Thursday, December 20, 2012

Japan times - part 12: Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Earlier this year I spent two-and-a-half weeks in Japan, eating and drinking my way through a destination I've wanted to visit for more than a decade. This is the twelfth (and finalof several posts of foodbooze and sights in Japan.

I was sad to hear of the impending closure of Tokyo's iconic Tsukiji Fish Market, but visitors have approximately 12 months left to check out the world's largest wholesale fish markets in its current, slightly dilapidated form.

A trolley truck in motion at Tsukiji Fish Markets, Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan
Visiting Tsukiji Fish Markets was around the top of my list of touristy things to do in Tokyo. We'd even booked accommodation in the Tsukiji area to increase our chances of seeing the tuna auctions, which at the time, limited the spots available for tourists to 120 people, allocated at 5am daily (I hear they're completed closed off to tourists at the moment).

As we walked up towards the Osakana Fukyu (Fish Information) Centre in the rain, there were already dejected tourists walking back towards us, letting us know that they were already too late for the 120 spots - at 5am!

Outer markets
Similarly dejected and rather sleepy at that hour of the morning, we decided to wait around the fish markets to see the inner wholesale markets area, which tourists should not enter until after 9am.

While I had visions of running into Yoshikazu Ono (of three Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro) shopping for the day's best catch, it wasn't to be.

Coffee shop in Tsukiji Fish Markets
In the outer market area, where little restaurants sit next to a variety of produce and product stalls, we spotted a coffee shop that seemed caught in a time warp.

It was right near Sushi Dai; one of two renowned sushi restaurants at Tsukiji Fish Market where queues had already formed for breakfast service.

Milk coffee
We pondered joining the queues over breakfast: a simple order of brewed coffee with milk and toast with jam and a boiled egg on the side.

Soft boiled egg

Toast with jam and butter

Restaurant queues
Given the extraordinary efforts already made in waking up at that hour and getting to Tsukiji Fish Market in the drizzle, we joined the end of the queue at Sushi Dai.

It wasn't too cold a morning, but that didn't stop restaurant staff handing out foam cups of hot green tea to the waiting queues.

Sign for Sushi Dai
It made more sense two hours later when we were still waiting in line, albeit now at the front of the queue with the 12-seater restaurant in view.

Sushi Dai entry
There were two omakase chef's menu sets on offer: an 11-piece or 7-piece offering. Everyone in our dining group of 12 went the larger omakase set, as I suppose after two hours' waiting, one might as well.

Seated in Sushi Dai
As soon as we entered the narrow restaurant, placing bags upon high shelves behind the counter seats, the wait was forgotten.

Seated at Sushi Dai
Three sushi chefs - jolly, smiling and downright chirpy for that time of the day - welcomed every single diner with gusto, positioning gari pickled ginger slices in front of everyone, as large cups of hot green tea were distributed.

Green tea
The chefs checked diners' eating preferences, with one or two choosing to avoid uni sea urchin roe but most generally keen to try whatever the chefs had in store for us.

Otoro - fatty tuna belly nigiri sushi
We started with a bang: otoro - the treasured and fattiest part of the the tuna belly. Looking more like a piece of rare steak, this was pure, soft creamy bliss with just a brush of soy sauce.

Hirame - flounder nigiri sushi

Tamago - steamed rolled egg

Seafood miso soup

Uni - sea urchin roe genkan sushi

Aji - horse mackerel nigiri sushi

Clam nigiri sushi

Akami - lean tuna nigiri sushi

Amaebi - sweet prawn nigiri sushi

Saba - Spanish mackerel nigiri sushi

Anago - saltwater eel nigiri sushi

Maki zushi: toro minced tuna belly and mentaiko marinated pollock roe with cucumber

Hotate - scallop nigiri sushi
At the end of this particular omakase we were each allowed to select one more nigiri-zushi of our own choosingI elected the hotate scallop, which wasn't quite as sweet as I wanted it to be, while the awabi abalone was only slightly chewy.

Awabi - abalone nigiri sushi

Sushi chefs at Sushi Dai

Sushi chefs at Sushi Dai

Diners entering Sushi Dai
We stumbled out of the restaurant, last in our group as we snapped photos with the chefs, extremely full and probably needing a lie-down. The omakase is a large meal, especially for breakfast, meaning we skipped lunch that day.

Fresh edamame soy beans
With a little more time before the inner fish market was officially open to tourists, we browsed the fresh food and knife stores in the outer section.

Trolley carts inside wholesale fish markets
We probably snuck into the inner markets a little earlier than we should have, with plenty of hustle and bustle still around, though not so much wholesale or restaurant purchasers.

Inner wholesale fish markets

Inner wholesale fish markets
There were, however, various 'civilian' buyers looking for the freshest seafood for home meals; and snap-happy tourists, of course.

Some stores were already cleaning up from the morning's trade not much past 9am, but there was still plenty to see.

Hatahata fish

Tako - octopus (red)

Uni - sea urchin roe

Ika - squid

Okoze - stonefish
(the ugliest fish I've ever seen, as well as the world's most venomous fish)

Slicing a whole frozen tuna
While we missed the tuna auctions, we almost went one better, spying a worker cutting up whole, frozen tuna which had been auctioned off to buyers.

Quartering tuna
The electronic saw looked a little scary as he guided the huge hunks of fish: first removing the head, then halving and quartering the fish, and then removing the major bone.

Cutting tuna

Toro - tuna belly
Tsukiji Fish Markets is a photographers dream - albeit a wet and fishy one. See more photos of my Tsukiji Fish Market visit here on my Facebook page.

Kinmedai - Alfonsino or red snapper
Japan has firmly cemented its place on my must-return-to list. While speaking even a little of the language made my trip that much more fun (and funny, at times), the country's deep-seated appreciation for quality and sometimes perfection makes Japan, and particularly its cuisine, an enjoyable destination for most.

じゃね, 日本。


lydia said...

I've nominated you for a sunshine award.

Not Quite Nigella said...

I wonder what the new one will be like! I'm dying to see it :D

Adrian (Food Rehab) said...

How great of an experience was the market?! I still recall the Clam nigiri sushi still moving in my mouth at Sushi Dai! Was definitely the most memorable moment during my Japan trip.

From what I remember, we woke up at 4am to get to the market and still didn't get into the auction area.

missklicious said...

That sushi looks so amazing!

gaby @ lateraleating said...

Cool that you made it to the market before it shuts down. I hope to make it to Tokyo soon and enjoy proper sushi like you :)

Mel said...

It's sad that this market is closing - is it just "too old"? I guess a new one will have to open somewhere, right? I've never tried Uni - what's it like...wonder if I'd like it?

Christie @ Fig and Cherry said...

Gosh this brings back great memories for me (June 2009). Tsukiji is one of the most incredible places on earth!

Tina said...

Hi Lorraine - I imagine it will be bigger, clean and new, which would be a completely different experience to what I had.

Hi Adrian - Same wake-up time; disappointing. But that sushi at Sushi Dai was an amazing experience.

Hi missklicious - It sure was!

Hi gaby - You got 12 months to see the old Tsukiji!

Hi Miss Piggy - It wasn't built for tourists. More than 70 years without major refurb - it kinda needs it. Uni... is not for everyone; definitely an acquired taste in its raw form.

Hi Christie - I agree! It was an amazing experience that I'll not forget anytime soon.

Mel said...

I'm trawling through your Japan posts as our first trip there is in about 3 weeks and the fish markets are right up there as a "must see". I'm not going to try for the fish auctions (WAY too early for me) but I'll be having sushi for breakfast for sure!

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