There are lessons that photographers can learn from a sushi chef’s devotion to his craft

Apr 30, 2020

Benjamin Stevens

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

There are lessons that photographers can learn from a sushi chef’s devotion to his craft

Apr 30, 2020

Benjamin Stevens

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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If you’ve seen the fascinating documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you will have noticed the fanatical devotion that restaurant owner Jiro Ono applies to his craft as a sushi chef.

For Jiro, owning a sushi restaurant is not about paying the bills. Rather, it is a means for him to be able to do what he loves on a daily basis and do it exceedingly well.

Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

 – Calvin Coolidge

If you’ve seen the fascinating documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you will have noticed the fanatical devotion that restaurant owner Jiro Ono applies to his craft as a sushi chef.

For Jiro, owning a sushi restaurant is not about paying the bills. Rather, it is a means for him to be able to do what he loves on a daily basis and do it exceedingly well.

His restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, only seats 10 patrons. It was the first sushi restaurant in the world to be awarded three Michelin stars – although this has since been rescinded.

The restaurant is booked out months in advance and diners can expect to fork out around $US300 for the 20-piece set menu.

How did this small, unassuming restaurant at the entrance to a Tokyo subway station garner such acclaim?

Complete and utter devotion to craft.

And in analysing the devotion to craft, the uniquely Japanese concept of kodawari is a good place to start.

As is often the case with Japanese words, there is no neat and tidy English translation. But we can loosely define it as the uncompromising adherence to high personal standards in the pursuit of mastery.

In his book The Little Book of Ikigai: The secret Japanese way to live a happy and long life, author Ken Mogi defines kodawari as:

a personal standard, to which the individual adheres in a steadfast manner. It is often, though not always, used in reference to a level of quality, or professionalism to which the individual holds. It is an attitude, often maintained throughout one’s life, constituting a central element of ikigai. Kodawari is personal in nature, and it is a manifestation of pride in what one does.

Mogi mentions ikigai, another Japanese concept which itself is worthy of intense study. But for the purposes of this article, ikigai can be thought of as a happy busyness. A reason to get up in the morning, if you will.

When we combine the happy busyness of ikigai with the relentless devotion of kodawari, we approach what might be called cultivating a passion in the west.

Importantly, this cultivation is maintained over a long time. Ono is now 94 years old and by all accounts, still turns up to work each day with a goal of improving the whole sushi-making process.

And while Ono and his exploits have been well documented, I wondered what I could learn from his approach to craft and whether it might apply to photography.

Attention to detail

Attention to deal permeates the whole experience of dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro.

Jiro takes note of whether his guests are left-handed or right-handed and alters the seating plan accordingly.

Octopus is massaged for exactly 40 minutes and served warm to remove the rubbery texture and improve the taste.

Four-inch fillets of kohada (gizzard shad) are sprinkled with salt and left for exactly 15 minutes and 30 seconds. Then, the fillets are placed in vinegar for a further 15 minutes and 30 seconds.

Like a wine tasting where lighter varietals are served before heavier ones, Jiro’s set 20-piece sushi course becomes increasingly fattier. This, he says, allows the palate to fully appreciate each dish.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan talk with Jiro Ono during a dinner in April 2014.

Each part of the process is like the instrument in an orchestra. And to hear and indeed appreciate this orchestra, diners need to be fully attentive.

To this end, Ono specifically advises guests to be punctual and recommends they do not take photographs of the sushi while they are eating.

This, he says, would only detract from enjoying the sushi at its optimal temperature.

“Don’t turn nigiri sushi upside down”, the restaurant website states in a long list of eating protocols. “If you turn sushi upside down when eating it, your mouth will feel a strange sensation since the rice has a temperature different from your tongue.”

Just as cell phones, tardiness and improper technique detract from the experience of enjoying sushi, so do they detract from meaningful photography.

