Tokyo: Tsukiji Fish Market

We got a fairly early start the next morning and stopped at Tully’s, familiar from our time living in the Bay Area, for take out coffee and pastry on the way to the Tsukiji Fish Market. For us, fairly early means about 9 a.m. We had decided well in advance that were not up for getting there in the the wee hours to try for one of the hundred or so spots to watch the famous early-morning tuna auction. When we got off the train, we paused to eat our breakfast on the street before going into the market. I felt pretty conspicuous, because no one seems to eat on the street here. 

This historic market has been in the current location since 1935, but there have long been plans in the works to relocate it. I felt fortunate to get a chance to see it, because when we visited in April 2016 the move was slated for that autumn. (The timeline was later postponed until late 2018.)

Tsukiji is very much a wholesale market, and trading starts early at around three in the morning, peaks by eight or so, and is winding down by 11. It was still full and bustling when we arrived at 9:30, with small electric carts whizzing  everywhere. The market was fairly tolerant of tourists when we were there, and almost everyone was polite to us even though it must be annoying to deal with gawkers underfoot all the time. Since then, I understand they’ve put some restrictions in place that make it harder to visit if you are not a buyer.

Tsukiji is huge, with aisle after aisle of vendors. We saw a huge range of fish and seafood on display: large and small whole fish, pre-cut steaks, a wide variety of shellfish and crustaceans, and quite a few live fish, including a cooler full of cuttlefish. The vendors’ workspaces were fascinating to see, nestled among the stacks and stacks of white styrofoam coolers holding the products for sale. Many were in use, and we saw a giant tuna being butchered by two men with a large saw. The idle stalls, where we could get a closer look at the weathered wooden benches, well-used knives, order slips, and bare light bulbs, were just as interesting. There was water and ice everywhere. And there was very, very little smell of fish.  

After about an hour and a half, the market was really starting to wind down and we were ready for a more substantial meal. We considered getting the classic sushi breakfast. The lines were long, and I wasn’t feeling too enthusiastic about it. We chose noodles instead, and had some nice tempura and soba in a completely non-touristy but friendly shop. 

Our next destination was the Aki-Oka Artisan shops, which are cleverly nestled under elevated train tracks in the Akihabara district. We stopped for coffee and a snack at Vie en France, whose schtick is ‘siphon coffee,’ and had fun watching the baristas work the brass-and-glass contraptions. After getting our bearings we walked a couple of blocks up to the shops. They were mostly high-end boutiques, a little rich for my blood and not really my style, but it was still fun to window shop  and appreciate the range of traditional and modern handcrafted items. One of the shops featured hand-printed tenugui, the long and narrow traditional cotton towels that have many uses. These were clearly meant for decoration, and we found two to bring home. 

After this, we took the train up to Asakusa to do a bit more shopping near Senso-ji. Our first stop was a noren shop, selling the split curtains that you often see in place of doors. We were tempted by a design with two large sakura, but it was’t quite right for where we wanted to use it. I found some kimono and traditional indigo fabrics at a small gift shop to bring home as a gift for my mom, and Dan found another tenugui for his studio with a very cool abstract landscape.

We had now completed our missions for the day, so we did some more leisurely wandering in the Asakusa district. We got a warm custard-filled taiyaki at a shop that had a window to the kitchen, then watched how they were made for about 10 minutes. The bakers poured batter into each half of the molds, then cut slabs of firm custard from a tray with a palette knife and placed them on one half of each fish. The batter cooked for what seemed like a long time, then the mold is closed to sandwich the halves together. Each taiyaki is flipped out of the mold and cooked on end to brown the edges. We will definitely try recreating these at home!

We didn’t have anything concrete in mind for dinner, so we looked around the shopping zone looking for options. Dan found a kama-meishi restaurant, and this was an easy choice. He is very fond of this homey dish that features rice baked in a ceramic or cast iron pot. We ordered chicken and salmon versions to share, and since it takes 30 minutes to prepare, we got a couple of beers and yakitori, and fried gobo as appetizers. There were no tourists in this restaurant, just a few older Japanese folks. We had a good giggle with the elderly ladies next to us when they showed us the obvious solution of using our hand towels as potholders when we were stumped about how to get to our entrees. After dinner, we decided an early night would be a good idea and just headed back to our hotel.