Hamada Kinji started working at a sushi shop in Japan when he was 18, when he began his training to become a sushi chef.
His days were between 15 and 18 hours long, leaving only time to sleep, which he continued doing for about three years, living in a dorm.
Now the owner and head chef of Kinji Japanese Restaurant, he always wanted to open his own restaurant and it “happened to happen here in Christchurch”.
Kinji moved to New Zealand in 2000 and first lived in Takapō/Tekapo with his wife for six years. Once they had kids, the family moved to Christchurch and in 2007, he opened his first restaurant on Colombo St.
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At first, the restaurant solely operated as a sushi bar serving sushi and sashimi – a delicacy consisting of thinly sliced raw fish or meat.
“For Japanese people it was good and for those who have been to Japan or eaten at places like that, they understood, but rolled sushi is what everybody knew, so it was a slightly different style”, and something most people were not used to at the time, he said.
At the time, about 50 per cent of his customers were Japanese, and Kinji sometimes witnessed some reluctance among non-Japanese people to try something new and unfamiliar, like raw fish.
“I was just doing what I wanted to do,” he said.
After the 2011 Canterbury earthquakes, Kinji’s shop was demolished and shortly after, he relocated to Greers Rd in Bryndwr. A lot of people enquired about a variety of Japanese foods which led to the expansion of his menu.
“They would ask whether we did takoyaki or gyoza, foods that they tried in Japan or menus that they liked at restaurants that existed before the earthquakes.”
While Kinji continued working as a sushi chef, he worked as a teamwith two others who both brought their own expertise.
With a similar geography to Japan, four seasons and being surrounded by water, it was relatively easy to collect ingredients in New Zealand, Kinji said.
“You can’t make Japanese food without water so the fact that there’s lots of water is big.”
However, every day Kinji spent time going to his fish supplier and carefully selecting fish to use for sashimi.
Out of about 20 fish, maybe one would be suitable, he said.
Kinji explained that the use of fish in New Zealand was very different to Japan, Kiwis generally cook the fish, rather than have it raw.
“But that is a difference between the final use of the fish, not the fault of the fisher, normally the intention is to cook it (in New Zealand) which would be fine.”
From catching the fish to transporting it, “every fish is treated with extreme care to get it to the shop” in Japan, Kinji said.
There was a “huge difference” between getting filleted fish and buying it whole which affected the smell and taste of the fish.
Since the earthquakes, Kinji said he noticed a change in people’s perception and attitude of Japanese food. Despite the conservative nature of the city, he witnessed people being “more adventurous and more willing to try new things”.
About 80 per cent of his customers were now Kiwi.
Getting to that point was one of the most challenging aspects of running the restaurant, Kinji said.
But, “if someone doesn’t do it, than no one will know about it”, he said, which kept him going.
His continued efforts were recognised when in February, Kinji was appointed as a Japanese Cuisine Goodwill Ambassador, along with two others in New Zealand.
First awarded in February 2015, Kinji was among 173 Goodwill Ambassadors who were Japanese nationals living across the world. Presented by the Japanese ambassador in New Zealand, Kinji was recognised for his contribution to spreading awareness of Japanese cuisine and culture in the country.
“There are still a lot of people who don’t know a lot about Japan and its culture… so it’s my hope that this can be a reason for people to know and learn more,” Kinji said.
“Without that base, there won’t be the next.”
An interesting aspect of being a sushi chef is being both the chef and server, he said. For Kinji, his restaurant is “a theatre”.
“Sometimes people come in… and they might have had a fight or been unhappy, but then they have a meal and enjoy themselves and say it was delicious and leave… That’s what I enjoy most.”
What he hoped to continue was simple: keep doing what he did best as a sushi chef, making slight adjustments to the menu occasionally but fundamentally for people to enjoy his Japanese food.
“I want people to share the food, challenge themselves to try something new.
“That’s what I believe I am doing this for.”