Attention to detail in photography encompasses factors such as:

  • Organisation – remembering to bring that 10-stop filter or spare batteries on your hike to a waterfall.
  • Composition – being mindful of small details in a scene you want to include, or conversely mindful of small details you want to exclude.
  • Technique – actually using a tripod and the correct aperture if the scene calls for front to back sharpness or a long exposure.

Photographers can get sloppy when burdened with distracting thoughts, decreasing our creative output in the process.

Of course, creativity cannot be summoned by simply ticking some boxes. But there are certain things we can do to encourage its appearance.

Shifting our focus to the present moment is one thing, attention to detail is another.

Steadfast adherence to high standards

Like the piece of sushi which must be consumed at the optimum temperature, most photographic locations have optimal conditions. Our job, as photographers, is to understand a location deeply enough to predict where and when these conditions may occur.

Here, the intimate knowledge of a location is the high standard photographers must strive for. Inspired by Jiro Ono, we must remain committed to trial and error over a long period to understand a location inside and out.

Proper technique is important too, don’t get me wrong. But pure artistic expression comes from knowing what you want to photograph and why. The rest can be worked out later.

It is only through hard graft that we taste the sweetest victories. When optimal conditions present, we understand how fleeting they are and appreciate them accordingly. Suddenly, our photography becomes that much more fulfilling.

The steadfast adherence to a high level of quality naturally creates an immense personal satisfaction in one’s work. As photographers, we should always strive to maximise the quality of our inputs by paying attention to our surroundings and the feelings they invoke in us.

Mindfulness photography is a good way to start paying attention.

Become a craftsman

Shokunin try to get the highest quality fish and apply their technique to it. We don’t care about money. All I want to do is make better sushi.

 – Yoshikazu Ono

The Japanese call a craftsman shokunin­ – or someone who devotes their life to mastering a profession. In Japanese culture, no profession is shameful as long as it is carried out with pride, care and respect.

Shokunin kishitsu, or the craftsman’s spirit, teaches us how we might nurture this sense of duty in our work.

It starts with a few central ideas:

  1. Pride, dedication and commitment to your work – no matter how insignificant the work may be.
  2. Raising the bar. Measuring incremental improvements to elevate standards.
  3. Community betterment, or doing something to such a standard that it benefits others.

This spirit underpins a lot of Japanese society, but examples in the blue-collar sector tend to get the most attention because of the way that seemingly menial tasks are approached and dare I say, celebrated.

Photo by Simon Launay on Unsplash

Case study: the shinkansen grannies

Most people have a vague idea of the efficiency of Japan’s high-speed rail network. It is legendary across the world, and for good reason.

One of Japan’s largest rail operators, JR Central, maintains an average delay of just 0.9 minutes annually. This is despite earthquakes, heavy rain and snow and the fact that some shinkansen share lines with slower commuter trains.

Punctuality is so highly valued that an apology was issued after one northbound train out of Tokyo left the station 20 seconds early.

But punctuality tells only half the story.

In Japan, cleanliness is next to godliness. At Tokyo Station, a team of cleaners has a mere 7 minutes to clean each train from top to bottom before it is turned around and sent back out.

On a typical 17-carriage train, there are 1,700 tables and seats with countless windows, luggage racks and several bathrooms. All must be checked, cleaned and spotless before passengers begin boarding.

Image courtesy of JR Central

These teams are officially employees of TESSEI, a rail service company. But since the average age is 52 and many are women who don conspicuous pink uniforms, they are affectionately referred to as the obaa-sans or “grannies”.

The 7-minute routine dubbed the “Shinkansen Theatre” is now a tourist attraction in itself.

But only 10 years ago, TESSEI was just another cleaning company. Staff turnover was high and those who remained were not particularly invested in their work. Cleaning standards suffered as a result.

Then, a CEO was appointed who changed everything. He encouraged his staff to take pride in their work and provide a memorable service to passengers. They started bowing to the train on arrival and similarly greeted the disembarking passengers.

