On the surface, Shikon appears simple and demure. But behind Hong Kong’s three Michelin star sushi restaurant is an immeasurable layer of passion, dedication, and even obsession that makes dining here an unforgettable experience.
If there is one word to describe Shikon, it’s Shibui, a Japanese term to describe objects that appear to be simple overall, but which possess subtle yet significant details that balance its simplicity with complexity.
“Sometimes, the simple things can be the most complicated,” Yoshiharu Kakinuma, Hong Kong’s first Three-Michelin Japanese chef, muses.
A beautiful, pale 8-seat counter fashioned from a single piece of Hinoki – a Japanese cedar found one hour outside of Tokyo – anchors the room. The plates, bowls and cups are all handcrafted, each with its own quirks and imperfections. A large hook, used to catch tuna, sits in a frame hung high beside Kakinuma’s station.
At Shikon, there are no measuring tools. There aren’t even labels on the wooden cases of produce he keeps in the lowboy behind the sushi bar. Everything is handled and measured by touch, by taste, by memory, by following a system over and over again until it has now manifested itself as second nature to Kakinuma.
“I always tell people that simple is beautiful,” he says. Kakinuma – known to most as Kaki or Kaki-San – is a third generation sushi chef, but it would be a mistake to say that he followed in his family’s footsteps, or that he joined the family business. The passion is all his own, and he’s flown around the world to pursue it.
“Both my father and grandfather were sushi chefs, but the world of a sushi chef can be very small. A chef needs to discover more, a chef needs new experiences,” says Kakinuma. “My father strongly advised me not to stay, but to go on my own journey. To create my own restaurant; my own world.”
And so, a young Kakinuma made his way to Kyoto, where he worked as an apprentice at a traditional Japanese restaurant. There, he says, is where he learned that “preparation as well as presentation is true art.”
After his stint in Kyoto, a family friend introduced Kakinuma to Master sushi chef, Masahiro Yoshitake. Yoshitake saw something special in Kakinuma; in traditional Japanese culture, it’s extremely rare – some may even say unheard of – for a sushi Master of Yoshitake’s level to train an apprentice, but he did, and Kakinuma spent years under his wing at the famed Sushi Yoshitake in Ginza, Tokyo, which received three Michelin stars in 2012.
“Today, there are many foreigners living in Tokyo, but 10 or 15 years ago, there weren’t many at all. At that time, I couldn’t speak English – most Japanese living in Japan couldn’t – we could only communicate with Japanese customers and not the foreign customers,” Kikinuma recalls. “It was frustrating, and quite sad, because sushi is such an important part of our culture and tradition, but I couldn’t share that with the foreign customers. I felt really bad that they didn’t know what they were eating; what part of the fish, where it came from... they just ate sushi and left.”
With a strong desire to improve his English and share the art of sushi with a broader, more international audience, Kakinuma decided to take a risk and buy a one-way ticket to the United States, working in restaurants in New York and Atlanta while also learning English and becoming familiar with Western palates.
“It was a huge difference from working in Tokyo. To Americans at that time, sushi was a California roll,” Kakinuma recalls about working in the United States, where he remained for ten years until Master Yoshitakei reached out to Kakinuma about opening a sister branch of Sushi Yoshitakei in Hong Kong.
“He asked if I would be interested in heading the restaurant – of course, I said yes,” says Kakinuma. In 2012, the restaurant opened under the name Sushi Yoshitakei, but was quickly renamed Shikon to avoid confusion with the Tokyo branch. Following in the footsteps of its sister restaurant in Tokyo, Shikon received three Michelin star status in 2014, and has maintained its status in 2015, 2016 and 2017. “This has really been a dream come true,” says Kakinuma
“At Shikon, we use the exactly the same ingredients as our restaurant in Tokyo. Our menu is the same, and the taste of the sushi is the same. Even the cooking water we use is water from Japan. It makes a huge difference when cooking Japanese rice,” Kakinuma explains, adding that the rice he uses at Shikon is hand picked and blended by an expert rice sommelier, who “knows which rice is best at which age, and at from which farmer.”
Provenance is one of Kakinuma’s passions. Any compliment directed at him is immediately – but humbly, of course – rebutted with high praise for the fishermen who work tirelessly to procure some of Japan’s most exquisite marine bounty.
We soon learn that fishing is as much of an art to his trusted fishermen, as the art of sushi is to him. Every morning, Kakinuma’s faithful collective of fishermen in Japan send him photos of the day’s catch; there are photos of them lined up next to each other – “always look for a small head, and big eyes – these are the happy fish. Happy fish taste better,” he says matter-of-factly – as well as photos of their sliced innards, so that he can examine and determine the health of the fish. He points to a picture of one golden-eyed snapper’s split intestine and says, “see, this one’s insides are filled with whole shrimp. This one is a healthy, happy fish.”
It’s interesting to see how Kakinuma works; how he utilizes modern technology to holdfast to traditional methods and philosophies. He goes on the share the story of one fisherman who catches abalone for Shikon.
“Every day, he dives to catch the abalone piece by piece. He dives 16 metres down, grabs one abalone, and swims 16 metres back up. Most fishermen will bring their abalone straight to the market, but this man is different,” he explains. “Abalone accumulate a lot of sand, so he puts them in a tank for three days during which he feeds and cares for it. But the interesting thing with abalone is, they can only eat seaweed from exactly where they were found. So when he catches the abalone, he grabs the seaweed from where he found it, in order to feed it to the abalone every day for three days. In those three days, the sand washes away, the abalone gains weight, and the liver becomes very rich.”
The result is one of Kakinuma’s signature dishes – a dish of steamed, meaty abalone slices with a silky abalone liver sauce for dipping. It is the best abalone any of us have ever had, and yet unlike any abalone we have ever tried. Kakinuma serves us a small ball of sushi rice – “mix it with the leftover liver sauce, it’s like a risotto,” he instructs us – after all, he’s not one to waste food, or the efforts of his fisherman.
There are so many disciplines and details that go into the creation of Kakinuma’s seemingly simple fare – the octopus, another signature dish at Shikon, is massaged live for an hour to unlock flavor, texture and tenderness for yet another earth-shattering mouthful in Kakinuma’s progressively mind- blowing omakase.
“I enjoy sharing these stories so that people know about the ingredients, so that they appreciate the work that goes behind what they are eating,” says Kakinuma. “
Leaving Shikon, there is an overwhelming sense of satisfaction – and I don’t just mean feeling satiated – you leave Shikon, feeling satisfied in knowing that places like this, and chefs like Yoshiharu Kakinuma, still exist.
Sushi is very personal. It's about trust. I stand here in front of you, with no secrets and nothing to hide, and I make sushi with my naked hands - and I encourage my customers to also enjoy it with their hands. It's heart to heart, hand to hand.”