Photo/IllutrationSohei Sajimoto, right, with his son, Hideto, left, and Nieda Manzano Takashi Francisco, at restaurant Sushi-So in the Shima district of Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture (Yuki Hanano)

  • Photo/Illustraion

SHIMADA, Shizuoka Prefecture--The Shima neighborhood here has the idyllic feel of the Japanese countryside, with Oigawa Railway Co.’s steam locomotive occasionally passing through, blowing its whistle.

However, not all is so typical in the area.

Sushi-So blends into the rural suburb dotted with green tea plantations, but the sushi parlor is beloved by the locals for its distinctly nontraditional menu: Mexican-style sushi.

The unlikely fusion was introduced by the first-generation owner who brought back the recipe from Mexico about half a century ago, and has won the hearts of patrons over many years despite initial reservations.

The exotic sushi was created by Sohei Sajimoto, 89, whose son Hideto, 53, currently manages the restaurant.

In 1965, Sohei, who was running a sushi parlor in Nagoya with his younger brothers at the time, moved to Mexico with his wife and son to fulfill his dream of living overseas and seeking a “purpose” in life.

Sohei brought knives and other utensils with him because he wanted many people to eat authentic Japanese sushi. But because there was no custom of eating raw fish, and freezing and refrigeration technology was insufficient, Sohei couldn’t prepare sushi in a way he wanted.

So, Sohei came up with Mexican-style sushi by incorporating avocado, boiled shrimp and other Mexican ingredients to serve the locals and Japanese descendants. The locals were pleased to taste what they thought was Japanese sushi, while Japanese immigrants and their descendants were thrilled to eat the cuisine from their homeland, with some of them even moved to tears to have sushi for the first time in many years.

Sohei returned home about three years later and made a fresh start as a sushi chef and opened his own restaurant, serving Mexican-style sushi as his top recommended specialty. Sushi-So was established in its current location in 1983 after relocating twice.

It goes without saying that Mexican food was unfamiliar to Japanese people at the time, not to mention avocados. There were times the strange-looking exotic sushi received less-than-excited responses from customers. But Sohei’s confidence grew, and he was glad to offer the unusual sushi as the number of patrons increased.

Hideto grew up watching his father work as a sushi chef. Taking over his father’s restaurant, Hideto takes pride in making the exotic style of sushi not found elsewhere in Japan.

Sushi-So’s menu also features typical items such as tuna and squid, but particularly eye-catching are the Mexican-style sushi choices. Avocado rolls taste nice with sweet soy sauce, while salty-sweet “carne” is prepared with pork cooked with sauce for “anago” eel. “Camaron” comes with steamed shrimp.

The sushi parlor also boasts a rich selection of Mexican food, including tacos.

Nieda Manzano Takashi Francisco, 42, a second-generation Japanese descendant who works at Sushi-So, also plays a role in serving Mexican-style sushi. He came to Japan from Mexico when he was 20 and gained experience at the sushi parlor over at least 20 years.

Nieda said he was surprised to find Mexican-style sushi when he first came to Japan. But seeing ingredients from his homeland well-accepted and cherished by the locals, he felt “very happy,” he recalled.

“I brought back things nobody knew about, and everybody was kind enough to appreciate them,” Sohei said. “I want to cherish (Mexican-style sushi) for as long as I live.”