Staff are also empowered to make suggestions and improve the operation, fostering buy-in and increasing fulfilment. To keep cleaning fresh and interesting, they also wear seasonal flowers in their hats and Hawaiian shirts during the summer.

By embodying the first two attributes of craftsman’s spirit, the cleaning crews automatically embody the third.

Aside from the obvious health benefits of clean trains in a crowded country, their devotion to craft keeps the juggernaut that is the Japanese rail system running smoothly and efficiently.

Embodying the craftsman’s spirit is an intrinsically rewarding process. The spirit is in effect an attitude or way of approaching even the most menial of tasks.

Photography is full of menial tasks we might not give much thought to or avoid completely.

Early starts, long drives, changing lenses 30 times in a day, cleaning sensors, cleaning tripods, endless waiting for the light which may never materialise, moving sliders back and forth. Cloning.

Lik them or not, they are part and parcel of being a photographer. Why not do them with a sense of purpose and a smile on our face? Why not go the extra mile and be proud of our efforts in doing so?

Patience

Training is about learning patience. You can learn technique after you have mastered patience.

 – Yoshikazu Ono

Jiro’s advice for aspiring sushi chefs is to learn the art of patience.

But if ever there was a poster boy for patience, it would be Jiro’s son, Yoshikazu, who at the age of 61 is still waiting for his father to retire and hand over the family business.

Yoshikazu exercises similar patience when he is seen shopping for abalone from the Tsukiji fish market in the documentary.

On this particular morning, he notes the quality of the abalone isn’t up to scratch. So he doesn’t buy it.

He’s willing to be patient and look elsewhere, or substitute the abalone with something else entirely. He understands there is no point trying to force low-quality abalone into something it’s not.

To accept poor quality ingredients would be a mark of impatience. And impatience can sabotage the whole process.

Photo by Peter Lam CH on Unsplash

There is no doubt that patience is an art form in the twenty-first century. Or if not an art-form, something exceedingly rare.

Patience has several benefits for photographers. Not the least of which is possessing something in short supply.

Ultimately, patience is linked with rewarding images.

Sometimes good light will take hours, days or even months to materialise.

Landscape photographers, for the most part, don’t have the luxury of creating the perfect moment with lighting or props. Many will nonetheless try to force good light in post-production or blend several images together.

But you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, my mother often used to say.

Patience in photography is more than a virtue.

Whether you have to wait for 7 days or 7 years for the right conditions to materialise, it can begin to feel pointless and slightly infuriating.

However, patience is always rewarded sooner or later. Become the sort of photographer who is in it for the long haul. Who understands that every minute spent waiting is one minute closer to success.

Passionate purpose

Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honorably.

 – Jiro Ono

Ono began his apprenticeship as a sushi chef after being made homeless at the age of 9. For those of us with western sensibilities, we may become uncomfortable at the thought of such a deprived and brief childhood.

There is, however, something admirable about Ono’s passionate purpose. He took what he was given in life and made the most of it.

Many photographers may find their passion first and then devote themselves to working hard at their photography.

But for Ono, it was likely the other way around. Working hard initially may have lead to feelings of passion.

Love sharpens the eye, the ear, the touch; it quickens the feet, it steadies the hand, it arms against the wet and cold. What we love to do, that we do well. To know is not all; it is only half. To love is the other half.

 – John Burroughs – Leaf and Tendril (1908)

Burroughs rather eloquently alludes to passionate purpose as equal parts knowledge and love. There is no distinction on which has to come first so presumably, it doesn’t matter.

Indeed, Jiro’s son Yoshikazu became passionate about sushi after dedicating himself to the work. He frankly admits to camera that he hated his work for the first 2 years and often fantasised with the idea of throwing in the towel.

With a few decades of graft under his belt, Jiro himself is guided by an unwavering purpose.

Whether he became passionate about sushi after working hard as an apprentice is largely irrelevant, I suppose, because the end result is the same.

