We meet our tour group at Tsukiji Hongaji Temple for a day tour of the inner and outer Tsukiji Fish Market. Before returning to our Airbnb, we visit the local Golden Gai.
Tsukiji Honganji Temple
We meet our guides outside Tsukiji Honganji Temple and receive a bottle of water and a list of our samples included throughout the tour. There are only three members in our tour.
Entering the temple, our guide teaches us how to pray. After tossing a coin offering between the wooden slates, bow twice, clap twice, bow, and say a prayer.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Fish Market consists of two parts: the outer market and the inner market. In the outer market visitors can purchase vegetables, seafood, and goods from an open air and air conditioned section. The inner market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.
Entering the outer market, there are stands sell beans, rice snacks, knives, lobster, crab, eel, uni, and fish.Our first sample is a Japanese omelet. An assembly line of chefs create slightly sweet, fluffy, layered bricks of eggs. The square pans of eggs are rolled along from chef to chef. When an omelet reaches the end of the line, the last chef removes it from the pan using chopsticks, places it on a cooling rack, and sets the pan on an above conveyor belt sending it back to the first chef.
The second sample is a local snack that is great for the digestive system, kelp. The Japanese suck on kelp until it becomes soft, then chew, and swallow.
As we approach a stand selling dried beans, our guide encourages us to taste a variety of colors and sizes of beans. The sweet red and black beans are often a component of pastry and dessert fillings.
Following the crowd in front of us, we arrive at the next sample on our postcard, dried bonito, the world’s hardest food in the Guiness Book of World Records. The bonito fish is dried and shaved into paper thin slices. Although thin, the bonito still requires a lot of chewing.
Becoming harder to stay together as the crowds continue to grow, we pass giant, chilled tuna heads, squirming eels, and flopping fish. We catch up with the rest of our group at a vendor selling oysters, mussels, clams, scallops, and other mollusks for our next sample, a giant oyster, the best in Tokyo according to our guide.
On our way to the indoor section of the outer market, we sample sheets of seaweed. The enclosed section of the outer market is cool inside and not as crowded as the open air market. Here we taste raw tuna skewers, each skewer holds four cubes of meat varying in fat content.
Each morning inside the inner market, fishermen unload their daily catch and prepare for sale. Only licensed buyers and a small number of visitors, required to arrive as early as 2:00am, are permitted to attend the morning auctions. Being careful of the wet floor, we follow the grid of cement walkways passing freezers, metal work stations, band saws, buckets of sea life, and stacks of Styrofoam coolers.
Men in waders rush past us. We pause to watch as a band saw cuts a giant, frozen tuna into smaller pieces. Garbage cans and baskets overflow with fish carcasses and tuna heads. Stations are hosed down by crews with ocean water, eliminating the smell of fish from the market. Although photos are prohibited, we inconspicuously capture a few scenes.
We pass into the vegetable section of the inner market. Stacks of boxes containing vegetables and fruits ready for shipment fill the warehouse. Crates overflow with peaches, grapes, onions, bock choy, apples, and egg plants in pristine condition. We stop at a table with a snowman shaped watermelon and a mango selling for eight hundred Yen. Enjoying our reaction to his oddly shaped fruit, one of the men allows us to a sample a perfectly ripe pear.
We return to the outer market, following our guide to a small shop selling sake. He chooses one for us to sample and hands us each a small, wooden box. He instructs us to hold the box with both hands and drink from the corner. Kanpai!
Leaving Tsujiki Fish Market, we walk by lines of customers waiting to dine at the restaurants just outside. Entering a less crowded sushi eatery, we stand at the bar wrapping around the sushi chefs.
Choosing the vegetarian option, my favorite piece is Japanese omelet and rice wrapped in a thin band of seaweed. Our guide encourages us to have our cameras ready as one of the chefs prepares two pieces of torched salmon sushi for the conclusion of our tour.
On our way to the train station, we stop at a tea house and are amazed by the steps required to properly prepare tea. Each motion is executed with extreme detail and precision. When finished arranging the teapot, cup, cup of water, pastry, garnish, and chop stick, she hands us our trays.
After a relaxing stop for tea, we finish our walk to Tsujiki Station. We board our train and hold onto the handles above us. As we come to a stop at the next station, I let go of the handle to adjust my bag. I am returning to the handle as wave of business men flood the train. It happens so quickly my hand reaching is stuck midair, visible among the sea of heads. There is not a centimeter of space between me and the surrounding passengers. As the train jerks along the track, we remain an unwavering mass of sardines. A few stops later, we fight against the current to stay on-board, as the swarm of businessmen rush to exit the train.
We exit Shinjuku Station in search of the Golden Gai, an area of winding, narrow, bar filled alleys popular among locals. There is a possibility we will be turned away. Even if there are empty seats, tourists are not always welcome. We round a corner and see a park on our right with a small circle of white tents filled with food, face painting, and games. We walk past the festivities as the streets begin to narrow. In an opening, we see a metal archway announcing our entrance to the Golden Gai.
Walking under the arch way, we feel a nervous energy. It’s a maze of deserted narrow alleys connected by even smaller footpaths and staircases. Some of the passages are so narrow we can touch the buildings on each side as we pass through. The few windows are covered with shades and the doors are solid. Passing one of the bars, we find a window with a small opening between the heavy curtains. We peer inside the dark room through the hazy stream of sunlight. The space is small with a bar that could hold a maximum of six people.
We see movement as a door opens and a bucket water is thrown into the street, then the stillness returns. Being almost 7:00pm we expected bars to be crowded with rowdy businessmen celebrating the end of their workday, but reading a small sign posted on one of the bars operating hours, 12:00am – 7:00am. Feeling slightly disappointed, we walk back to Shinjuku Station.