Masato’s motenashi

Bret Hartman/Vail DailyMasato, sushi chef and owner of Masato's Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar, removes a large piece of Alaskan king crab from it shell Monday in Avon.

Masato Okamoto never sacrifices motenashi.

When a server places a sushi order down on the bar in front of him, Masato looks at the table, noting the guests’ desires. Are they really hungry? Are they sushi lovers? Do they have children and can’t wait too long? Is it old friends chatting away? He tailors every request to the patrons’ needs.

Motenashi is a Japanese word meaning being attentive in a very specific way, really focused.

“Japanese people are really sensitive about respect, to show that you care, that you’re paying attention to others,” Masato said.

In a time when so many business owners and restaurateurs feel pressure to compromise their own values to make an extra buck, Masato stays true to his beliefs, taking no short cuts ” even if it means an 80-hour work week.

Support Local Journalism

This is the philosophy Masato has observed behind the sushi counter every day for 30 years ” the last 10 in Masato’s Japanese Cuisine and Sushi Bar in Avon’s Chapel Square ” and perhaps what keeps his patrons coming back for more.

“I don’t really believe high-quality sushi can be a chain restaurant. It’s very personal,” the chef said.

Masato is fast with the knife, priding on the fact that he hardly ever cuts his fingers. He spends lots of time carefully skinning cucumbers, carving long, thin strips and chopping them to later put in the rolls, wrapping up the day’s fish delivery to keep it fresh after cutting what he’ll use for lunch.

He keep his sushi practice traditional, visible in the decor of the restaurant with paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and Zen-like wooden tables, as well as preserving Japanese ingredients in the food he prepares.

Thanks to our modern shipping system, Masato is able to maintain his standard of food, quickly dispeling the myth that restaurants near the water have better fish, and thus better sushi.

“Just because you’re around the coastline doesn’t mean you can get the fish,” he said. “Half the stuff you have to get from Japan: eel, yellowtail, octopus.”

To keep the sushi fresh, Masato says the trick is time and temperature. He gets fish delivered every week day, and keeps it slightly frozen. Each fish requires a different temperature: the leaner the fish, the higher the temperature. He says everyone has access to the same quality of fish.

“It’s the chef skill ” period. It’s how much the chef cares,” Masato said. “You have to put a little love into your food.”

With the increasing popularity of sushi in the United States, (Americans eat more sushi than the Japanese) sushi chefs in the United States are taking sushi further and further in the culinary spectrum.

“I like to keep it closer to traditional Japanese,” Masato said.

“Strawberry in a roll with creme sauce on top with no Japanese ingredients in it whatsoever: It sure looks like sushi, it sure tastes like sushi, but it isn’t sushi.”

Perhaps Masato’s traditional ways stem from his affair with sushi starting as a young boy in Kyoto, Japan.

Masato first encountered the Asian fare when he stepped into a sushi kitchen at the age of 14 to wash dishes, tired of his newspaper delivery job. It wasn’t common in Japan for a boy his age to work, but Masato wanted to help support his single mother.

Within a year, he was cooking. But back then, a sushi chef wasn’t regarded highly.

“Being a sushi chef wasn’t a respectable job,” he said.

The chefs who specialized in Japanese cuisine viewed sushi chefs as incapable of cooking anything other than sushi, as sushi is just one element to dining in Japan.

“There used to be a big line between a sushi chef and a Japanese chef and now that line is disappearing,” he said.

Masato already felt like a black sheep in Japan, he said. There were many unspoken traditions that he neither understood nor agreed with. For example, facial hair and long hair were looked down upon. He wanted the freedom to be himself.

“There’s really no explanation for it, but people just didn’t respect you for. Things you can’t figure out the reason for really bother me,” Masato said.

He was impassioned to leave Japan, a country the size of California, and explore what the United States had to offer.

What he found was an opportunity to use his skills in the kitchen.

After touring the country in a Greyhound bus, the 24-year-old Masato settled in Tucson, Ariz. At the time, there was one Japanese restaurant there and four in Phoenix (today there are more than 70). Masato saw it as an opportunity to open a sushi bar with a friend.

In 1994, he saw another opportunity in the Vail Valley, with only 15 Japanese restaurants in Colorado (now there are nearly 60).

Masato’s sushi bar was the first business in Avon’s Chapel Square in 1995. A few years later he opened a second in Summit County.

“Everyone thinks America is a free country, that’s how they think in Japan,” he said.

Upon his move to the United States, Masato said he never set out to chase the American Dream, he had a dream all his own.

Perhaps success, whether personally or professionally, begins with motenashi toward one’s self.

Staff Writer Laura A. Ball can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 619, or

Vail, Colorado

Support Local Journalism