Tastefully done: Temple's naked sushi
How many times in your life do you get the chance to eat sushi off of a naked person?
Even when I lived in Okinawa, word was you had to travel to Tokyo if you wanted to witness one of these events -- and if you were a gaijin, you'd better have connections. It was the potential experience more than the food that attracted me to Temple Restaurant & Shinto Lounge on Saturday night for the first of two nyotaimori and nantaimori evenings.
The history of eating sushi off of a person ("nyotaimori" and "nantaimori" mean "female body presentation" and "male body presentation" respectively) is a bit enigmatic, and tracking down the origins of the practice is difficult. Sources differ about whether it is a longstanding tradition among geisha or whether it is a relatively recent phenomenon owed to the yakuza.
At a private birthday party the night before, Temple staff got the chance to train in a real-life setting. Still, excitement was palpable, even as models were being prepared an hour prior to opening.
All told, it takes roughly 90 minutes to prepare a model. After hair and makeup are completed, the robed individual is surrounded by Japanese shoji screens. Behind the screens, the model's sensitive regions are covered with flowers before the sushi can be arranged on bamboo leaves atop their bodies.
Levels of loquaciousness varied among the models. One male model politely declines to speak until after his shift is done; the other has his eyes closed whenever I stroll by him. Tuesdee, who also works at Temple, is happy to talk until a chef begins placing sushi on her body -- she wants to control her breathing precisely. Behind her is a mirror and a pool filled with dry ice, surrounded by four burning red votives. The low lights add to the ambiance.
You look delicious: more photos by James Tran here.
The fourth of the initial models is Ali, a 26-year-old massage therapist who is "not afraid to try anything" (obviously). "I'm not nervous," I overhear her asking one staff member. "Is that normal?"
A member of the Blackfoot Indian Tribe, she has an already-ornate tattoo that has four more hours or so of work to go. Extending from below her left breast down to the hip, it shows a native woman and the word "Pikuni," the Blackfoot word for their own people.
The toughest part for her, she says, is going to be not talking -- they models aren't supposed to speak with you, and you're discouraged from speaking to them. Ali is excited by the artistic nature of the project.
Visually, the arrangement of rose petals, colorful daises and other floral accoutrements is striking. Origins of this practice aside, Japanese eating ritual is all about the aesthetics, and we have the total package in play tonight.
Practically, though, the process of removing sushi delicately -- no hands, please, just chopsticks -- presents a challenge. Once the party begins, there are hordes of people carrying chopsticks around, and with the ample supply of liquor, someone seems liable to get stabbed.
Among eaters, there is a wide variance in chopstick proficiency. An Asian guy mishandles his sticks and drops a hunk of sushi on a model. "Sorry," he says to her. "You'd think I'd be qualified to do this." She registers the hint of a smile. Later, I will witness one poor fellow make seven earnest attempts before successfully removing a piece of sashimi. I feel like applauding when he is done. If the leaves adhere to the sushi and start to pull off the model, a staffer is there to hold the leaf down with chopsticks of her own.
Flower power: more photos by James Tran here.
Though the practice seems a more artistic than sensual one, there are exceptions. Two men approach a model whose sushi stocks have recently been depleted. "Oh no!" one says, never taking his eyes off Tuesdee. "There's no more food!" But he lingers. "C'mon," his buddy says. "Let's get more sake." I hear another man's girlfriend ask him, "are we going to keep going back to the same girl?" He blushes, and if he answers, I don't hear it.
How about the food? Personal preference requires me to sample more sashimi than sushi rolls, and the fresh maguro tuna was mouth-meltingly delectable. Among the other appetizers circulating, the shrimp bisque with Pernod and the seared Kobe beef were favorites. (As an Okinawa supremacist, I have to point out that Ishigaki beef is the wave of the future. Less hyped but just as tasty, the lean meat from one of the country's southernmost islands is waiting for some able entrepreneur to begin imports).
But the main attraction proved most popular. Through most of the evening, I find myself sitting by Tuesdee. At 8:05, they re-stock her body with sushi for the first time -- with three people wait expectantly in the wings. Ten minutes later, they're reloading her again, and again crowds hover nearby. This repeats six or seven times before 8:30, when the shoji screens come out to surround the table she's occupied for the past couple of hours.
Staff cover her with a robe before at last the roses are removed from her body. Her memorable night is done.