It could be an uncomfortable experience, enjoying sushi in the middle of an aquarium shop.
There are all those very-alive fish, just bubbling along while you enjoy a dish of very-recently-alive fish.
But Yuichi Fujita, 59, has made it work.
He is the owner of Fuji’s Sushi and Teriyaki along Jefferson Road in South Charleston. The tiny restaurant shares the building with Fujita’s other business, Fuji’s Reef Shop.
On one side of the small space, there are lights, tanks and chemicals for maintaining saltwater fish tanks, along with several tanks filled with exotic fish.
On the other, there’s a kitchen and a small seating area, including a four-seat counter where diners can eat in the blue light of a large burbling saltwater tank filled with colorful fish and swaying underwater plants.
“Japanese food, one thing that’s good, they put food and nature together,” Fujita said.
He keeps a folder of pictures ripped from Japanese-language museums, depicting restaurants with elaborate gardens or those built into picturesque landscapes. Fujita admires those restaurants and has captured some of that vibe with his shop.
When he opened the business in 2005, it was only supposed to be an aquarium store.
Fujita spent years working in kitchens before opening his own sushi restaurant, Fujita Express, in downtown Charleston. He grew tired of the restaurant business, however, and wanted to switch gears.
Some years before, he saw a saltwater tank in a pet shop and immediately fell in love.
He began researching the hobby, and although the Internet was a much smaller place in the early 2000s, Fujita was soon a self-made expert.
“I’m the kind of person, when you get in, that’s it.”
He installed a saltwater tank in his home, and then another and another.
His wife, Dawn, began to grow impatient with the fishtanks that were taking over their home—there were eventually so many aquariums they had to bring in contractors to upgrade the wiring—so Fujita decided to spin off his hobby into a business.
Things went swimmingly for a few years but business dropped off dramatically after the economy crashed in 2008, as people began cutting back on luxuries.
So Fujita decided to get back into the restaurant business. He built a kitchen in his shop and started doing to-go orders.
He soon had a sizable group of regular customers.
“Then people said, ‘why don’t you open a few seats?’”
Fujita added a few tables and a counter last year but kept the seating capacity low.
The restaurant is a small operation—Fujita and his wife, Dawn, who comes in around 5 p.m. after she leaves her day job, are the store’s only employees—but Fujita keeps it that way on purpose.
“I don’t want to deal with employees. I do everything. Lot of work, but less headaches.”
It gives him a close relationship with his customers.
“Pretty much every customer, I remember.”
He knows which flavors they like and those they do not. There’s a lawyer who doesn’t want anything green on his plate. There’s another customer that can’t stand green onions or anything with a similarly strong taste.
Some regulars trust Fujita so implicitly they don’t even order.
“Some customers, they’ll just say ’make me something,’” he said.
Fujita doesn’t think he’s that impressive, however. It’s part of his job to have a good relationship with his clientele. He used to work with a bartender who could remember the usual drinks for a few hundred regular customers.
“If you do it a long time, that’s your skill,” he said. “I have a good long-term memory.”
Running a small shop also gives Fujita the freedom to take time off. The store is closed this week while he goes fly fishing in Pocahontas County.
Fujita says he didn’t have any hobbies when he first arrived in West Virginia about 20 years ago but wanted something to occupy his time outside the restaurant.
“I didn’t want to be like my father. Work, work, work,” he said. “You want to enjoy your life.”
He saw a travel brochure with photos of fly fishermen and was intrigued. It wasn’t long before his obsessive nature took hold. He drove to Pocahontas County every week to practice casting in the trout-filled Cranberry River. He learned to tie his own flies.
“It’s a beautiful way to catch fish.”
He enjoys stepping into his waders and standing in the middle of a river, witnessing nature from a vantage point few people take time to enjoy.
You could say it’s another way to appreciate the balance between food and nature, except . . .
“I’m 100 percent catch and release,” Fujita said.