In the overcrowded streets of Tokyo, where the concept of personal space reminds one of sardines in a can, it’s not the endless shoal of pedestrians that surprise but the enviable politeness of the Japanese. Even when being shoved into a packed subway car by white-gloved guards.
At Tsukiji, the legendary Japanese politeness is constantly put to a test by an even denser crowd. Once you walk into one of its narrow open streets, you’ll inevitably go with the flow. Moving by osmosis, like blood cells in obstructed arteries, squeezing yourself through the crowd.
It’s a procession of locals in their daily pursue of the freshest ingredients mixed with hordes of tourists and their hungry cameras. Here, it’s not the Japanese that take pictures. And much like on cable car sightseeing, photo opportunities won’t wait for you. Act fast or you’ll be pushed past them.
Walking down the alleys of Tsukiji is like being pushed through an exotic food maze that will leave even the most prolific foodies in awe and bewilderment. Stand after stand, an endless selection of sea products; fresh, dried, plastic-wrapped or simply alive. Hundreds of metallic dried fish crates; open aquariums of mollusk, alive and kicking on their shells. But Tsukiji is more than a playground for cooks; it’s a food court for the epicure.
You’ll also find countless food stalls the size of small cupboards, each specializing in one thing and one thing only. Some commanding long lines of patient locals waiting for their turn to order. Be it a roasted tuna head or a bowl of heirloom fish soup–that much like sourdough bread, is made with a base started generations ago. But it’s no surprise that the most popular fare here is plain, raw fish.
It is said that nowhere in Tokyo you’ll find fresher sushi; this is a fish market after all. But not any fish market, the fish market. In fact, the largest in the world. Its famous tuna auctions draw chefs and restaurateurs ready to bid high money for what will soon thereafter make the finest sushi. Recently, another record was broken when a 282-pound bluefin tuna sold for $104,400. Or $370 a pound. The prime fish bought in these auctions are flown to prestigious restaurants around the world and sold at first-class prices.
In Kyoto, at a traditional sushi restaurant open for over 40 years and comprised of a single wood counter that fits about 10 diners, I had the most amazing sashimi in my whole life. Fresh from Tsukiji, two orders of Bluefin Toro (the fatty part of the tuna) added $100 to my bill. But it was worth it. The six 1 square inch cubes were marbled with thin layers of fat yielding a texture no description would do it justice. Its brisk, fresh flavor exploding in your mouth as its fat melts away. Skillfully sliced by the oldest sushiman and closely watched as you add a pinch of wasabi and dip it lightly in its special soy sauce. All with your hands, no chopsticks–you don’t want to hurt this beautiful fish or the chef’s feelings. Sashimi at Nontaro makes you realize that perhaps you never had sashimi before. But I digress.
At Tsukiji, sushi is more fun than fuss. The nigirizushi restaurants are packed with lines out the door; some more than others–always a telling sign. Inside, the humble rooms are packed with locals. Seat at the counter and, unless you look and speak Japanese, you’ll promptly be handed a laminated English menu. Usually accompanied by an amusing albeit somewhat sarcastic laughter from behind the counter. A sound that is often echoed by the local patrons. You don’t need to speak Japanese to understand that they are talking about you. In a “Let’s see how they do” type of way. The Japanese men and women wait amused to see the western’s men attempt at ordering. At every request, usually assisted by a finger pointing on the laminated menu, the fish name is repeated out loud by the chef and, after a beat, followed by another long, sarcastic-sounding commentary. A not so polite communal laughter follows suit. Here’s the thing, you can’t take it personally. Think of it as tradition. Use your hands, dip the fish side down and enjoy your sushi. But don’t expect perfectly marbled, melt-in-your-mouth toro. Even though the fish is indeed fresh; here, it’s a volume game. In some restaurants the fish even is pre-cut and piled behind the counter in neatly arranged slices. You will eat well and for a lot less than my toro, but the overall experience will be more memorable than the actual meal. And that’s okay because at the very least, you’ll have a good story to tell.