His primary passion, his purpose, is to convey what good sushi is to those who dine at his restaurant.

He doesn’t expect guests to know his life story – though many probably do – he just wants you to understand what sushi prepared by a chef at the top of his game tastes like.

Photographers are much the same. The act of taking a photograph is a deeply personal process. It can sometimes be the result of years of blood, sweat and tears.

And on some humble level, we want others to know this.

We want others to know we invested a piece of our passionate, purposeful selves into the making of a single image. We’d like them to know that photographs we feel proud enough to share don’t grow on trees.

These photographs communicate what we want to say when words fall short. They make others feel what we felt. Experience what we experienced.

Humility

As mentioned at the outset, there is nothing glamorous about Sukiyabashi Jiro.

It’s situated in the underground shopping corridor of an office building. There is one, L-shaped counter on one side and a couple of tables on the other.

Reviewers have noted that the mood in the restaurant is subdued and formal.

The decor is low-key. But of course, people aren’t dining there for the ambience.

The somewhat humble first impressions complement Jiro’s preference to honour the past. He chooses to serve sushi in the manner in which it developed during the Edo era.

Edomae-sushi is a type of sushi created by food stall businesses in Tokyo during the 1820s. During this period, refrigeration was non-existent. Fish were caught in the adjacent harbour and then immediately put out for sale.

The tendency for fish to turn easily and the fast-paced lifestyles of workers kept conversation to a minimum and stressed the need for efficiency from start to finish. Necessity ensured stall-holders made the best use of the ingredients on offer in an environment where sushi didn’t last long in an optimal state.

Jiro honours this process today, maintaining the tradition of Edo-style dining and customs. He is not trying to reinvent the wheel, choosing instead to gracefully acknowledge (and be inspired by) traditional Japanese sushi culture.

Humility also manifests in the pursuit of excellence. While Jiro maintains a very exclusive eating experience, he is not too good to eat at conveyor belt sushi chains in his relentless quest for perfection.

I try everything. It is important to constantly research.… If you don’t have an intense focus to get to the next level, the value of your work will diminish.

 – Jiro Ono

Photographers must also be humble. We can acknowledge those who have gone before us by drawing inspiration from them. We understand there are certain things they have figured out which could save us a lot of time and energy in our progression.

There is no need for photographers to reinvent the wheel. With so many wielding cameras these days, there is a good chance your unique idea is far from revolutionary.

But we can overcome this apparent saturation by adding our own unique flair to some of the inspirational concepts we have picked up along the journey.

Perfectionism

Reviewing Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Roger Ebert said the documentary was a “portrait of tunnel vision” and concluded by remarking on Ono’s tragic pursuit of perfection:

He knows his staff has recently started massaging an octopus for 45 minutes and not half an hour, for example. Does he search a customer’s eyes for a signal that this change has been an improvement? Half an hour of massage was good enough to win three Michelin stars. You realize the tragedy of Jiro Ono’s life is that there are not, and will never be, four stars.

Although it is impossible to know for sure, I would argue that Ono has absolutely no interest in Michelin stars. Nevertheless, there is a degree of pervasive perfectionism in the film that Ebert has clearly recognised.

The rite of passage for apprentices is one such example. Aspiring sushi chefs are made to perfect seemingly menial tasks such as the wringing out of hot towels before they are allowed anywhere near food preparation.

Indeed, they must work for a decade or more under Ono’s tutelage before they attain the title of shokunin. One particular apprentice in the documentary recalls making the same dish more than 200 times before it was mercifully judged to be of an acceptable standard.

The dish, for the record, was tamago (egg omelette).

Does this level of perfectionism have a place in photography?

I’m not sure that it does.

Perfectionism is often disguised as the pursuit of self-improvement. But to improve, mistakes have to be made and learnt from.

Perfectionism is associated with extremely high standards and the pursuit of flawless ideals.

