is born.


Fluke and Sea Bream
“These fish—no particular taste.” Tiny garnishes of plum sauce and wasabi stem render them fascinating anyway.


The first order apprentice Taichi Kitamura makes the night he ascends from prepping hot food to working behind the sushi bar is Shiro’s version of a California roll, with cucumber instead of avocado. Fusion trends be damned: Shiro Kashiba does not use avocado.

The new Belltown restaurant is crowded every night, but now it’s rare for a customer to walk through the door who doesn’t know sushi. Or at least the Americanized version: elaborate rolls speckled with tempura bits or drizzled with spicy sauce. Edomae tradition may call for nigiri sized perfectly for a single bite, but today’s customers want supersize nigiri, like they can get elsewhere. Shiro knows he must evolve. It’s good business—and good customer service—to expand the menu, at least a little. Ludwig and Arlene Allegra help taste test his new dessert, green tea ice cream.

As in matters of avocado, Shiro remains resolutely old school in how he trains his chefs, minus the dorm and the lack of salary. A Seattle U student originally from Kyoto, Kitamura got his foot in the door at Shiro’s as a dishwasher, but quickly moved into food prep. In five years working under Shiro, he learns the importance of building a relationship with the people who sell you fish. He gives customers the best food possible, even if their limited sushi knowledge means they’d easily be dazzled by something lesser. 

Kotaro Kumita, another Japanese-born student turned sushi apprentice, finds Shiro’s gaze downright scary as he washes rice, guts fish, and makes basic rolls. Things must be done Shiro’s way; he’s tough, Kumita knows. “But with big love all the time.” 

Kitamura realizes, behind the bar, Shiro makes the same food he always has. He means this as the highest of compliments. “It’s like Shakespeare.”


Miso Soup
Shiro leans forward conspiratorially. “You want to try the best miso soup? Made with manila clams.”


Given Shiro’s outsize reputation, it’s a surprise the sale happens so quietly: In 2007, the company that owns I Love Sushi in South Lake Union buys all but a small percentage of the restaurant. Shiro again has corporate bosses—the arrangement hinges on the chef staying for a while to train his successors and provide, as his official agreement puts it, a “sense of presence”; most customers want a glimpse of the man himself. 

This lasts, in various forms, until April 2014. Shiro watches former employees, including Taichi Kitamura and Kotaro Kumita, go on to open well-regarded sushi restaurants in town, but the food at Shiro’s has morphed away from what it was in the beginning. 


Kashiba Roll
A late-meal improvisation, a single piece for each of Shiro’s diners. It’s a classic from the Nikko days. “One of my favorite sushis. Made with mackerel.”


Shiro may have helped sushi edge its way into the mainstream, but along the way, simple traditions of raw fish and rice took on a distinctly American life of their own. Grocery stores have sushi counters. Myriad sushi restaurants serve now-canonical rolls with names like caterpillar, dragon, and spider; Seattle even has its own signature roll—smoked salmon, cucumber, and oddly enough, cream cheese. But hardly anybody knows the term Edomae sushi.

Some modern sushi chefs interpret Edomae sushi as the same simple combinations people ate in the late eighteenth century. Staples like eel and, more recently, tuna, even if industrial development and overfishing means it’s flown in from Spain or Norway. Other chefs, like Hajime Sato of Mashiko in West Seattle, find this interpretation ridiculously counterintuitive. “People didn’t have 10-ton vessels to go around the world getting the bluefin tuna, freezing it at sea, then coming back to Japan to serve it,” says Sato, who opened Mashiko in 1994 and switched to all sustainably caught fish in 2009. In his view, modern Edomae sushi means drawing from whatever’s local and in season in your own corner of the world. Shiro practiced this approach out of necessity. Over the years his omakase evolved into a sort of hybrid, mixing local salmon and smelt with Japanese uni and bluefin caught off the coast of Turkey.


One diner gives Shiro the official sign that he’s topped off. “We have a very good eel,” the chef coaxes in response. He acquiesces. Maybe one more course.


