Overview of Japan posts:
Japan 1: Welcome to Tokyo! (and a killer okonomiyaki)
Japan 2: Yokohama and Omuraisu
Japan 3: What Makes Japan One Of A Kind
Japan 4: Special Japanese Neighborhoods + Those Famous Food Floors
Japan 5: A Gourmet Japanese Lunch + Roppongi Hills
Japan 6: Kyoto (1st installment, 2nd installment)
Japan 7: Disneyland and DisneySea
Japan 8: Tsukiji Fish Market & Tsukiji Neighborhood
A visit to Tsukiji Market is best paired with a sushi breakfast. After seeing all that fish, I’m hankering for seafood so fresh it wriggles. There are several sushi bars and kissaten (coffee shops) located in and around the market. They open around five am and close around noon. Judging from the lines outside these restaurants, some are obviously way more popular than others. One such place is so crowded (see above photo) that people are actually jostling for a space in line. To a tourist like myself, it’s a waste of time since there are surely other equally good places.
After canvassing a few sushi-yas (sushi places), my Bin and I decide on one that has a good mix of customers and free tables. We sit at the counter and one waiter, judging our tentativeness, hands us the English menu. I’ve noticed that almost all itamae (sushi chefs) are stern looking and that they’re wielding knives so sharp they gleam malevolently doesn’t help matters much. But they only look that way and after pointing out what we’d like, the itamae promptly goes about making the sushi and then plonks it on the marble ledge in front of us.
Because we’re in Japan, my Bin and I pull out all the stops and order the best sushi we know: toro, the most tender part of the tuna which is buttery and rich; uni (sea urchin, my absolute favorite); tamago, which is really just an egg omelet that you can get anywhere but my Bin says it’s “different in Japan”; ama-ebi, sweet raw shrimp that sounds stomach-turning but when fresh is absolutely silky; and rolls of tuna dotted with twinkling balls of ikura, salmon roe.
Since I’m here in Tsukiji, I expect nothing less than seafood so fresh I can feel it sparkling in my mouth. After eating it [the sushi], this is what I have to say: freshness is relative. Yes, the sushi here is stellar, but it compares to the uni that I had in Vancouver recently and to the tuna that I ate in a Japanese restaurant along Pasay Road in Manila. This isn’t meant to downplay the exceptional quality of seafood in Tsukiji sushi-yas, only that the best sushi is there where freshness (however fresh tastes to you) is found. And it isn’t found only here in Japan.
Because it’s my last day in this country, I order a small bottle of sake. It arrives in a blue, beautiful bottle and while the sake isn’t as sweet as I’d like (it’s actually quite bitter, really), I treasure the few sips I have of it.
The market area surrounding Tsukiji Fish Market sells much more than just fish and anything else that swims in the water. I see lots of shops that sell fruits and vegetables, many of which are unique to Japan. A hundred meters over sits a stall with an awe-inspiring display of knives, perfect for bringing out the Iron Chef in me. A nondescript store sells Japanese ceramics and the most adorable tea cups and later on, I drool at the sight of a display case in which hunks of Kobe beef sit in all their marbled glory. Lordy!
My Bin excitedly calls me over to look at a stall selling his beloved tamago, bright yellow sheets at least four inches thick. I wonder how many eggs go in one omelet. They seem to have pieces of meat and vegetables mixed in. I spy a store selling katsuoboshi (dried bonito flakes), a most important ingredient in making Japanese stocks and for topping takoyaki. They remind me of wood shavings. I bend over and take a deep whiff, the aroma of salty fish filling my nose.
All around us, deliveries from the fish market are arriving at various stores, huge Styrofoam boxes blocking the entrances and crowding the already-narrow walkways. I’m giddy with the romance of this place and my mind is short-circuiting with all the culinary possibilities from the ingredients I see. How I wish I could take them home with me!
The last stall we stop at before heading home is selling onigiri, rice balls that I’ve grown to love dearly during my stay here in Japan. The old woman behind the counter is one ornery thing, but we buy some anyway. Walking home hand in hand, my Bin and I, the onigiri snuggled up against each other in my bag, a wave of sadness washes over me. I’m coming back to Japan one day.