60. A Taste of Grace through Sushi

June 22, 2024 - Roger W. Lowther

My family and I live on an island that's part of the reclaimed land of Tokyo Bay. It's at the mouth of the Sumida River, which flows down from the heart of Tokyo. And this is a very interesting place, one reason why we chose to live here.

This island is where the fishermen used to live that went out into the bay to catch the fish. And when they brought it back, they would give the best of it to the Imperial Palace. But then the rest they would take up the canal to Nihonbashi. Now, if you come into Haneda Airport in Tokyo, you know a little bit about this bridge because there's a huge replica of it in the airport where all of the stores and restaurants are. And the reason is because that was the commerce center of Tokyo.

Nihonbashi literally means the “bridge of Japan.” You know the phrase all roads lead to Rome? Well, all roads in Japan lead to Nihonbashi. It was the center of five ancient roads, highways that went out throughout the country. And even now, when you're driving and you look at a sign and it says such and such kilometers to Tokyo, it's telling you exactly how far it is to Nihonbashi.

And further afield, if you go around the world, Paris or Sydney or somewhere like that, and it says Tokyo is 7,300 miles that way, it's telling you how far it is to Nihonbashi. When Tokugawa united the nation of Japan, he made this place the main exchange ground for so many different things. Like one of them was the arts. As an artist, I really like that part. Ningyocho is right next to it.

“Ningyo” means doll. So “doll town,” it's the place where all of the kabuki theaters and puppet shows were. I know it pretty well because the pastor I used to work with, who planted the church where I work, used to live in Ningyocho. And so we had a lot of meetings there.

Nihonbashi is also where the first department stores of Japan were invented. Mitsukoshimae is a subway stop that's near there. Mitsukoshi is a very famous department store. It's the first department store in Japan. And shortly after that, many other department stores were built.

When I'm describing Nihonbashi, I'm telling you like, this is my front yard in a sense. I bike through there all the time. And you always have all these men in their white gloves, kind of ushering in the cars to get into the parking lots to go to the mall. It's not really what you consider like an American mall. It's a very high end Japanese mall.

Another thing that Nihonbashi is known for is a financial district. It's where the big banks were made. The Bank of Japan, the First National Bank, and the Tokyo Stock Exchange is in Nihonbashi.

But what I want to talk to you about today is that it's also the center of where sushi was invented, the kind of sushi that we know today. You have to understand that for a long time, and today too, Tokyo is the biggest city in the world. And that was the main cultural exchange place. So many different people, 1.2 million people in the 1700s. And with all these people wandering around, they needed to eat. They needed to eat quickly. And so, because it was a fish market of raw fish, it made sense that they'd want to make a fast food with the fish with mouth-sized bites to give to people in order to be able to have a quick lunch. So I think it's funny, you know, when I travel in America, often I'll see sushi in gas stations or airports. That sushi is not quite the same as the sushi that we have here, but it does serve the same purpose. It's fast food. You’re going through somewhere, you get it, you eat it quickly, and you're done. And even now, I'll often eat sushi as fast food. If I'm rushing to something, I'll grab it from a convenience store and eat it. It's not too bad.

However, the other day I had an important meeting, and we ate lunch at a sushi place in Nihonbashi. And it was amazing. Not like what you get in a convenience store or gas station or a supermarket. Very high end. And yet it wasn't that expensive. So when y'all come visit us in Japan, I'll have to take you there. It's pretty good.

And by the way, the other interesting thing to me about sushi is the wasabi, or horseradish, the green spicy part put between the fish and the rice. The center of the farming of wasabi comes from the Izu Peninsula, which is a mountainous region, the closest mountainous region to Tokyo. Our church has gone there for a retreat, and so I know the area pretty well, running through all the farmlands. Wasabi comes from big leafy plants that grow right in the middle of the cold, rushing mountain rivers. And so when I think wasabi, I'm thinking the sound of rushing rivers and cold mountain rivers. And so there's always this fresh, clear crispness of mountain streams brought into my mind in the hustle and bustle of the city. It's kind of a neat combination.

So every Sunday, I bike from my home where the fishermen used to live through Nihonbashi, and I'm thinking about all these things to the place where we meet near Tokyo station for worship. It's very close to where we live, and it's very close to the culture of Japan and the culture of Tokyo.

And so what I want to do is help people taste the answer to the question, “How does this help us see the grace of God?” About a month ago, my book, A Taste of Grace came out, and the purpose of that was to help people taste the message of the gospel, how God loves us and cares for us in a world which is really, really hard. There are so many expectations put on us, and I see people torn apart by that time and time again. Families fall apart. Communities fall apart. This world is hard.

It's really only the message of the gospel that gives us the freedom and hope that we need to live in abundance. That despite our brokenness and our failings and our mistakes, that God is working to redeem us, to sustain us. He has our best interests in mind, and he is building his perfect kingdom through us, through everything we do, everything we say, everything we make. Our pain, our suffering, is not without meaning. God's message is not amorphous. It's clear, it's distinct, and it's for us.

And when I eat sushi in Japan, I sense this so deeply, and I want Japanese people to sense that as well. So in the book, I ask the question, “What is the gospel according to sushi?” And you know, when you ask that question, you get some really interesting answers. So for this episode, I'd like to share with you from the audiobook version of the book, A Taste of Grace. This is the chapter on sushi. Please have a listen.

Every meal in Japan begins with one word.

“Itadakimasu.” (“I humbly receive and eat.”)

There is so much meaning in this one word! Literally, it expresses thankfulness both for the people who prepare the food and for the plants and animals which are the food. At each and every meal, we receive the life of another. For one to live, another must die. Sacrifice resides at the heart of every meal.

Perhaps no food in Japan is more deserving of the sentiment of itadakimasu than sushi and sashimi. You watch as the chef cuts the fish right in front of you. Sometimes you even see it alive first, swimming in a small tank in the restaurant. Unlike beef, pork, or chicken, it is actually safe to eat as soon as the chef slices it, creating what I consider an intimate connection with the sacrifice of the fish.

The kind of sushi most often enjoyed around the world today, also known as nigiri sushi or Edomae sushi, developed in the early 1800s within walking distance of my apartment in Tokyo. Roadside stands began placing bite-sized pieces of fish on top of hand-molded balls of rice mixed with vinegar. The pairing with wasabi, or Japanese horseradish, happened almost immediately. We find the birthplace and largest production of wasabi in the mountain river streams of Shizuoka Prefecture, just south of Tokyo.

I can’t help feeling fascinated by the close attachment of sushi to the history, land, and sea of Japan. Sushi expresses in a microcosm the value of contrast in the culture, the strong tastes of vinegar and wasabi against the relatively mild fish and rice. And when I eat sushi, I think of Jesus on the cross. The clean flesh of the fish, his sinless sacrificial body. The vinegar, his bitter drink. The sharp taste of wasabi, his agony. The sushi chef bears witness to the beauty and bitterness of Christ’s sacrifice for the world through every serving.

Sushi gives a delectable reminder of the gospel, humbling us in thankfulness for Jesus’s sacrifice while encouraging us to celebrate him with every meal.


I humbly receive and eat.

You've been listening to the Art Life Faith Podcast. If you'd like to hear more examples of how we taste the grace of God through Japanese food, please check out my book, A Taste of Grace, just released. And after reading the book, would you consider leaving a review? It's a huge blessing not only to me, but to those who are trying to figure out what this book is about.

As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne!” We’ll see you next time.


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