I haven’t been writing about travel much recently, but there are some experiences that compel you to express them.
Today, that was lunch. Or maybe breakfast. This morning I went to the Tsukiji Fish Market here in Tokyo. It was nice to spend some time alone, taking the Yamanote line in silence, then realizing I had miscalculated how far the Yamanote would get me, and would either have to take a bus or walk the last 15 minutes of the trip. I chose walking, as I usually do, even though there was a decent chance of rain.
I listened to some of the songs I usually forget are on my iphone, which always give me joy because I pulled them from years of hypemachine scouring when I was an investment banker and music was pretty much the only thing that got me through the work day.
I got lost a few times along the way, since my poor sense of direction and laziness / interest in my own thoughts and all the new sights around me have led to me relying heavily on google maps anywhere I can, even when the gps gets confused. This led to some fun discoveries of corporate art, and a nice long walk along a detour created by construction, during which no fewer than four Japanese construction workers directed me along the path, bowing to me as I walked.
I bowed back to them as best I could, very grateful for the Gaijin pass I’m apparently given by the Japanese. People here have been so kind that it’s changed how I interact. I realized that normally, when I’m on the phone and there’s a bit of a language or cultural barrier, my focus is often on getting the information I need despite my own misunderstanding, or someone else’s resistance or even flat out obstinance. Here, I’ve found that getting the information I need takes a back seat to being as kind as possible to the person on the other end of the line, and it seems that their goal is much the same.
Since I’m pretty sure I screw up etiquette around 75% of the time, I’m very pleased by the fact that at least I’m quite obviously a foreigner, and they seem to give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m just ignorant and not actually trying to be a jerk.
Thinking about this, I walked along to the outside of the fish market, and found a sign marked kindly in english directing me to it.
Now, the market is of course on a massive functioning fishery and port, and the main purpose is for professional fishermen to sell their catches to restaurants and other commercial consumers of fresh fish. If you get up early enough, you can wait in line to put your name on a list at 5 am, in order to see the auctions themselves when they open. This sounds pretty cool, but it sounds from what I’ve read like the tourists can be a bit of a nuisance to the professionals making their living, so for those concerns and the fact that I slept until 8, I skipped it.
Outside of the actual commercial market, there’s a large area filled with stalls that sell everything from whole dried squid to fresh-caught and shipped fish of all kinds.
In addition, and vaguely in another ring outside of those core stalls (at least in my mind), there’s another market filled with other delicacies, like the famously expensive melons, white strawberries, japanese desserts and pastries of all kinds, and even delicate little candies made to look like tiny sushi.
Interspersed throughout the market are various places where you can eat on the spot. When I first entered, I found one with various pieces of tuna for sale, which the chefs/vendors would slice for you however you liked for some fresh sashimi. A piece of tuna about the size of a deck of cards ran about 3000 yen, more or less $30 USD.
This stall had so many people crowded around it excitedly that it actually took me quite some time to figure out what they had for sale. I especially liked seeing the large pieces of raw tuna from which the chefs would slice you however much you wanted.
Excited and hungry, I kept looking around until I found a stall selling large oysters topped with uni (sea urchin). These sat on a grill, and after I saw 4 people buy them in about 30 seconds, I had to have one.
It was 800 yen (about $8), so not the cheapest snack to start the day, but man was it good. Japan is certainly a bit more expensive than most of the places we travel, but one very nice thing here is that you never feel like someone is trying to overcharge you, you are always getting value. I didn’t even realize how deeply cynical about prices I’ve become through years of travel until coming somewhere where it just doesn’t seem to be a problem.
I ordered my oyster by pointing and saying onegai shimasu (“please do” more or less) and he pulled out a culinary blowtorch to finish the one I was pointing at, added sauce, and handed it to me. Then an elderly gentleman directed me along an interior alley between many other restaurants to a place where I could stand and eat it without being in anyone’s way. Several schoolgirls enjoyed their own oysters next to me, and I ate it in one bite, without utensils. I’m not food critic, but I’ll just say the smokiness of the oyster met with the sweet sauce and the rich uni in a very tasty mouthful (or two, if I’m being fair).
At $8 per morsel, I knew I was in for an expensive meal, so I looked around a bit more for the next thing I’d eat, and stumbled across some small restaurants selling various rice bowls. From the street, you just see walls of laminated dishes with prices and descriptions in Japanese and English. I had my eye on a very appealing Chutoro don.
So, don means rice bowl, I guess, and Chutoro is a grade of toro. Toro comes from the belly of the tuna, and has a rich flavor combined with thin marbleized layers of fat between the layers of muscle. It’s typically the most expensive delicacy on sushi menus. Chutoro is belly tuna taken from the middle area of the fish, and Ootoro (pronounced Oh-toro, as I discovered when I said it wrong) is belly taken from the very front of the tuna, just below the head. Being a layman, the best I know how to describe it is that it’s like Chutoro, but more so.
