Fast times at Sushi U

When Tsutomu Takada lost his job in March, the former engineer took off his business suit, and picked up a knife - and an apron.

"I had always dreamed of entering the sushi world, even when I was an engineer," says the lanky father of three. "And now, here I am," he says with a laugh, gesturing at the honey-colored wood counters at Tokyo's Sushi University.

The "university" is Japan's only vocational school devoted entirely to the art of sushi, the country's signature cuisine of vinegared rice and precision-sliced - often raw - seafood.

Traditionally, becoming a sushi chef takes decades of dedicated training. But Sushi U trains chefs in one year - a transformation that would have been unthinkable until recently. It is just the fishiest example of how Japan is leaving old ways behind, in part because of the recession that has bogged the country down for much of the 1990s. School managers say enrollment is growing thanks to layoffs that are reshaping firms and ending careers.

Indeed, Takada isn't the only middle-aged man who has come to fashion a second career out of raw fish and rice.

As well as providing quick retraining, the universities cram-school approach reflects a country increasingly accustomed to instant gratification and less inclined to be patient with traditional ways.

"Society has changed," sighs school principal Katsuji Konakai, who started as a sushi apprentice more than 60 years ago. "People just wouldn't put up with the tough training I had. When I made mistakes, my chef would rap me on the head with his knife handle - bop!"

Sushi hasn't always been a matter of arduous study or blunt reprimands. Its origins lie in the ancient Chinese practice of preserving fish by packing it in rice and salt and fermenting the mixture.

The process probably came to Japan somewhere between 300 BC and AD 300, historians say. Experimental cooks began using vinegar for fermentation and eating the rice with the fish. By the early 19th century, they had done away with the pickling, and started eating the fish raw and pairing it with freshly cooked rice.

At the end of the 20th century, sushi comes most commonly perched on top of a hand-formed bullet of rice, rolled in dried seaweed, or placed on top of a bowl of rice. Helpings of marinated ginger, hot horseradish, and salty soy sauce complement its smooth and delicate taste. It isn't at all "fishy," and many people forgo the rice for the fish alone - this is sashimi. All sushi platters are designed to please the eye and the best meals can cost hundreds of dollars. But there are cheap meals to be had as well. The 45,000 sushi vendors active in Japan today include lunch delivery services and self-serve restaurants that send sushi out on conveyor belts to customers seated around a counter.

Mr. Konakai, a small, energetic man with prodigiously shaggy eyebrows, learned in higher-priced restaurants where dinner swam in fish tanks until it was ordered. "It was five or six years of cleaning and cutting vegetables before they'd even let me touch the rice, never mind the fish," he says, sitting in the school lounge beneath a clock that marks each hour with a piece of plastic sushi.

As befits one who has made sushi for Japan's emperor, Konakai says sushi is a calling and a craft, but he also says that Sushi University's quick-start program is necessary. The recession means many restaurants can no longer afford to train staff in the basics, he says. Now it makes sense to get workers who are already grounded in the basics.

"Of course people say this is not the way to do it," he says, "but we wanted to make it easier for those who wanted to get into sushi, and for those who wanted to go overseas." In fact, three of the 20 students there now already have jobs lined up overseas; one in Australia, one in Italy, and another in Singapore.

"There's a sushi boom overseas right now," says the Australia-bound student who requests anonymity. "I'm waiting for my Australian visa right now, and I wouldn't want anything to interfere," he says.

Hiromasa Inami, a mechanical engineer, is at the school because he'd like to go back to Tanzania, where he has worked as a volunteer. "I'd like to make sushi for my friends there," he says.

In exchange for 12 months of his time and about $14,000, Konakai has taught him the basics: how to tell if a fish is fresh, how to prepare and shape the rice, how to wield the razor-sharp knives.

But all this is just the beginning. "They have to get out there and get jobs and begin working," says Konakai. "It takes five, ten, 20 years to become an excellent itamae," or sushi chef. "And it's not just experience," he adds.

Indeed, to hear chefs tell it, the best things about sushi are intangible. "To make good sushi, you have to have skill but you also need a warm heart," explains Konakai. "That, plus skill produces good sushi - it's hard to explain with words, but it has to do with responsibility and experience and feeling."

And knives, of course. Sushi chefs need several different kinds to filet, clean, and slice. They cost hundreds of dollars each, but to the true chef their value isn't monetary. "The knife is the soul of the itamae," explains Konakai. "It's part of you, your body, that's why you have to be good to it, keep it sharp and beautiful, so that it listens to you and moves the way you want it to and cuts the fish beautifully."

In the school's kitchen, student Emi Pierce is using an eight-inch blade that slides through a sushi roll with barely a whisper. When she's done, she holds the knife up to show how her name is engraved at the base of the blade. The lone female student (see below), Ms. Pierce is here because of personal interest.

But Takada, now that he's left Bridgestone behind, plans on opening his own restaurant next month. To a classically trained sushi chef, the speed of his debut is almost unthinkable.

"I would imagine that it's OK if he is going to [make sushi in] a developing country," says Yoshiaki Terada, a chef at the ritzy downtown restaurant Sushiko. "I just don't see how people can actually master all the skills in one year. It's not easy, you know."

Takada knows, but he excited all the same. "I knew I wanted a second life, but I didn't know when, where, or how to start it," he says. "Now, I'm really looking forward to my life as an itamae. My restaurant will be clean and friendly and will provide the best quality sushi at a reasonable price. Please come."

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