What happens when we put our faith in a cab driver for local restaurant recommendations in Hokkaido?

On a recent trip to Osaka, our Japanese-language reporter P.K. Sanjun was introduced to some great local takoyaki and ramen after he jumped in a couple of cabs and asked the drivers to take him to their recommended places.

So when his colleague Seiji Nakazawa found himself up in Otaru, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, he decided to follow P.K.’s lead by doing the same thing.

Stepping out of the station at Otaru, Seiji was greeted by the brilliant whiteness of the island’s deep snow. Thankfully, there was a cab at the taxi rank, so Seiji hopped in and said…

▼ …“Hey Mr Taxi driver, take us to the best seafood joint in Otaru!”

Without any hesitation, the driver, whose name was Mr Nitto, replied with a smile and an enthusiastic “Leave it to me!” Without even looking at his phone for any gourmet tips or recommendations, Mr Nitto pulled out of the cab rank and took Seiji on a 500-metre drive, explaining that there’s no better place for seafood in Otaru than Sushiyadori.

Otaru is the oldest harbour city in Hokkaido, and Sushiyadori, which translates to “Sushi Bar Street”, is home to around 20 sushi bars.

▼ The sign here says “Sushiyadori”

Mr Nitto knew exactly which bar to go to on Sushiyadori, heading straight for one named “Sushida“, which was his top recommendation, as they serve up delicious local seafood. Seiji’s stomach rumbled in delight at the prospect of eating at this locally loved establishment, but unfortunately, when they arrived at the restaurant, it appeared to be closed.

Mr Nitto seemed to be just as disappointed by this unexpected development as Seiji, so the kind driver got out of the car and walked through the snow to find out what was going on. Once he’d returned to the warmth of the cab, Mr Nitto explained that a blizzard warning had been issued in Otaru City that day, and trains were now suspended, as well as flights at New Chitose, the island’s biggest airport.

It was 4:00 p.m., and though Sushida is usually open at this time, the owner decided to close early today, as there were no customers due to the blizzard warning.

Thankfully, Mr Nitto was unfazed by this hiccup, and he seemed determined to give Seiji the local seafood experience he’d travelled so far for. So when he asked Seiji, “Do you mind if I take you somewhere a bit further away?” Seiji immediately agreed. Our reporter was keen to eat at Mr Nitto’s locally recommended restaurant, no matter how much the fare would end up costing him.

So off they went again, and this time Mr Nitto said he would be driving Seiji to Aotsuka Shokudo, a restaurant that served great set meals, with sashimi and grilled fish all sourced locally.

However, on the way to the restaurant, Mr Nitto decided to check if the restaurant was open, fearing they too might be closed due to the blizzard warning. So he pulled over to the side of the road and gave the restaurant a call.

It was lucky he did, because the restaurant wasn’t answering, which meant our driver would have to come up with a third option.

Mr Nitto’s determination and high spirits were unwavering, and this time he knew of a place that was both highly recommended and certain to be open. That place was…

▼ A conveyor belt sushi restaurant called Waraku.

Conveyor belt sushi restaurants are known for their cheap prices, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great places to eat at, especially in a port town like Otaru, which is famous for its fresh seafood. Plus, Mr Nitto told Seiji this place was “absolutely delicious”, and during their short time together, the helpful cab driver had proven time and again that he knows his stuff.

They’d travelled quite a distance together, though, so Seiji was ready to pay about 2,000 yen (US$17.57) for the journey. However, when it came time to pay, Mr Nitto said something surprising.

“So…the taxi fare is 560 yen.”

Seiji blinked at the driver in surprise, before saying:

“Huh? Isn’t that too cheap? It’s been quite a long journey with a lot of driving around.”

To which Mr Nitto responded with:

“That’s because I stopped the meter at Sushida.”

Sushida was the first place Mr Nitto had taken him to, which was just 500 metres from the station. Since then, they’d travelled a few kilometres, and Mr Nitto had gone above and beyond being a driver, making phone calls and doing everything he could to look after Seiji, including driving on snowy roads in the midst of an impending blizzard.

Seiji insisted he pay the driver more for all he’d done for him, but Mr Nitto refused to take anything more than 560 yen.

▼ This was a rare moment when Seiji wished Japan had more of a tipping culture.

So Seiji handed over his coins and thanked Mr Nitto profusely. “What a man”, he thought, while vowing to be a little more like him in future. It was the true essence of ichigo ichie, (literally “one lifetime, one meeting”), a Japanese concept where individuals go out of their way to treasure once-in-a-lifetime encounters and make them truly memorable, even if it’s at a slight financial loss to themselves.

Had Seiji paid the driver the real cost of the fare, which covered several kilometres, this one-time encounter with Mr Nitto would’ve probably disappeared from Seiji’s memory eventually, merging with all the other lost memories of cab drives he’s had over the years. However, the incredible kindness of the driver to put Seiji’s needs above his own turned an ordinary cab drive into one Seiji will remember his whole lifetime — a true moment of ichigo ichie.

Seiji’s thoughts were as deep as the snow he walked through as he headed towards the warm and inviting entrance of Waraku. As soon as he stepped inside, though, the rumbling of his hungry stomach grew louder, distracting him from his thoughts as he laid eyes on the restaurant’s interior.

▼ It looked more like a fancy sushi restaurant than a conveyor belt sushi chain.

Settling into a seat at the counter, Seiji took a look at the signs around him, which advertised daily specials like fresh sea urchin and salmon.

▼ The prices for the specials were all fantastic, ranging from 180 yen to 580 yen.

Looking at the menu showed prices started even lower, at 130 yen, and the most expensive dishes were still just 580 yen.

With prices like this, Seiji could afford to go all out, and so he did, ordering over a dozen dishes. They were all so amazing he couldn’t help but photograph every one, so let’s take a look at his sushi feast below.

Raw Mackerel (280 yen)

Grilled Flounder (240 yen)

Steamed Prawn (180 yen)

Egg Tempura (160 yen)

 Medium Fatty Tuna (420 yen)

Pacific Herring (320 yen)

Greenland Halibut (160 yen)

▼ Grilled Trio (Flounder, Greenland Halibut, Salmon) 320 yen

Fresh Horse Mackerel (320 yen)

Otoro (Fatty Underbelly) Salmon (280 yen)

Tuna (180 yen)

Scallops (280 yen)

Pacific Cod Milt (milt is the sperm-filled male genitalia of fish and molluscs) 580 yen

Fresh Sea Urchin (580 yen)

Seiji’s rumbling belly soon became a full one, as he devoured morsel after morsel of incredibly fresh seafood.

It was the freshest fish he’d eaten anywhere, conveyor belt restaurant or otherwise, and there was one person he had to thank for each bite…

▼ …“Thank you, Mr Nitto!”

The power of his recent ichigo ichie experience was so great it had permeated the meal, seasoning every bite with an extra special type of magic that made it unforgettable. It was incredibly great value for money for such high-quality seafood, and a recommendation so impressive that Seiji now wants to try the other two restaurants recommended by Mr Nitto.

Plus, seeing as the money Seiji saved on the cab ride was now going towards the bill, it was as if Mr Nitto was there with him, treating him to some of the finest fish Otaru has to offer. So if you’re reading this, Mr Nitto — thank you. You changed the course of Seiji’s day and gave him a great introduction to the city that he won’t ever forget.

Restaurant information

Waraku Otaru / 和楽 小樽店
Address: Hokkaido-ken, Otaru-shi, Sakaimichi 3-1
Open 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.

Photos ©SoraNews24
● Want to hear about SoraNews24’s latest articles as soon as they’re published? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
[ Read in Japanese ]