A Guide to the Seven Types of Sushi to Try in Japan
08 Sep 2022
When you think of sushi the first thing to come to mind is likely nigiri, the oblong balls of rice with fish pressed on top, or a classic norimaki roll sliced into bite-sized pieces. While sushi is popular around the world, there’s much more depth to it than it’s most popular exports.
From the popular train snack oshizushi to temakizushi from convenience stores, in this sushi cheat-sheet we dive into the seven different types of sushi available in Japan, where you can find them, and when to eat them.
Nigiri - Hinokizaka at The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo
It’s said that a sushi peddler named Hanaya Yohei invented nigirizushi in the early 1800s. He used to roll his cart around selling oshizushi, but when his stall was located between two famous temples he needed something rapid to keep up with large crowds. He created the nigiri sushi as it was faster to make than the pressed box sushi.
Nigiri or nigirizushi are small, oblong mounds of sushi rice topped with slices of fresh fish or shellfish. Nigiri are usually draped with different cuts of tuna, prawns, eel, octopus, squid, or fried egg. The chefs shape the rice using the warmth and palm of their hands to create the organic form. Each piece is designed to be eaten in a single bite, maximum two. If you want to add soy sauce, dip the fish side so the rice stays intact.
Hinokizaka in Tokyo offers one of the best traditional sushi experiences in the city. The Michelin-starred restaurant focuses on “Edomae style” of sushi, the period when nigiri was created, using fresh raw fish from Toyosu market.
Norimaki - Kaiseki Mizuki at The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto
When you picture sushi in your mind you’re probably thinking about norimaki or maki. This classic variety is a sushi roll composed of dried seaweed or nori paper layered with seasoned sushi rice, filled with fresh fish and rolled up before being sliced into six to eight bite-sized pieces. Maki come in many variations and sizes that have different names such as hosomaki, futomaki and uramaki.
Outside of Japan, preparing maki rolls with the rice on the outside is popular, but in Japan this is rare. Seek out one of Japan’s best maki sushi experiences at Mizuki’s 11-metre-long sushi counter in Kyoto. It's a very traditional Edo-style dining setting at this special Michelin-starred restaurant.
Gunkan - Originated at Ginza Kyubey
Gunkan are little round or oval cups of sushi rice wrapped in dried seaweed or nori paper and filled high with seafood like fish eggs, sashimi, crab or sea urchin. The name means battleship or warship, so the little gunkanzushi are often called “boats” in English. The more modern shape was created in 1941 at Ginza Kyubey, a small and now very famous sushi shop, in Tokyo’s Ginza district.
Temaki - The Japanese Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Nikko
These cone-shaped hand rolls are like a miniature flower bouquet filled with seasoned rice, fresh fish and vegetables With temakizushi the nori paper or dried seaweed flavour is usually more prominent. This type of roll is too large to handle with chopsticks, and is instead eaten with your hands.
Temaki can easily be found all over Japan, including inside convenience stores, but to taste some of the best try The Japanese Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Nikko. The sushi counter selects fresh fish from the Toyosu market, including the local yashio trout.
Oshizushi - At Upmarket Hanagatami
The name oshizushi means pressed sushi box and this special type of square sushi is made using a traditional wooden box called an oshibako. The sushi rice and fresh seafood like mackerel and eel are placed into the box and pressed down to form little squares.
It’s time consuming to make as once prepared the dish needs time to fuse the delicate flavours. One of the less popular types of sushi, the best place to taste oshizushi is in Osaka where it’s easier to find this rare gem. Sushiman, a small spot that has been open since 1653 is a great place to try it, or the impressive sushi counter at upmarket Hanagatami.
Inari - Maguro Koya in Nara
This simple, cheap sushi form starts with small bags of deep-fried tofu (aburaage). The tofu is cooked in a dashi broth where it absorbs plenty of flavour before being squeezed to remove excess liquid and stuffed with seasoned sushi rice. It’s believed that foxes are the messengers for the Japanese god Inari, and that the foxes like eating the fried tofu left as offerings – hence the name. While it is easy to spy inari in sushi counters or bento boxes across Japan, one of the best places to eat inari is Maguro Koya in Nara.
Chirashi - Hinokizaka at The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo
Chirashizushi might be the most beautiful of all sushi dishes. A magnificent display of colourful seafood, mushrooms and vegetables are arranged over sushi rice in a shallow box or bowl. Chirashi means scatter in Japanese, which refers to how the ingredients are placed, of course. Each region of Japan has its own unique take on Chirashi. In Kanto they use seafood, sliced omelet, dried gourd shavings, shiitake mushroom, minced fish and pickled ginger.
There is another Japanese dish, seafood donburi, which looks similar to Chirashi. The main difference is chirashizushi uses vinegar-seasoned sushi rice, while donburi uses regular, unseasoned rice. Hinokizaka is also one of the best places to try Chirashi sushi in Tokyo and Japan as it sources the finest raw fish from Toyosu market.