‘You’ve got to do it, haven’t you?’
We were standing outside Daiwa Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market at 5.30 in the morning. Not only were we standing outside, we were waiting in line, and waiting in line to eat sushi for breakfast. Surreal. It was Jim’s idea and I was just rolling with it.
We’d been up since 02.30. Tsukiji requires serious effort. We’d met Naoto-san, an ex-Tsukiji auction house employee, outside Jonathon’s family restaurant at 03.00. The streets were cold, dark and deserted. At Namiyoke shrine Naoto-san threw a coin into the coffer, greeted the gods and asked for a good tour for us, and then we dove into the inner market, and the strange world of Tsukiji.
It was not at all as we’d imagined it. Jim said ‘I thought it would be more like Billingsgate – wet fish and salt-of-the-earth sales folk’. Tsukiji is fish on an industrial scale. Two thousand tonnes of it every day and sixty thousand employees. There is nothing pretty or friendly about it; it’s full of hard-nosed buyers and the pace is fast and furious. Our presence was grudgingly tolerated. Naoto-san explained everything at break-neck speed – and he walked at the same tempo. ‘We must keep moving, stopping disturbs the workers’. We were surprised at the clandestine nature of it all. ‘We have to be a bit like pac man’, Naoto-san laughed, as he twisted and turned his way through narrow alleyways between styrofoam boxes. ‘Oh sorry, that man does not like me’, he mumbled suddenly turning tail – and he was gone. We dodged turrets, the trim, motorised carts that zoom everywhere and felt like we could be run over at any moment. We needed eyes in the front, back and sides of our heads. And I hadn’t even had a coffee yet!
When we lingered a little too long by the frozen maguro (blue fin tuna) – huge things as big as submarine torpedos, weighing up to three hundred kilos each – two guards brandishing light sabres came and moved us along. ‘No, no’, they said, and followed us closely as we beat a hasty retreat. Naoto-san was long gone – he’d just left us high and dry. ‘I thought he was an official guide’, mumbled Jim, as we rejoined him in a dark corner. And so it went.
We followed him over wet concrete paths and cobbles, squeezing past wooden pallets and stacked boxes, past frozen and fresh tuna, sea urchins, fresh fruit and vegetables and living fish. It was a high-rise of boxes and packing cases. ‘I never want to see another styrofoam box as long as I live’, grumbled Jim. There was whale meat and buckets of blood, the squeak of styrofoam, melted ice on the ground, men hacking at tuna tails with axes, flipping frozen tuna with hooks and filleting fresh tuna with long samurai blades. We watched a sea-urchin auction. It was – like so much in Tokyo – a blur.
‘You are very lucky. You might not know it, but we’ve seen some very good things and we haven’t been shouted at once’, Naoto-san told us in conclusion. Mmm. We’d got a good look at the inner market but I didn’t feel any closer to understanding how it worked. Naoto-san is a guy just trying to make a buck, knowledgeable and friendly, but we felt this was less of a tour, more of a undercover operation. Next time we’ll go after 10.00 when tourists are officially allowed – unescorted – to visit the inner market.
So, that’s why we were standing outside Daiwa Sushi at the ungodly hour of 05.30. Once the doors opened we were seated right away – waiting for over an hour, even at this time of the day, is not uncommon (later in the day, waiting time can stretch up to four hours). We sat on two of the nine counter seats, sushi chefs looking down on us. The middle one could speak some English – enough at any rate to ask what we wanted. ‘Chef’s menu?’. We nodded. ‘Everything?’ Another nod from us. (We had no idea what ‘everything’ was). ‘Bags on that table’, barked someone else. There wasn’t room to swing the proverbial cat. I couldn’t get past the two lads in front of us to hang my coat, so kept it on. A waiter placed small dishes of miso soup and beakers of tea on the counter. I ducked and dived to try and accommodate him – there was hardly room to breathe. And then the sushi started coming. Seven nigiri plus six maki – fatty and medium fatty tuna, sea-urchin, shrimp, shrimp’s head (ugh! I just chewed and tried not to think). I loved the eel (surprisingly) and the tamagoyaki (omelette). But there was no time to savour, or appreciate the experience. Sushi was placed on the wooden board in front of us, we ate, another appeared immediately, we ate. I could hardly keep up and felt like I was being force fed. The whole thing was over within fifteen minutes.
This was the most expensive, fishiest, fastest, earliest breakfast of my life. Would I do it again? No, but Jim was right – you do have to do it – once!
Postscript. Since our early morning tour with Naoto-san, we returned to the inner market at 10.00. At this moment in time, it’s not permitted to take photos while walking around.
New Tsukiji Tour run by ex-Tsukiji auction-house employee Nakamura Naoto. http://tokyoworks.travel.coocan.jp/TsukijiTour/newtsukijitour.html