Tsunemitsu dreams of sushi. He must. He's 78 years old now and has been cooking rice and slicing fish for nearly 60 years. He's run his own restaurant, Tsunezushi, for 40 years. He's barely taken a holiday in that time, and still he says he has another 10 years at the helm left in him.
Tsunemitsu dreams of sushi in the same way Jiro Ono, the famed Tokyo master chef featured in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, must spend every hour of his life both waking and sleeping considering the preparation of seafood, the gentle shaping of rice, the presentation of the finest ingredients.
There's a big difference, however, between Tsunemitsu and Jiro. Jiro-san runs Tokyo's most famous high-end sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, where reservations are almost impossible to secure, and meals cost $400 a person. Tsunemitsu-san, meanwhile, peddles his sushi in the town of Hirosaki, high in the Tohoku region of Japan's main island. Most days you can wander into Tsunezushi and grab a place at the bar. A set meal of the finest sushi can cost as little as $15.
Tsunezushi is everything that's good about the idea of "B-kyu gurume", or B-class gourmet, a movement in Japan that rewards and promotes cooks and chefs across the country who make the sort of traditional, no-frills cuisine that will never be recognised by Michelin or the 50 Best. These are usually chefs who specialise in hearty, rustic dishes – the likes of ramen noodles, katsu curry, yakisoba – but also those who do affordable local versions of traditionally high-end cuisine.
Hence, Tsunemitsu and his Aomori-prefecture sushi. Age hasn't wearied the chef who stands grinning behind the counter as I take my seat and order the standard lunch set. Soon his long knife is flashing, perfectly parting a pink hunk of locally caught tuna, dabbing it with fresh wasabi and allowing it to recline across a bed of perfectly vinegared rice.
He lays it on the wooden counter before me, smiles, encourages me to eat, watches and laughs as I pick the morsel up with my hand in the traditional style, drag it quickly through a splash of soy sauce, and devour it.
The Tohoku region – the group of six rural prefectures to the north of Tokyo – has hundreds, if not thousands, of these B-class gourmet restaurants. So much of the cuisine in this area is intensely local and proudly cultivated. It's also very cheap, and very accessible.
Take Sakata, for example, a coastal town in the Yamagata prefecture where the specialty is ramen noodles served in a rich, pungent broth made from flying fish and kombu, which is boiled in large vats for days on end. Sakata's best iteration is served at Mangetsu, a down-home restaurant in a commercial part of the city, where workers pile in each lunchtime to slurp noodles and sip hot soup. A bowl costs ¥780, about $10. Perfect B-class gourmet fare.
Then there's Yokote, an otherwise unremarkable little town in the Akita prefecture, a place domestic tourists have been flocking to in recent years after a humble restaurant called Kamiya won second prize in Japan's annual B-1 Grand Prix, a festival celebrating B-class cuisine. This small shop, set next to a solar panel farm in the middle of an industrial estate, has been frying soba noodles and topping them with eggs for more than 60 years. And now, it's packed with hungry customers day in and day out.
It's easy to see why. The noodles are perfectly chewy, the sauce sweet and tangy. Just like Tsunemitsu in Hirosaki, the owner of Kamiya is in his late 70s, a man who works the grill and smiles and greets people as they arrive and waves as they leave.
His is the epitome of the Tohoku region's B-class gourmet cuisine: local, approachable, unpretentious, affordable. You find yourself dreaming about it long after you've left.
Qantas flies daily from the east coast of Australia to Tokyo, with onward connections throughout the Tohoku region. See qantas.com
Tsunezushi is located in Hirosaki, at 9-2 Shinkajimachi. Call +81 172 33 1873. Mangetsu is in Sakata, at 2-1 Higashinakanokuchimachi. Call + 81 234 22 0166. Kamiya is in Yokote, at 117-67 Oyashinmachi. Call +81 182 33 5575.
The writer was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation.