Tsukiji Honganji Temple
Today, we are going on a Food Tour of Tsukiji Fish Market lead by Japan Wonder Travel. I don’t like seafood, but when Mitch asks if we can tour the fish market while in Tokyo I can’t say no. We arrive at Shinjuku-Okubu Station, knowing there is at least one transfer needed to get to Tsujiki Station. As we analyze the subway map, we hear a voice behind us say, “I speak little English. Do you need help?” I ask if he knows the fastest subway route to Tsukiji Fish Market. He responds enthusiastically, “Oh, very good place!”, gives a thumbs up, and then waves goodbye. Returning to the intertwining subway map, we find the easiest route. An hour later we arrive at Tsukiji Station.
We meet our guide, Amigo, outside Tsukiji Honganji Temple. He hands us each a bottle of water and a list of our samples included throughout the tour. Amigo introduces us to his very enthusiastic assistant that speaks very little English, Haruki, and our other tour group member, Alan, from New York City.
After entering the temple, Amigo teaches us how to pray. After tossing the offering between the wooden slates, bow twice, clap twice, bow, and then say a prayer. After a few minutes of exploring the temple, we begin our tour to the outer market.
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, we pass stands selling beans, rice snacks, knives, lobster, crab, eel, uni, and fish. Arriving at our first sample, Japanese omelets, we watch 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.
Walking through the market, we finish our omelets. Our next sample is a local snack that is great for the digestive system. Haruki enthusiastically hands each of us a piece of dried kelp. The Japanese suck on kelp until it becomes soft, then chew, and swallow. I feel like I am gnawing on a hard piece of dead, sun baked algae.
As we approach a stand selling dried beans, we welcome the opportunity to rid of mouths of kelp. The sweet red and black beans are often a component of pastry and dessert fillings. Haruki is very excited that we try and enjoy several kinds of beans. “Mmm, beans. Very good!”, he exclaims with a smile.
Following the crowd in front of us, we arrive at the next item on our postcard, dried bonito. Amigo proudly explains, bonito is in the Guiness Book of World Records for the world’s hardest food. The bonito fish is dried and shaved into paper thin slices. We sample a shred of fish from one of the baskets. Although thin, the bonito still requires a lot of chewing.
A few steps away, Amigo orders our next item, fish cakes. “Mmm, fish cakes!”, says Haruki rubbing his stomach. I distract Amigo and Haruki’s attention while slipping my fish cake to Mitch. The vendor is so excited we all enjoyed the fish cakes, we are each handed a toothpick of raw cuddle fish. I take a tiny nibble of the white, slimy fish and not as discreetly as a few moments ago, pass it to Mitch.
Becoming harder to stay together as the crowds continue to grow, we pass giant, chilled tuna heads, squirming eels, and flopping fish. Catching up with the rest of our group, Amigo is speaking with a vendor selling oysters, mussels, clams, scallops, and other mollusks. We have an opportunity to sample the best oysters in Tokyo, Amigo tells us. “Oysters, delicious!” exclaims Haruki. Alan and I politely decline while Amigo, Haruki, and the vendor stare at Mitch waiting for his answer. After a few moments of hesitation, Mitch accepts. The vendor pulls one of the humongous oysters from an ice bucket and hands it to Mitch. Too large to consume in one bite, he tries to tear and chew it into smaller pieces.
On our way to the indoor section of the outer market, Haruki waves us over to a shop selling seaweed. Similar to kelp, the sheet of seaweed also requires a large quantity of water to swallow. As I am still trying to remove the slimy, seaweed film coating the inside of my mouth, we enter the enclosed section of the outer market. It’s cool inside and not as crowded as the open air market. Amigo orders two raw tuna skewers, each with 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 Amigo 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, Amigo assures us it’s the best in Tokyo. We stand at the bar wrapping around the sushi chefs. Amigo takes our order as we watch the chefs delicately prepare various pieces of sushi.
Choosing the vegetarian option, my favorite piece is Japanese omelet and rice wrapped in a thin band of seaweed. Unfortunately not saving the best for last, I bite into rice and fermented beans wrapped in a cornucopia of seaweed. The beans resemble strings of melted cheese as I pull the remaining half away. As we are eating, Amigo announces he has a final surprise for us. We are encouraged to have our cameras ready as one of the chefs prepares two pieces of torched salmon sushi. At last, the tour concludes and we say good bye to Amigo, Haruki, and Alan.
We stop at a tea house on our way to the train station. We 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. Waiting for the tea to reach a drinkable temperature, we reflect on another excellent tour.
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. Since our Airbnb is located in Korea Town, we have plans to enjoy some delicious Korean barbecue for dinner before turning in for the evening.