Taichi Kitamura briefly closes his restaurant, Sushi Kappo Tamura, six years after its 2010 debut to remodel his sushi bar. Seattle’s sushi-eating culture had changed dramatically since he first opened beneath the soaring I-5 bridge in Eastlake. Back then Kitamura’s omakase was a mix of cooked and raw dishes. He presented nigiri arranged on platters. 

“That was pre-Jiro sushi,” he says. The 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, focusing on Shiro’s exacting mentor from the Yoshino days, exposed sushi fans to its most traditional, highly disciplined form. Today, “A lot of people just want to do omakase the way Shiro does,” says Kitamura. For this, he redesigned his sushi bar so customers sit a little higher and slightly closer to the chef.

To the north another Shiro’s alum, Kotaro Kumita, opens Sushi Wataru in Ravenna, specializing in Edomae sushi. Customers might not know what this means, but then he presents them with a succession of restrained nigiri, the neta luminous like jewels with exactly the right interplay of nikiri, wasabi, and the occasional flourish, like yuzu from a tree in Kumita’s backyard. 

Now they understand. Sitting before a young Shiro Kashiba for the first time all those years ago in Japantown must have felt something like this.


“Real sushi eel. Unagi is freshwater; this comes from the sea. Very unusual.


Shiro’s in his early 70s when he leaves his namesake restaurant in 2014, but Ricky Kashiba knows her husband’s not yet ready to spend the rest of his days golfing and reading Japanese newspapers at their home on Mercer Island: “He was thinking about the next generation.”

A former customer mentions a chance that doesn’t come along often: a space in Pike Place Market. As Campagne, then Marche, it spent decades serving French food. Shiro needn’t have worried about his preliminary interview with his potential landlord, the owner of Inn at the Market: He had been a frequent customer at Nikko and Shiro’s.

The chef’s plan for the new place, Sushi Kashiba, is to focus on “real Edomae sushi,” highlighting what’s local and seasonal and echoing the mission of Seattle’s historic market, but also the city’s prevailing food ethos. Seattle’s most prominent chefs—like Renee Erickson and Matt Dillon—win James Beard awards for their ability to interpret the best of each season with minimal adornment, letting natural flavors shine through. In the decades since Shiro arrived, the region built an entire Northwest cuisine movement on the principles he’s practiced since the beginning.


Now everybody’s full, but there’s one final course. The thick cut of fluffy omelet, split over a bit of rice, has ended Shiro’s omakase since his earliest days in the city.


Seattle. 2016. The hum of a good night bounces off Sushi Kashiba’s minimalist white walls. Servers pour wine and open bottles of sake, and through the windows Elliott Bay ripples and the Great Wheel spins on the waterfront where Shiro once roamed, asking fishermen for castoffs from the day’s catch.

These days, he works in a dark blue apron over a black golf shirt, Sushi Kashiba logo on the chest, and black slacks. Glasses dangle around his neck; when the night’s service begins, Shiro places a black cap on his head.

After inheriting the kimonoed waitstaff so many years ago at Nikko, Shiro mostly hired Japanese servers at his restaurants. But Sushi Kashiba is different. The front of house staff is mostly Westerners, all trained in Japanese culinary tradition and the particulars of the fish Shiro still mostly selects himself at several markets each morning. They’re equipped to explain Edomae sushi to the diners at the tables, since a staggering 70 percent of customers order the omakase. Now that sushi’s such a fundamental part of America’s foodscape, the people who safeguard its traditions won’t necessarily be Japanese.

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On weekends, the first customers drift into the little courtyard in Pike Place Market around 4pm, an hour before Sushi Kashiba opens its doors. They stand in a small but resolute line outside the restaurant. By 5pm that line can snake past the small fountain, all the way out to Pine Street. 

Sushi Kashiba takes reservations for tables in the dining room, but the faithful, like Ludwig and Arlene Allegra, wait for one of 14 spots at the sushi bar. Sometimes even longer for one of the six seats that provide an audience before the man who spent a half century proving himself as adept with people as he is with his long sushi knife.

They order the omakase nearly every time, effectively offering Shiro an unspoken phrase, a promise that the traditions he worked so hard to carry forward will survive for yet another generation. “I leave it up to you.”

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