So once I’d seen a Chutoro don, I decided that really I should find some Ootoro, and thankfully, in about 30 seconds I found some. An Ootoro/Chutoro don was on offer for 2400 yen ($24), and while this was a bit pricy for breakfast, most of the unforgettable meals I’ve had in Tokyo were at about that price range, so I was willing to take a gamble.
I went inside another of the indoor alleys, and saw a seating area to the left, and a sushi bar to the right. I find it kind of weird to walk in somewhere and take a bunch of pictures of people just trying to do their work or enjoy their lunch, so you’ll have to forgive me not having a photo. I looked at the menus a bit longer to make sure I had the right place, then sat down to wait my turn, Fortunately, there was a seat available at the sushi bar, which the chef offered to me. I asked her clumsily if I could get the Ootoro / Chutoro don, and she nodded. She said it was 2400 yen and I regrettably tried to put it on the counter, though I knew from reading that you never pay the sushi chef because they have to keep their hands clean. Fortunately, a waitress came over and took my money, giving me change and a receipt.
Here’s another thing I love about eating in Japan – you often get the bill taken care of in advance, so you know exactly what you’re paying and can focus on enjoying the food instead of wondering whether you understood everything correctly. Moreover, since restaurant workers are paid living wages, you don’t have to tip (in fact it’s considered quite rude), so when you’re done eating, you get up and leave, allowing someone else to take your seat and wasting nobody’s time. I’m thrilled that Danny Meyer and other forward thinkers are expanding this system to their restaurants in the US.
While waiting for my meal, I was brought tea, water, and a nice miso soup.
I sat there basically quivering in excitement, and after a few minutes, the chef placed my food in front of me.
Here it is:
Now if you’re not into raw fish, I don’t know what to tell you. This may not look appetizing. But if you are, you’ll know just what I was in for.
I cleansed my pallet with a small piece of ginger and took my first small bite of chutoro. Instantly everything around me disappeared, and my consciousness focused entirely on what was going on in my mouth. Even though I basically just got back from lunch, just trying to write about this I’m getting extremely hungry again.
I continued with the chutoro, chewing it lightly and slowly, the tenderness forcing me to close my eyes and think only of its texture.
I then had another small piece of ginger, and took a small piece of Ootoro, wanting this meal to last as long as possible.
Again, I was filled with the rich flavor of the tuna, but as I rolled the morsel around on my tongue, the thin layer of fat raised to my body temperature and melted, falling to pieces. Again, I’m no food writer, and there’s very little I can think of to compare to Ootoro – you kind of just have to try it. To me personally, though, the feeling of having Ootoro melt in your mouth is one of the best things in food.
I have no idea how long it took me to eat those first few bites, but it seems it was a while. I continued eating, pairing bits of tuna with pliant clumps of sushi rice I ate it on. There was a line behind me, but short of the restaurant catching fire, not much could have made me rush this. I ate one tiny section at a time, easily pulling the sections apart with my chopsticks. Occasionally I ate a larger piece all at once just to enjoy the melting mouthfeel. I took pointed breaks a few times to drink more of the miso soup, have some more ginger to reset my pallet, and appreciate what I was enjoying. Once I’d finally eaten all of the tuna, I took small bites of the remaining rice, relishing in the flavor and fat of the fish that had coated it.
Finally, every scrap of food cleared from my bowl, I breathed deeply, stood up, and left the restaurant.
So yeah, I guess the Toro was ok. If you like that kind of thing.
Floating through the streets on my own euphoria, I continued exploring, marveling at fish knives the size of swords (sorry again, I have no photos because I thought it a little insensitive to snap photos of the shopkeepers, but these things had blades at least 3 feet long).
I saw some very enticing boxes of strawberries, including one special box of pale white fruit going for 5000 yen ($50).
I considered having a stick of these for another 600 yen ($6 (noticing a pattern yet?)), but then my eye caught a word in english: “Chocolate”. So of course I bought that.
I forget the japanese word for this, but it’s a small dessert with a gelatinous outer layer and a rich flavored interior. Normally, these are flavored like red bean or green tea, but as a westerner who loves chocolate, I had to pounce on this opportunity. It was 500 yen (4 billion deutschmarks) And yeah, it was good. The chocolate was luxurious, something between fudge and mousse. The strawberry was different – it didn’t have the crispness of bright red strawberries back home, or the sweetness of deep red ripe strawberries you can find if you’re very lucky. The white strawberry was unique in that it was neither sweet nor crisp – it was very creamy, almost like an understated white chocolate.
So I ate that.
After I finished, I walked around some more, looking at stalls I hadn’t seen before. Then I sat down on a potted plant or something and stopped to think about what I had just experienced, the flavors I had just enjoyed. Then finally, I got up, and started my walk back to the station, past streets, past manicured gardens, past the bowing construction workers, and wondered if it would rain.