Willoughby Living

Where The Wallabies Dine

April 11, 2017

A series of serendipitous events and chance meetings have resulted in a wonderful union between Japan, Australia, rugby and food in Crows Nest.

Given the popularity of Japanese food in Australia, it’s no mean feat to claim the crown of the country’s longest running Japanese restaurant. Yet that is exactly what Shu Sugisaki and his team at Sapporo Japanese Restaurant in Crows Nest can boast of. The popular Willoughby Road eatery opened on the 17th of May 1987, and has been delighting diners with its traditional Japanese cuisine ever since.

Like any business that has survived and thrived for such a long period, their success is linked to excellent food, reliable service, but also their ability to adapt and change over the years. For Shu, innovation came in the form of one of his great passions – sport, and in particular, rugby union. Sapporo’s live screening of sporting events has become legendary in the area. They host every match of the Super Rugby Series, rugby international matches, State of Origin matches, soccer matches, even the Olympics. They are also well-known for screening sumo tournaments live from Japan each year; an event they say is just as popular with Aussies as it is with Japanese fans.

Shu came to Australia in 1980 to attend Griffith University in Queensland. Having played scrum half at Sophia University in Tokyo, he found himself in Brisbane without a rugby team to play for. One day, he spotted a man in a rugby jumper on his way to training and stopped to question him. “I didn’t even have rugby boots with me that day, but I followed him to training and became part of the team”. The team was Easts Rugby Union, and Shu went on to play for them. The friendships he made from the experience convinced him that rugby was a great connector of people and their various interests, and had a unique place in the Australian psyche.

 

*Shu in his rugby-playing days, and today (image on right: Kirsten Delaney)

Some years later, having returned to Japan to train as a chef, Shu and business partner, Nobuo Ishikawa, decided to open a Japanese restaurant in Sydney. They selected Crows Nest as a location because the Lower North Shore was home to many expat Japanese. Though there were Japanese restaurants in Australia when Sapporo opened in 1987, none have survived to this day. As Shu points out, “We believe we are the oldest Japanese restaurant in Australia that is still running on the same site and under the same management”.

One of the keys to their longevity, Shu believes, is the connections and relationships that have been forged with locals. “I had imagined our restaurant would be for the Japanese community here, but once we started I realised that was only part of it. The locals became our best resource. In order to get into this market you really have to be a community person, that’s the core of the business.” The restaurant’s reputation grew steadily over the years, and they were one of the first to impress diners with their daily fresh fish for sushi and sashimi – considered a unique and unusual delicacy in the 1980s.

In tandem with the restaurant’s growth was Shu’s passion for rugby, although he was now a spectator… and a Wallaby-supporting one at that. When former Wallabies, Waratahs and Brumbies coach (and Order of Australia recipient), Rod Macqueen, began dining regularly at Sapporo in the mid-1990s, the pair struck up a friendship that endures today. Says Macqueen, “I had been working over in Japan and had developed a liking for sushi and sashimi and I wondered into his Crows Nest restaurant one day. Shu is an amazing and caring person who has taken his love for rugby to extraordinary lengths. He revels in all the rugby matches and has an incredible knowledge of the game. There would always be someone from the rugby fraternity eating at the restaurant. I also remember a specific occasion when I took the Davis Cup team with John Fitzgerald and their wives to Shu’s prior to the event. The diners included Lleyton Hewitt and Major General Cosgrove, and we had a great night at Sapporo. Watching a game in the luxury of Shu’s restaurant is probably more enjoyable than being at the game!”

Since then, high-profile rugby personalities have flocked to Sapporo, including on several occasions the entire national team.  Footy jerseys have become commonplace when dining there, and, at their live rugby screenings, diners receive a Wallabies kamikaze-style headband with their meals. Regular Sapporo fans know to dress up in their team colours for the big matches, and the blurb with the selection of set menus jokes that ‘All Blacks fans pay double’.

*Shu with Wallaby superstars, past and present, dining in Sapporo.

Shu and his team are also proud to give back to the local community via their rugby connection. They are sponsors of Norths Rugby, and have held various fundraisers on behalf of Royal North Shore Hospital. On one occasion, Shu decided to auction a Wallabies jersey signed by every half back from the national side in its history. To collect over 20 signatures, he flew interstate, sent the jersey to France and Japan, and at one point arranged a rendezvous by the side of the road with Gary Grey – former Australian scrum half and country boy who had never even been through the Harbour Tunnel. “So I sent him a fax with a map indicating where to meet. It was along the Pacific Highway near Lane Cove and as I stood there in my Wallabies jersey, I see Gary and his mate waving the fax from outside the car window. It was a memorable way to meet and he then happily signed the jersey.”

Apart from sport, Sapporo (and Shu) are also well known in music circles for their regular jazz nights. Renowned musicians David Smith – “arguably the best jazz guitarist in Australia” according to Shu – and Craig Scott, Chair of the Jazz Unit at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, appear most months. Singer-songwriter Shu will often join them to sing a few numbers. He also heads to the studio once a year to record an album of both covers and original tracks.

Sapporo’s success shows no signs of slowing, and Shu is now busy with a second venture, managing Yukis at the Quay, which opened on the top level of the Overseas Passenger Terminal last year. Next month will be the Crows Nest site’s milestone 30th anniversary, which, Shu says, will be appropriately celebrated in true Sapporo fashion.

Sapporo Japanese Restaurant is located at 94 Willoughby Road Crows Nest.
Tel: (02) 9436 3435 www.sapporo.com.au

MORE ON SHU:

  1. I briefly worked as a translator and interpreted for Joh Bjelkie Peterson twice – I had no idea what he was talking about!
  2. I follow the Wallabies first and the Cherry Blossoms (the Japanese national rugby team) second. The All Blacks would be last on my list. I’m considering taking a tour to the Rugby World Cup in Tokyo in 2019.
  3. People say that we’re one of the Big 4 restaurants in Crows Nest; the others being Peacock Gardens, Fortuna Court and Stuyvesant’s House. It’s worth noting that all of these are also known by their owner’s names – Matthew (Peacock Gardens), Lee (Fortuna Court) and Rudi (Stuyvesant’s House). This highlight’s my belief that connecting with the community and becoming a true local is the key to success in Crows Nest and the Lower North Shore.