April 1, 2011. Reading back through these entries getting them ready to post I am reluctant. In one month’s time the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis has instantly rendered them out-of-date. But I hope that in small way they record a happier time in Tokyo and remind us what Japan is capable of and what it will become again.
February 28, 2011. Before this trip the one thing I wanted to see in Tokyo was the Tsukiji fish market; the largest tuna auction in the world. Monday through Saturday the world’s biggest and best fish flow through this market. It has become so popular with tourists that the auction itself is restricted to 140 spots at a viewing platform for which the queue starts at 4:30AM. The wholesale market, on the other hand, doesn’t open to the public until 9:00AM. Not needing to stand around in the rain on this frigid morning (suddenly our beautiful weather has turned seasonal) we decided to skip the tuna auction, sleep in and just visit the wholesale market. (Note that at the time of editing, April 1, 2011, the Tsukiji market is closed to visitors due to the March 11 earthquake.)
Yumi has frequently warned us that Tokyo lacks sufficient signs in English, or even Roman script. But what it lacks in signs is more than made up for with its abundance of maps. Not being able to actually “read” the maps we match up landmarks and eventually find the fish market. You would think that such a huge complex would be easy to find, but it is actually at the back of a warehouse structure with signs only in Japanese. Naturally there is a map posted at the entrance. Big clue that we are in the right place.
More white Styrofoam boxes than I have ever seen in my life, all different sizes containing fish to be shipped around the world. This is the end of the work day and they are busy finishing their packing and cleaning up. If you’re not careful you could easily get your shoes sprayed with water. We are struck by the immense size of the warehouse. Yes you read it’s the biggest in the world, but it’s a scale that can only be appreciated by walking through aisle after aisle of Styrofoam boxes and still not covering the entire market. We are lucky to catch a couple of packers filleting a large tuna with a head the size of an ottoman. It takes the two of them to hold the blade of their thin, six foot long knife steady.
Still raining and getting colder, it’s time for breakfast. Yes, we have to eat fish, but we are reluctant. Our bodies are just not ready to eat raw fish at this time of morning. We search the small restaurants in front of market looking for something other than fish. Noodles perhaps? Are you serious? You don’t come to the Tsukiji market and eat noodles. We come to our senses and stop in a sashimi bowl shop. A little bigger than some of the others, the restaurant is a series of bars with counter-style seating and lots of pictures of dishes and prices on the walls and menu. The eager young server, who although speaks far better English than we speak Japanese, is barely intelligible. He really wants us to order the special. With no pictures to offer, we hesitate. I tell him I want “uni” and point to a picture. He lights up and points to the Kanji written on the menu and says, “uni, uni, very sweet, very sweet”. Ok, I’m sold. Don, not usually a fan of uni (sea urchin), gives in as well.
Minutes later we are presented with two bowls of the most beautiful pile of uni I have ever seen. There were other components to the bowl, an incredible fresh large whole prawn and succulent tuna tartare, but it is the uni than shines. Soft and delicate they look like small orange tongues. Not the most appetizing description, I know. But the appearance is important as the meat has such a delicate texture that it easily turns to mush if handled to roughly. It is the flavor and texture, however, that tantalizes. Soft in the mouth with a creamy, mildly fishy and slightly sweet flavor. For me there is nothing better and here I have in front of me not only the freshest, sweetest uni that I have ever tasted, but more than I normally consume in a year. Pinch me!
I’d like to end with the lingering taste of uni, but I’m compelled to share a short incident on the subway back to the hotel. Since we were just going to the fish market that day, we didn’t buy another metro day pass opting for the cheaper option of four single-trip tickets, two there and two back. This has worked in every other city with a single-trip ticket option. But not in Tokyo. When we tried to use the single-trip tickets we had purchased at the station near the hotel for the return trip home, the tickets were rejected. The agent, speaking Japanese and pointing to the ticket machine indicated that we needed to buy tickets at this station in order to return. What a crazy system. But OK, things aren’t as they seem and we bought two more return tickets leaving the others with the agent. The delightful surprise was that when approached the control gate for the second time, the agent, holding the two tickets that we had originally bought, said “mistake?” We replied, “Yes, yes, mistake”. And he handed us back the money we had paid for them. You gotta love these people.
So, they don’t speak a lot of English. Why should they? With all the friendly encounters, the abundance of maps and the fabulous food, this has been a delightful urban adventure and we will definitely be coming back.