Tsukiji Fish Market

(Note: This was Day 4 of an overwhelming 15 day trip to Japan. This entry seemed to be the easiest to write, so it’s the first one I’m posting. I hope to travelogue the entire trip before my recollections escape me.)

Arriving at Tsukiji

The iconic Tsukiji Fish Market was the top item on my must-see list, especially with the impending closure of the current location. My knowledge of the market is limited to what I saw in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, along with the occasional blog photos/entries of the neighbouring sushi bars. We had hoped to witness the spectacle of the fish auction, where fishmongers bid on the morning’s tuna haul. Most guidebooks and websites recommend showing up an hour before the auction, as the line begins to form at 4:30. Daily admission to observe the tuna auction are limited to 120 per day (60 people per session, at 5:30 and 6:15). I had friends who were already in line that morning — arriving at 4:06am, they were already 75th in line; by 4:20am, the line was closed.

We roll up to the market entrance at 4:30am, where other tourists had already gathered. With some signage in English, they indicated that we were free to visit the outer markets, where we could find the sushi bars, vegetables, and other culinary items/tools. The fish market, however, was not open to the public until 9am. At least officially, that was the statement. We started towards the direction of the outside markets, taking in the balletic whirlwind of pedestrians, carts, trucks, and mopeds.

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We passed this imposing mountain of styrofoam containers, and the day morning had only just started.

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Led by our fearless friend Eugene, we infiltrated the sacred sanctum of seafood, the interior market. While officially restricted before 9am, there were probably a small handful of other tourists also in this market (though no more than 5-6 others).

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It turns out that we entered the market through the back entrance, via Kachidoki Gate on Harumi dori. The blue X marks our cab’s drop-off point, as we walked along the dotted line towards the outer market, but sneakily detoured into the intermediate/interior market.

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Infiltrating The Inner Market

Words do no justice to how overwhelming and endless this market seemed. Rows upon rows of seafood vendors, with no signage or obvious geographic markets to indicate where we were. These rows of vendor stalls followed a gentle curve along the building, intersected by 6 or 7 wide laneways for motorized carts and trolleys. The vendor rows were roughly two people-width wide, and it’s easy to see why the market discourages tourists from disrupting the organized chaos. We managed to stay out of harm’s way, only getting shoved aside by one frustrated vendor making his way through a brief bottleneck.

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Traversing these laneways was always an adventure, awaiting Frogger-like opportunities to weave between vehicles. The drivers heeded pedestrians no mind, slowing down just enough to avoid collisions, but never at a standstill, always in perpetual movement.

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As we walked, fishmongers would rarely take a second glance at us, much less a first. They’re gruff, sporting galoshes, slinging a hefty black smock. Some kept warm with toques, others with a cigarette dangling from a stern frowning mouth. The look is so iconic, there was Tsukiji-branded merchandise featuring a fishmonger mascot, wearing that exact ensemble. Buyers and sellers logged their sales on small ledgers, though these interactions only happened during the later half of our visit.

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Anyone who’s been to a Chinese supermarket can attest to the smell, or stench, of seafood. I’ve never had issues with the smell, and I was fully braced to be walloped by that intense olfactory assault. Most chefs will tell you that the pungent smell of seafood only happens if it’s not fresh. Despite the cartons of water sloshing on the floor, and the countless variety of fish, crustaceans and mollusks, there was never an unpleasant scent the entire morning.

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There was certainly temptation to purchase and binge on a tray of sea urchin, if only I had brought a pair of chopsticks with me. Trays upon trays, tanks upon tanks of aquatic species I’ve never even heard of before. Without exaggeration, the sheer variety and volume of seafood was overwhelming, and in time, numbing. After walking through 3 or four rows of vendors, I was no longer sure if we were retracing our steps, experiencing deja vu, or the subjects of an elaborate Tsukiji prank involving repositioning vendors.

Styrofoam containers were ubiquitous — a vendor strolls through the market, stylishly slings a styrofoam box over his back.

