It’s always great when you can tell a story of a place through the eyes of an individual. It’s even better when that individual is an extraordinarily creative and talented artist with a unique way of looking at the world. How did they get from “there” to “here”? What mysterious forces shaped them? What was it about the place and circumstances of their upbringing that helped push them, gave them the drive and the hunger to be different, to be bold, to insist on carving out their own path?
Masayoshi “Masa” Takayama was raised a “country boy” in the rural farming community of Nasushiobara, Japan. It is a drab, featureless place — not unlike the town where another creative powerhouse, the Spanish chef and innovator, Ferran Adria grew up in its seeming total absence of stimuli. Masa’s family was in the retail fish trade — and during wedding season, catered banquets. Even as a small boy, young Masa worked after school — and even was even called upon to leave school during the busier times to assist with the family business.
He could, like his brother, like many of his friends from school, have easily remained in the town of his birth. But he chose to go to Tokyo, where he apprenticed at the legendary Ginza Sushiko, then on to Kanazawa, where he appears to have learned much about the world — and then, perhaps most improbably, to Los Angeles, where he soon transformed himself into the most sought after sushi chef in the city. From there, to New York, where he runs the eponymous Masa — the most expensive (and easily one of the best) restaurants in the country.
I will tell you from numerous visits — when you are sitting at the sushi bar at Masa, eating the most insanely high test rice and fish in the world, prepared by the man himself, you can be assured that though someone somewhere on the planet might just possibly be eating as well as you — NO ONE is eating better.
Unlike many of his peers, Masa was never afraid to be an innovator. He has championed bold combinations with ingredients like foie gras — when and only when they make sense with more traditional ingredients and sensibilities. He designs his own ceramic plates and bowls and sake cups. He is relentlessly curious about art and design. He likes fine wine — and baseball. He is — and always was — different.
So, I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to go all the way back with him, tracking back his education, his influences, to the beginning. In doing that, we gained a truly different view of Japan than on any previous visits. I ate spectacularly well: from family meals with the Takayamas, kaiseki in Kanazawa, to some of the best sushi at Ginza Sushiko to mountain sukiyaki with Masa’s old friends from high school. It is food porn at its finest — but first and foremost, a portrait of an artist and his journey.