In Tokyo's fabled Akihabara district, where fantasy seems to reign these days, women have made a foray into a turf long dominated by men: The sushi counter.
The female sushi chefs at the Nadeshiko Sushi restaurant in the Sotokanda area of Chiyoda Ward show off their skills, combining creativity and finesse on the table. Their determination and skills are remarkable, prompting many visitors to draw parallels with Nadeshiko Japan, the national women's soccer team that grabbed an unexpected victory at the World Cup this year.
Inside the simply but neatly decorated establishment, young women wearing traditional "happi" coats prepare sushi for customers.
Except for the head chef, the other 15 staff members, including part-timers, are women in their late teens to 20s.
They undergo training lasting about two months while they work behind the cash register and help kitchen staff. Only after that are they are allowed to stand behind the counter.
But why did the restaurant decide to hire female chefs when the overwhelming majority of sushi chefs are male?
Kazuya Nishikiori, 40, who runs the restaurant, cited two reasons.
"I wanted to expand job opportunities for women," he said, citing his first reason.
Nishikiori is also president of staffing company Profity, based in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. As such, he has always been acutely aware that women have far fewer workplaces to choose from than men, even though they are capable workers.
"I wanted to send a message from trendsetting Akiba to say, 'Women, too, have got the stuff!' "
Secondly, he said he saw possibilities in the sushi business.
"I felt there were unexpectedly few sushi restaurants whose prices were set somewhere between cheap conveyor-belt sushi eateries and exclusive sushi bars that would cost tens of thousands of yen per meal," Nishikiori said.
His intention is to attract customers who are willing to spend a little extra for tasty sushi.
Fresh ingredients are procured from Tateyama Port in Chiba Prefecture and elsewhere, priced between 300 yen ($4) and 500 yen per sushi. The "Omakase," or chef's choice, course, which includes 10 “igiri" sushi, a sushi roll and the dessert of the day, goes for 3,000 yen.
To add a more playful atmosphere suitable to Akihabara, the restaurant operates as the "Nadeshiko Sushi Bar" on Monday and Thursday evenings. Staff are dressed in black vests and jazz music fills the air to give the restaurant a chic vibe.
Yuki Chizui, 24, one of the main staffers who has been working at Nadeshiko Sushi since it opened in October 2010, promptly replied that saury was in season when asked what she recommended one day in early October.
Chizui said her favorite sushi items are toro, the fatty portions of tuna, and "engawa," the rich but scarce meat taken from the fins of sole.
Her love for sushi was so intense that she took a part-time job at a sushi restaurant in Tokyo's posh Ginza district. But she felt uncomfortable being in a kitchen occupied by male workers.
"It didn't make sense for women not to be allowed to make sushi when female pastry chefs are not uncommon," she said.
Chizui was elated when she saw a recruitment ad for Nadeshiko Sushi, and she immediately applied for the job.
"I wanted to serve sushi prepared in a fashionable, caring and sensitive manner characteristic of women."
This reporter was served a plate of nigiri sushi of raw and grilled saury.
A side dish of "gari" marinated ginger was the embodiment of her feminine creativity. The thin, red and pink-colored slices of ginger were assembled into the shape of a rose to entertain the eyes of diners.
"I want to establish a status for female sushi chefs," Chizui said, a wish shared by everyone involved with Nadeshiko Sushi.
Recently, the restaurant has started offering sushi at a welfare facility near the port from which it purchases seafood as part of its charity work.