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By 6am, frozen tuna began rolling in, literally, on trolleys. These ocean tuna needed the combined lifting of two or three men. In some cases, it was easier to carve the tuna on trolleys or wooden pallets, though that still required significant teamwork. Most of the tuna tails have been sliced off — tuna bidders would inspect the fish before bidding at the auction, feeling the texture of the exposed flesh, and gauging the meat’s translucence with a flashlight.

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The fishmongers were intensely focused on their work, whether carving tuna with arm-length blades, or filleting finger-length fish.

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On our way out of the interior market, we marveled at the monstrous stacks and piles of styrofoam.

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Devouring Daiwa Sushi

The activity started to die down in the market by around 6:30am, with fewer vehicles rushing across our paths. We were both hungry and numb, comatose from the bludgeoning of sights and sounds. We trekked out of the market, passing by towering heaps of empty containers, and towards the public market. Made up of 7 lanes of shops and stores, the busiest was the lane featuring the top 2 sushi bars, Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa.

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My friends, who attended the auction that morning, went off the beaten path to dine at the sushi bar flanked/sandwiched between Sushi Daiwa and Sushi Dai. The line-up was far shorter, the prices slightly cheaper, and sushi looked/gleamed just as succulent/meaty/chubby/generous/juicy. Lining up at Sushi Daiwa, we found that they actually owned two venues, side-by-side; each only had room for the sushi bar itself, with 10 stools, so cramped that backpacks had to be kept in a separate area.

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The allure of food voyeurism drew me to the windows, watching the chefs place piece after piece of sushi in front of the customers. I tried to contain my head-shaking and eye-rolling, trying not to cringe whenever tourists recklessly dunk their sushi in soy sauce.

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We opted for the 3500Yen omakase sushi, which seemed to be the most common selection here. There may have been a 5500Yen omakase sushi set available as well, but we opted to be more economical.

Each chef was responsible for the handful of patrons in front of them.  Mostly stationary in their posts, fully sufficient in their own mis-en-place, rarely would they get in each others’ way. The entire restaurant would be served and cleared in waves, Space Invaders dispatched with volleys of sushi ammunition.

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Each pair of fish would be hand-placed on our wooden trays. The service was reasonably paced, a new pair of nigiri sushi delivered as we cleared the preceding pair. Occasionally, our preoccupation with foodtography and attempts to savour and imprint to memory would cause backlogs.

The starter miso soup was rich with tiny clams – in fact, it was predominantly a clam broth, its natural bitterness deftly balanced by sweetness and saltiness of the light miso. Calling this miso soup would be a disservice – both components of this hybrid contribute equally to its whole.

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The first pair of sushi was a bold chuotoro (medium tuna belly) and a mild ika (squid). The chuotoro was the most memorable, with texture and flavour that you could taste. Rather than the usual slightly metallic, firm lean tuna, the chuotoro was a lot more mild in metallic flavour, with a light fattiness and creaminess, requiring only the occasional chew. The ika was pre-brushed with soy sauce, as were most of the other sushi. 4 months later, it’s hard to recall the details, but I remember it being cooked just done, crunchy without being chewy.

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A pairing of ebi (cooked shrimp) and maguro (tuna) followed. Both as expected — fresh, great firm texture, but neither surprising – great fresh ingredients, not a single complaint.

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6 pieces of rolls appeared – 4 pieces of maguro (tuna), with 2 pieces of ikura (salmon roe). My memories of the ikura are almost as impactful as those of the chuotoro. It may be the first time I’ve had ikura in a maki/roll, as opposed to the traditional nigiri/gunkanmaki style (atop rice, wrapped in an oval ring of nori). The delivery as a maki is far less overwhelming than nigiri, and there’s an appropriate balance between the rice, nori, and the sparser amount of roe.

