Noe Valley Voice March 2011

Of Butoh and the Beatles

In an Octopus’s Garden at Tamasei Sushi

By Nicole Wong 

Hiroko Tamano stands surrounded by the Beatles and butoh mementos she and her husband Koichi have sprinkled throughout their tiny sushi bar on 24th Street.     Photo by Pamela Gerard

At Tamasei Sushi bar, the eel nagiri and the salmon roll pair perfectly with the music of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

“Whenever I’m in here, I play these tunes,” says co-owner Hiroko Tamano, as “Here Comes the Sun” pours through the speakers in the tiny restaurant.

It’s not unusual for Hiroko to sing and dance to the music, or sip sake along with her customers. “The songs’ words are simple and forward with positive energy,” she says, and the good vibes help customers enjoy their food.

As a young woman in Japan in the ’60s, Hiroko was swept up in Beatlemania. Her favorite Beatles song, she says, is “Yellow Submarine.” She considers it an “international anthem.”

“Little kids to grandpas know that song,” says Hiroko, who greets and serves patrons while her husband, Koichi Tamano, mans the sushi bar.

What diners may not know is that Tamasei’s Beatles-loving owners are also world-renowned masters of butoh, a form of avant-garde Japanese dance.

The couple, who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, are direct disciples of butoh’s creator, Tatsumi Hijikata, and are credited with being the first to bring the style—with its slow controlled movements, white body paint, and abstract physical symbolism—to the Western world.

Butoh and the Beatles are always in the air at Tamasei.

Something in the Way They Move

Located on 24th Street near Vicksburg, the sushi bar has been called “kitschy,” “down-home,” and “cramped” in online reviews. But that doesn’t quite capture its essence.

At Tamasei, the typical roles of server and customer hardly apply. Here, one must resign control to the general mood of the night and the big personalities of the staff.

Elbow to elbow with her customers, Hiroko has free range to strike up conversations or insert herself into others’ in progress. (Reporter: How did you hear about Tamasei? Customer: I found this place on Yelp. Hiroko: You have Apple computer?)  

Koichi Tamano, Hijikata’s principal dancer, and whom Hiroko refers to simply as “Poppa,” keeps his frizzy gray hair in a bun atop his head, which is ringed with a rolled-up band of cloth. He wears black leather pants, though it’s unclear if it’s in the name of fashion or knife safety. When not slicing sushi, Koichi walks around the restaurant wearing a colorful patchwork jacket over a worn T-shirt, muttering in Japanese, seemingly unaware of his diners, yet with a sharp intensity in his eyes. He is elusive, almost untouchable.

Hiroko is more outwardly friendly, even goofy. She wears men’s striped oxford shirts over sparkly turtlenecks and pink pants, and welcomes guests with, “Sit any place you like, and make yourself comfortable.”

Her English is charmingly imperfect, so she often catches you off guard with her insight and wisdom.

“The skin is like a bubble,” she says. “We have a whole ocean inside of us. We must feed it right and treat it right and give it nutrients.”

What some might perceive as eccentricities are living, breathing examples of butoh.

“The Tamanos are kind, wise, spiritual, and committed,” says Chef Daniel, who has worked at Tamasei for the past year and a half. “They are filled with gratitude to the fish and vegetables while cutting them. To slice the fish is to transmit energy that is flowing through you. I have been taught to treat vegetables as beings. We give thanks to the dishwasher be­cause it is key to our restaurant running smoothly.”

Come Together, Right Now

The Tamanos have served classic Japanese sushi in Noe Valley since 2006. Dishes are elegant in their presentation, emphasizing the quality and freshness of the ingredients. Before Tamasei, Koichi and Hiroko owned the sushi restaurant Country Station in the Mission.

The location of Tamasei also has a significant history. It was once home to Fusai Ponne’s Matsuya Restaurant, which is rumored to be the oldest sushi bar in all of San Francisco, and certainly in Noe Valley. (It was open for almost 30 years, even enduring a car crash into the empty restaurant one unfortunate night in May of 2002.)

By the lived-in look of the interior, Tamasei is part time-warp and part time-out from reality. The menus are hand-drawn, and the chairs are the standard steel fold-up variety, but reupholstered with 1960s fabric cushions that Hiroko fashioned herself. There are only five tables in the whole place, a bar that seats about seven people, and one narrow aisle to walk in between.

“Sushi in the sky with diamonds,” reads a T-shirt on the wall, a gift from a friend. Posters, pinned in a seemingly haphazard way, and strings of twinkling lights, hung from jutting corners, create a comfy cluttered feeling.

But looking closer, you’ll notice the pictures on the walls are of Koichi himself, in costume with his hair down and wild. Glossy flyers announce his appearance in past butoh festivals and shows around the world, in famous theaters and museums. A second look at the giant green and black portrait that covers almost an entire wall reveals Koichi’s face in its wide brushstrokes.

True stars, Hiroko and Koichi have taught butoh for over 30 years. They direct the Harupin-ha Butoh Dance Company, which performed a piece with over 50 dancers in early December at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Koichi also performed on Dec. 26 with his good friend Kitaro, the world-famous Japanese musician. “Whenever Kitaro is in town, he always visits our restaurant,” says Chef Daniel. “He likes to sit at the bar.”

Speaking Words of Wisdom

On a recent Wednesday night at Tamasei, the mood is light as two men with full plates of sushi chat animatedly with Chef Daniel. Another is singing along to “Eight Days a Week,” and ordering sake after sake. (Later it is revealed he lives next door.) A couple talks quietly and sips a soup of root vegetables, ginger, and miso.

“It’s a little nook—unique, authentic, small, and family-run,” says Noe Valley resident Mike Ero. “We locals like to protect it. It’s exceedingly rare to find sushi of this caliber. The positive vibe is warm and comfortable, and that translates into the food.”

Customer J.R. Fisher agrees. “There’s such passion and energy in here. It’s like a hidden place, and doesn’t feel like San Francisco.” Fisher, a regular customer and nine-year resident of Noe Valley, favors the dragon roll, though Chef Daniel has pushed him to expand his palate and try new things such as fish head (which “wasn’t so bad”).

To fully appreciate the dining experience at Tamasei is to understand that butoh, and the Tamanos’ ability to live consciously and with insight at all times, underscores everything—the restaurant and themselves.

“I really love the word ‘sensational’ because it has to do with the whole body’s reaction, not just your eyes,” says Hiroko, while doing a little shoulder shimmy.

Some people feel this way about their sushi, but to Hiroko, it’s the Beatles that are sensational.