Is Naked Sushi All About the Nigiri or the Nudity?

Mark Scharaga, the "Naked Sushi King," sees the model as part of the aesthetic, not the main course itself. “We’re not selling sex—we’re selling an experience with a beautiful woman or man,” he claims.

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Oct 23 2017, 11:20am

Photo by Reuters/Toru Hanai

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES.

If sitting still for two hours straight sounds difficult, imagine doing it in the nude while covered in sushi. As a nyotaimori (or, if you're a man, nantaimori) model, this is simply the job description.

The Japanese practice colloquially known as "naked sushi" has somewhat mysterious origins—some date it back to the time of geisha houses in feudal Japan, while others say it became popular as a form of entertainment for organized crime groups. Regardless, it made its way to the United States sometime in the 1990s—about a decade after sushi crossed the Pacific.

Due partially to its seedier origins, nyotaimori has some overtly sexy associations that don't match up to the real thing. First of all, while the models are nude, they're usually off-limits as far as touching is concerned. Second, unless you're trying to get bargain naked sushi (not recommended) you're unlikely to get food poisoning or even eat sushi that's been sitting directly on someone's skin. Usually, the sushi is placed on banana leaves or another barrier. When customers request food with skin contact, reputable places will go so far as to test their models for hepatitis before going forward.

"Here in the United States, people have tried to make it an elevated experience," says Mark Scharaga, the owner and chef of a nyotaimori catering company. "We're trying to take it away from its sordid past into something far more elegant and distinctive." Though Scharaga's friends would often introduce him as "The Naked Sushi King" in the early days of his business, he says he changed the name to the Nyotaimori Experience to move away from a "low-brow crowd." He adds, "I'm focusing on people who care about cuisine and the quality of the sushi." It may seem like the naked woman lying underneath them would overshadow the rolls. But Scharaga sees the model as part of the aesthetic, not the main course itself. "We're not selling sex—we're selling an experience with a beautiful woman or man," he claims.

And there are certain challenges to working with a human being compared to, say, a plate. "You have different curves and contours that you have to manage to get the presentation [to] look the way you want to," Scharaga says. As a result, nyotaimori models tend to have firmer figures out of necessity—to keep sushi from rolling off them and onto the floor. Even the act of breathing is a variable to be negotiated. The last thing you want is for the model to sneeze.

While most people still haven't experienced nyotaimori for themselves, it has made appearances in popular culture. In 1991. it made mention in Showdown in Little Tokyo. Another notable example in recent years was when Samantha covered herself in sushi and waited for her lover in the 2008 Sex and the City movie. (It's unlikely that she followed proper food safety and handling practices.) The art of nyotaimori still seems like a rich person's fantasy—mysterious and unattainable. Scharaga wouldn't share his exact rates but says, "We get people who inquire and think it'll be $600-700, and it's never that." In addition to the cost of his sushi—which he sources sustainably and has to buy a few hours before the event—he has to pay for his labor and, of course, the sushi model herself.

Photo courtesy of the Nyotaimori Experience

Some nyotaimori detractors see it as an unwelcome form of objectification. "It's dehumanizing to be treated as a plate," one critic told The Seattle Times . Scharaga has heard similar complaints. He insists, however, that his models are treated respectfully (he also offers the option of male models for those who want them) and that there's never inappropriate touching at events. "Something I learned early on was to include a clause that we could pull our service of things got out of hand," Scharaga says. If a model tells him she's uncomfortable, the event is over.

Female naked sushi models may be seen as glorified sex workers to some, but for nyotaimori Emma Jade, the sexual aspect is secondary. "I get it," she says. "I'm here and I'm naked but the food is awesome and it's art." Though the job is easy for her—after the first anxious time, that is—Jade loves the fact that the events and crowd are always different. When she was first contacted to be a sushi model (she primarily does events for Nyotaimori Experience) she was fairly new to nude work. "To some extent, I looked at it as a way for me to expand my experience and a way to get more comfortable with my body." Now, she says, her confidence has increased exponentially. And though her friends at first thought her job was more than a little strange, they've come around as seeing it as just another thing she does. "My mom knows, too," Jade says, adding that her mother often posts comments on her nyotaimori photos saying, "That's my daughter!"

While Jade says that some people definitely focus on the nudity in front of them, "other people are like, 'You look gorgeous and this food looks gorgeous—let me appreciate it.'" Those are the type of guests she likes most.

Nyotaimori takes the marriage of food and sensuality to an extreme, but it's hardly the first to make the association. Just look at the swath of foods considered aphrodisiacs or the popular date idea of going out to dinner. Sharing food with another person is always intimate—whether or not you're both wearing clothes.

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