When Jimmy Ishii opened Sekisui, the first sushi bar in Memphis, he introduced the city to a taste of Japan. Now, 15 years later, Ishii, by year end, will have opened 15 restaurants, including one in New Orleans, one in Jacksonville, Florida, and another Memphis addition, Blue Fin, due in November at Peabody Place downtown.
Also in November, Ishii will host his second gourmet tour of Japan. During the eight-day trip, guests will experience the frenetic pace of ultra-modern Tokyo, a relaxing retreat at a mountainside inn, and meals from the country's best restaurants.
Trip-goers must have an affinity for seafood. Fish will dominate the menu from the first morning's breakfast, sushi at the Tukiji Fish Market, to the last night spent restaurant-hopping in Osaka.
"The Tukiji Fish Market is at least 10 times the size of The Pyramid," Ishii says. "It opens at 4 every morning, and people come to buy the freshest fish."
While in Tokyo, guests will sit down to nine courses of crab at the Crab House and will have the opportunity to cook over lava stone. Those brave enough will court danger by eating fugu, a poisonous blowfish.
The group will then travel west by train to the volcano Mt. Fuji and cross Lake Hakone by boat. In contrast to the accommodations at the contemporary high-rise hotel in Tokyo, everyone will spend the night in a single room at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, that is near the Hakone National Park.
The room features a low table with floor cushions. A glass wall affords a view of the lake and Mt. Fuji in the distance. And while the furnishings are minimalist, the service is lavish. A hostess dressed in traditional Japanese attire will attend to guests' every need, from bringing food or drink to placing tatami mats on the floor for sleeping.
The inn also offers spring-fed baths, which are heated by the volcano, for men and women.
"This is the best time to visit Hakone," Ishii says. "The trees are changing color; there's not much humidity. Sometimes in April and May, it rains a lot, but November is the best time to go."
Although Ishii moved to the United States at age 18 to attend St. Louis University, he maintains a second home in Japan. He and his family, a wife and three daughters, live in Memphis, but they travel to Japan at least four times a year.
After Hakone, the group proceeds to Kyoto and Nara.
"Kyoto is a very historical city, and Nara was the capital of Japan about 1,300 years ago," Ishii says. "There are many ancient shrines and temples."
In addition to days spent seeing the sights of Japan, Ishii fills the nights with optional entertainment. The group can see a Kabuki play or enjoy geisha performances. The final night, Ishii takes everyone to Osaka's New Half Show House, a bar that features transvestite cabaret performances.
Robert Chapman, owner of Molly's La Casita and a long-time friend of Ishii's, went on the first trip last year. He says the situation was ideal, touring all day and then eating dinner at fine restaurants.
"One night, while staying in Tokyo, we took a train to a distant suburb," says Chapman. "It was a misty night, and we were walking down narrow cobblestone streets. All of the buildings were older wooden structures. After about a five-minute walk from the train station, Jimmy stopped in front of a door that looked like all the other carved wooden doors. He knocked on the door, and it was flung open, and there was a little restaurant inside."
Chapman also took a stab at that poisonous fish, fugu. "It was fabulous," he says, "and I lived to tell the tale." •
Through a partnership between Ishii's travel agency, Sekisui Travel, and Japan Airlines, the trip, including airfare, accommodations, nightly dining, and some lunches and breakfasts, is offered at a package price of $2,500 per person for double occupancy, $2,800 for single occupancy. Some additional charges apply for in-country transportation and optional entertainment. There are still spaces available for the upcoming tour. For more information or to make reservations, call 747-0001.