Extremely high standards, by definition, will often be unmet. And for some of us, failing to reach these standards is akin to putting our most authentic, flawed selves in prison and throwing away the key.

Unfortunately, the line between perfectionism and the devotion to craft is a blurry one.

Ono has been making sushi for almost 80 years, but he still feels he hasn’t reached the top of the mountain:

All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. There is always a yearning to achieve more. I’ll continue to climb, trying to reach the top, but no one knows where the top is. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I have achieved perfection.

 – Jiro Ono

Photo by JL Lacar on Unsplash

The point here, of course, is that perfection is impossible to achieve.

To endlessly and mindlessly pursue perfection is to be blinded from the beauty of the present moment.

Perfection may be a metaphor for most people. They might think they need it, but they never really aspire to get there.

Ono, on the other hand, appears to believe that perfection is a tangible thing. This is despite admitting that he can’t define it, much less set a goal for it.

One could argue that his pursuit of perfection might be his craftsman’s spirit. That there is a certain honour in the incremental pursuit of perfection and even if our intuition tells us we’ll never reach the top, we delight in climbing the mountain nonetheless.

But our ascent toward the summit should never come at the cost of living in the present.

Workaholism

By his own admissions, Jiro Ono is a workaholic.

He recounts in the documentary how he was largely absent in bringing up his children. His younger son, Takashi, remembers gazing upon his father during a rare morning sleep in and asking who the stranger in his house was.

Ono often works through holidays and becomes so easily bored with relaxing that he returns to the restaurant to keep himself occupied.

As amateur or enthusiast photographers, we may easily understand the difference between our craft and our day job. In fact, many aspiring professionals would count themselves lucky if the difference was less clear.

But for Ono, the two are inseparable. His work is his craft and his craft is his work. This arrangement is all he has ever known.

Ono’s alcoholic father left the family when he was 7. Two years later, he was told to leave home and make something of himself.

He eventually landed on his feet, apprenticing at a sushi restaurant. He has now been in the industry for over 80 years.

In a sense, Ono’s perfectionist tendencies and hyper-focused devotion to making sushi are at least partly the results of his less than ideal childhood.

There was no choice for him but to make sushi work. In depression-era Japan, it might have been the difference between eating and not eating.

But in adulthood, Jiro is still working like his much younger self – as if his very survival still depends on him earning a daily paycheque.

This youthful zeal has powered him well into his 90s, even if his body and mind are starting to desert him.

Nevertheless, don’t be so consumed with your craft that you neglect your family or forget how to relax. Don’t be a stranger in your own house.

Final thoughts

Photography, like many crafts, rewards devoted and sustained effort. In a sense, kodawari argues that the greatest reward comes from the intrinsic struggle to improve.

But it is not a struggle in the truest sense of the word. It might be better described as a joyful pride in upholding personal standards.

To Ono, this is not an empty platitude but a personal mantra for living. To relax on one part of the sushi-making process is to relax on the whole process, extinguishing the desire to improve and compromising the quality of the end product.

For photographers, improvement means we strive to practise our craft with integrity and take pride in our achievements — no matter the size.

We’re not focused on reaching a mythical summit. An endpoint where we can put our cameras down, dust our hands off and say we’ve made it.

No, enjoyment is happily something we get to feel along the whole journey. Enjoyment comes from giving everything we have got and being content with the photographs we produce.

Of course, there is no fun or fulfilment in proclaiming we know everything there is to know. A world fully worked out would be a very dull world indeed.

By adopting the craftsman’s spirit, we avoid the pitfalls of perfectionist tendencies that only serve to distract us from the beautiful joy of pursuing photography for its own sake.

About the Author

Benjamin Stevens was born and raised in Australia. His college degree says that he is an environmental scientist, but his heart and soul tell that he is a mindfulness photographer and a writer. He mainly photographs nature and landscapes, and you can see more of his work on his website, Instagram, and Facebook. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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