Hark and behold! In the distance…there it was… Tsukiji. The King Kong (Donkey Kong?) of fish markets, and object of my longing contemplation since I read about it in National Geographic nearly 20 years ago. The spirit of a quote from the article still lives in my head: the market doesn’t smell like fish. Everything is sold and out the door too quickly.
With a day left before the start of the OpenStack summit, and a critical mass of coworkers now in town, this was the perfect morning to take advantage of our waning jet lag, and depart early for the spectacle.
Well, at least the spectacle that didn’t require waking up at 2am. In order to observe the famous tuna auction, visitors start queuing up at 3 a.m. Only the first 120 people in line are allowed in to watch. We chose the more sane option, which still exposed us to a panoply of sensory stimulations.
Aside from the wholesale buying and selling of fresh fish that occurs here, the market is also host to a large number of food vendors that have at their disposal a massive array of ingredients for preparation right from the same market.
After wandering around the market for a while and tasting a few things including fresh sashimi, and boiled clams finished with a blowtorch, we found ourselves back on the main street outside the market. I was lucky to be traveling with a couple who had been to this market during a previous visit to Tokyo. They remembered the name of the off-the-beaten-path sushi shop they had eaten at. Using our cell phones we were able to navigate back through the maze of passageways to visit the area of the market hosting the top shelf sushi shops that draw lines starting as early as 4 a.m.
The area around Sushi Dai was full of restaurants, and crowds of people waiting to be seated.
I took this photo in line as we were snaking our way towards the front entrance in a manner similar to waiting for a popular ride at Disneyland. The woman with the blond braids visible at the left in the photo below was part of a group that took the last train to the Tsukiji district last night around midnight. They hung out at an all night coffee shop for a couple of hours before making their way to get in line for the fish auction around 3 a.m. They were one of the lucky 120 people that got to witness the famous spectacle. Although they seemed a little worse for wear this morning, it sounded like it was worth the effort.
I was so taken with everything going on around me that I actually have no idea how long we were waiting in line. I believe it was around an hour. Just before entering the restaurant I was able to snap this photo through the glass window of the establishment we were about to enter. Or, half of it. There was a dividing wall and two separate entrances that lead to two separate seating sections. Half of our group was going to be seated on one side, and half on the other. At the last moment, a group of three got up right next to where I had just been seated, and we were able to merge our party.
A couple of months ago I saw the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. In my mind, that film depicted a level of culinary experience that I would never even dream of participating in. The quality, attention to detail, and overall vibe that was portrayed in that film seemed like something from another universe. Luckily, as it turns out, compared to anything that I have previously experienced in my life, the meal that we had this morning met and exceeded any imaginings that I had conjured from watching that film. I guess that’s the beauty of adding in smell, taste, touch (and heart). We were lucky enough to be seated at the sushi bar next to the head chef, and probably owner of the restaurant that has been around since the 1960s. His friendliness, warmth, skill, and attention to detail and service was absolutely mind-blowing. Even without sharing too many words in a common language, we all shared such a sweet connection. I was fiddling on my phone to find out how to say delicious in Japanese. After finding the word Oishi, it turns out that he had been asking us if we thought the food was good all along. Oishi? He had been asking, but had been met with our confused faces. When I returned the phrase oishidesu! (It is delicoius!) he absolutely lit up and we volleyed the word back and forth a few times, his eyes twinkling, his thumb raised in the universal gesture of right on!
I declared that meal the Jimi Hendrix of Sushi.
Since we were all now fulfilled and ready to die spending the rest of eternity amongst the memories of our last meal, all that was left to do was wander around the market taking in the dizzying array of vendor stalls, which also included fresh fruit and vegetables. All the while, avoiding dozens of mechanical carts whizzing around at top speed, somehow avoiding people and inanimate objects.
This guy below decorated his work space with a totally different type of nudie calendar: Men of Sumo.
One does not simply eat a meal like that without following it up with something caffeinated to counteract the jet-lag food coma. We scoped out a coffee shop on the way back to the train station. It turned out to be quite fancy inside, with tiny little seats and tables that made me feel quite large compared to the average user. For some reason the only thing that I thought to take a photo of was this napkin.
Back on the train, I wondered if these ads, photographed in the train car, and near the station, make sense if you’re Japanese?
After the market, a couple of people from our group returned to the hotel to prep for the conference. The rest of us went to Shinjuku. A couple people still needed local cell-data SIM cards. We were at a massive electronics shop for about an hour, troubleshooting the SIM installation without a common language to sort it out the details. After that was figured out, we decided to find a spot for lunch.
We went looking for a famous local ramen shop, but what we found was a doorway into another reality.
And that is something that is deserving of its own post. To be continued…