How does eating sushi at 6:30 AM sound to you? It's weird to me, especially since I'm not a big fan of sushi. However, eating fish is part of the breakfast scene in Japan. In the hotel where I stayed, the buffet spread always included fish, either grilled or fried. Which is fine. But eating raw fish early in the morning? My stomach felt like revolting. Having heard so much about it, I finally made the resolve to put myself to test and eat sushi in one of the best places in Japan or anywhere else on the planet - at the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, more popularly known as Tsukiji Market.
To begin with my culinary adventure, I woke up very early at 5:00 AM. Thank goodness it's summer so there's already daylight as I dragged myself from my hotel in Asakusa to the nearest subway station. It wasn't yet a crowded train ride to Tsukiji-Shijo (closest subway station) - mostly people with early shifts at work carrying those "eye-bags" and yawning mouths with them. Before 6:00 AM, I reached the market entrance by merely following the lead of some folks carrying woven baskets - for fish they will bring home obviously. There's nothing better than buying fish earlier in the day, right?
Tsukiji, just south of Ginza on the edge of Tokyo Bay, means "built land", obviously referring to the fact that this area was reclaimed from the sea. Market operations began in 1935. Considered the world's largest wholesale fish market, Tsukiji handles a staggering 5 million pounds of seafood coming from different parts of the world every day. The market is divided into the outer market or Jogai Ichiba (where fruits, vegetables, kitchen gadgets, table ware, etc. are sold) and the much larger inner market or Jonai Ichiba (where the most frenetic action takes place: wholesale seafood and the famous tuna auction). Sadly though, since the market has already outgrown its capacity, Tsukiji is scheduled to be closed sometime next year and all operations relocated 2 kms. south to a site in Toyosu.
While I've already checked a map of the market the night before, it didn't dawn upon me that the whole place is poorly marked in English or that the inner market does not allow tourists before 9:00 AM. At the time of my visit two weeks ago, the tuna auctions held between 5:30AM-7:00 AM were still off-limits to tourists (they have since allowed a limited number of visitors again only a few days ago!). So I continued following people and no sooner have I walked further than I had to deal with trucks, trolleys, forklifts and carts going in different directions all at once. In my haste to move for fear of getting hit by a trolley, I was already entering the inner market before I knew it.
Being an Asian, people in the inner market really didn't care as I walked gingerly through crates laden with seafood. I could have been just mistaken for another Japanese fish buyer (with a dangling camera at that!). While there were rows upon rows of stalls selling all imaginable creatures of the sea, the sights and scents were similar to anywhere I've seen - except Tsukiji is huge and tidier. One fishmonger was already busy cutting a recently-auctioned tuna. When I asked by pointing if it was "from the Philippines", the guy shook his head, saying "no Philippine", instead pointing to a nearby world map. It turns out, the carcass is from Australia.
By this time, I have walked the entire length of the inner market and unwittingly came out the other side where carts laden with rock-solid frozen tunas looking like steel torpedoes were being wheeled away. I was so excited as I had a feeling I was getting close to where the tuna auctions were being held. In one building across the little street, I spotted many carts lined up by the door with middlemen, retailers and buyers gawking at their newly-bought fish. I walked right in front of the building and luckily saw what's inside: a large cache of tunas still in the process of being auctioned off!
It amazes me how tunas have commanded a premium status in Japanese dining tables. The fattier the tuna is, the pricier it becomes. Earlier this year, a new record was set for a 324-kg bluefin tuna which fetched a hefty 32.49 million yen, or almost $400,000! I stood in awe looking at the frozen wealth inside this building until a security guard finally approached me. As if on cue, I readily asked him "I am lost, where can I find the sushi restaurants?" Still courteous despite my unwelcome presence, he escorted me out of the wholesale and auction area and pointed me to where I should be getting my fill of sushi.
There are plenty of sushi restaurants - more like stalls - in Tsukiji Market and two recommended by my guide book was "Sushi Dai" and "Sushi-bun". I walked around but somehow couldn't find either. Not wanting to waste time (as I had a train to catch bound for Hiroshima), I chose one randomly that I found out later is actually a fave of many sushi-fanatics: "Ryu Sushi". It's even recommended by Food and Wine. The place looks more refined compared to others especially since it's enclosed in airconditoned comfort but still retains the same bar-seating arrangement. Thankfully it wasn't full so I got seated right away.
An elderly woman who serves as the cashier immediately brings me a menu - in English - and offers me a cup of green tea. Since I'm a non-sushi lover, the chef standing in front of me recommended "Kiku", a beginner's menu which is a combination of 7 pieces of sushi: Toro (fatty tuna), Cuttle fish, White fish, Tuna, Horse Mackerel, Scallop, Shako, and 6 pieces of Tuna roll and Cucumber roll. All these for 2,100 yen (or almost $27!), their least expensive set on the menu. There are of course other cheaper options in Tsukiji Market but I placed my trust on Ryu Sushi to deliver me to sushi heaven. After all, their philosophy since starting their business in 1959 is only driven by one word: "delicious".
The chef began his show by preparing fresh wasabi. His hands were so quick and in no time at all, he was already slicing pieces of tuna and some other fish and then making balls out of vinegared rice which he then combined with the meat. He also made rolls from scratch and I was so mesmerized by it all that I almost forgot I'm here to eat breakfast. One by one, he arranges the portions straight into the wooden platform topping the table, now looking like a parade in minimalist chic. There's soy sauce and sweet pickled ginger for accompaniment but no plates and no chopsticks - he encouraged me to eat with my bare hands.
I lifted a piece of Toro into my mouth and was immediately delighted by the suave approach of this fatty piece of tuna into my palate. So soft, almost buttery and it glided down with a hint of piquant wasabi down my throat. I looked at the chef with eyes already beaming. This was a winner. I took the rest of the spread before me and it completely bowled me over. Sushi can be difficult to appreciate for someone feeling icky about eating "raw food" but Ryu Sushi effortlessly made a convert out of a skeptic. Even if it means eating sushi for breakfast again...but only if it's as good as the sushi in Tukiji.