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Tamago and uni joined the party. The tamago was competent, and the uni was as fresh as I’ve ever had. Again, as fresh as expected, but I couldn’t pinpoint any specific “wow” sensation.

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Anago (seawater eel) and Kampachi (amberjack) rounded out our meal. This was the first time I had anago — it had a substantial meatiness, and needed far less seasoning and cooking, compared to unagi.

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The meal was perfect – every ingredient stood on their own, and a few items even exceeded my expectations and left a lasting imprint. It’s definitely worth the effort and extremely reasonable price to dine here.  Reflecting back, everything was flawless, I can’t call it mind-blowing – which really frustrates me, and I feel I’m not doing the restaurant justice.

Scouring The Outer Market

On our first steps out of from Daiwa Sushi, we came across  wasabi root vendor. It looked like there were a few different varieties and price points for these. I had definitely considered buying a root to nibble on. I’m not sure if restaurants typically used grated wasabi, or opted for the powdered form. In fact, I think all three sushi restaurants I went to simply applied the wasabi on our behalf, under the fish, rather than leaving it to the customers.

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I’ve seen plenty of bonito flakes in my time, but never looked into how they were manufactured. The smokey fishiness, looking reminiscent of pencil shavings, are shaved so thin, that steam from the food will often make these flakes dance and twirl. At this particular Tsukiji vendor, they sold several varieties of bonito flakes, all made on the premises. They feed dried/smoked bonito fish into the machine on the right, churning out handfuls of the bright pink shavings, to be weighed and sold in airtight packages.

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Tamago, a block of mildly sweet egg, is not an easy dish to make. The egg is folded on itself again and again, to create multiple layers, so that it’s evenly cooked throughout, without overcooking the edges. Of no surprise, they have their own dedicated shop, with variations like eggs with crab meat or other herbs.

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At a glance, I thought this gentleman was digging through crates of vinyl records.  Of course, dried seasoned seaweed would be sold here at the outer market, alongside all these other sushi accompaniments/mainstays/tools/equipment. It was very cute that every specific good had its own dedicated store — nori, bonito, fishmongering equipment, wasabi root.

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Many restaurants showcase their menu selection in a large storefront window display, from ramen to tempura to sushi.  These displays would have plastic replicas of their dishes, along with description and prices.  It’s not something that’s taken off anywhere else in the world, at least, not to the same prevalence as in Japan. It was no surprise that they would have dedicated stalls selling plastic replicas. While some of these can be found as magnets in souvenir stores, the ones here are definitely for replica purposes, and feature some very specific sushi types.

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I was told that there is a large strawberry industry in Japan, with many regional varieties grown in highly specialized facilities . I picked up a strawberry mochi (ichigo daifuku) from a stall, mainly for the novelty and unsure what to expect. The exposed nib is a cute way to differentiate it from other mochis. I was absolutely unprepared for the burst of strawberry fragrance and flavours, and the strawberry itself was shockingly ripe, tender, and sweet. I was equally surprised at how well red bean paste (anko) and strawberry complement each other — both bold enough to play equally prominent parts in the taste. The juiciness of the strawberry danced and swirled in an otherwise one-note anko, and the moisture and tenderness playing against the smoothness of the paste, chewiness of the mochi.  Incidentally, I had picked up red bean Kit Kat bars, and red bean and milk chocolate also go well together, resulting in a slightly grittier, earthier, and less sweet chocolate.

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Of course, there were also a significant number of restaurants, catering to visitors and locals alike, and I wish we had a lot more stomach space to try them all.  By around 8:30, many of these restaurants had line-ups upwards of 20 people, even for ramen or other non-sushi places.

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Parting Thoughts

On our way out of Tsukiji, we passed these wonderfully illustrated signs near the proper main gate. It slowly sunk in how lucky we were, realizing that our taxi driver had dropped us off at the less secure back entrance.

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It was only 8:45am, and while people were still making their way to work, we already had a full day’s adventure.

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I would put the market visit as one of my top 3 moments in Japan.