The logic goes like this: If Japan invented sushi, then they must have the best sushi in the world. To find the best sushi in Japan, you must find the best fish. To find the best fish, you must find the best fish market. And thus if you find the best sushi bar at the best fish market in the country that invented sushi, then you would therefore be eating, “The Best Sushi In The World.” And it was this logic that had the hotel alarm clock blaring at 4am as I snuggled between three pillows and a set of soft cotton sheets strongly regretting the previous night’s agreement to meet my brother at 5am for a tuna auction at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market (pronounced “skee-jee,” it rhymes with “squeegee”). There I was in bed, fighting the 4am wake up call. Though by the time the clock would roll past 9am, I would have a greater appreciation for fish markets, squirming seafood, and a certain “part” of a fish I bet you never would have imagined anyone would eat
After groaning and dragging ourselves out of bed, Erick and I took quick showers and made our way out to the windy brisk Tokyo morning. The cavernous streets lined with the towering skyscrapers of the Ginza District held a few passing people scampering on their way home from what appeared to be last night’s party. Otherwise the lack of cars and pedestrians stood in sharp contrast to the masses of people, vehicles, lights and noise that had greeted us a day earlier, upon our arrival in Japan.
My brother, Adam, had been living in Tokyo for the last four months, studying at Shenshu University, and he and his Japanese speaking-ability joined Erick and I for a few weeks of travel across Japan. The cast of characters also added two ladies: Jenni, my brother’s girlfriend from Omaha (USA), and Maya, a friend of mine (who incidentally is an Indian-Chinese Canadian who grew up in Atlanta, was schooled in Holland and Boston and now lives in Hong Kong). All of us arrived at the Tsukiji Fish Market as the sun just began to rise in the midst of whirring carts, reversing cargo trucks, thousands of pounds of ice, and hundreds and hundreds of unbelievably expensive raw tuna carcasses.
Tsukiji is the world’s largest wholesale fish market and one of the largest wholesale markets of any kind. Our friends at Wikipedia report that the market does about $6 billion dollars (US) of business each year. It opens each day around 3am and at 5am the tuna auction begins. Large, frozen, and hollowed tuna bodies are laid out in neat rows as busy wholesale buyers scurry between them scribbling fervently on little notepads in chicken-scratched Japanese characters. The auction process reminds me of a cattle auction that I once attended as a kid, but these tuna go for a bit more per head, around 120,000 Yen per fish (that’s about $10,000 US).
We made our way out of the auction house and into the densely packed narrow aisles that slice like a grid through literally thousands of small shops selling over 400 kinds of seafood. Yellow fish, salmon, octopus, crab, sea weed, scallops, mussels, caviar, jelly fish, snails, shrimp, sea cucumbers, tuna, star fish, and more. Slices of freshly cut tuna are eloquently laid on lit beds of translucent ice chunks, squirming eels slither in rat’s nest-like balls in white styrofoam basins and scampering live silver fish flop around in empty gray plastic tubs with their gills squeezing for their last breaths—a fish out of water, the fact that this could be foreshadowing via metaphor of my next few weeks in Japan, as a non-Japanese speaking tourist, was not entirely lost on me.
After our group split up, explored, snapped some photos, and poked a few fish ourselves, we set out to find, “The Best Sushi In The World.” It was 7am.
My brother took us to what we were told was the best sushi bar of them all, a quaint little place that sits about 12 people with four sushi chefs wielding dangerously sharp knives, cleanly slicing thin pieces of raw fish and neatly placing, rolling and squeezing them between and on top of sticky balls of vinegar and sugar-laced white rice and paper-thin sheets of dried seaweed (nori). It was 7:10am, but a line had formed in front of the door and snaked back on itself, not unlike the black eels we had just seen. We got in line and waited an hour and a half. “This better be good,” I thought, though the line this early, added to the whole argument as “The Best Sushi In The World.”
When we finally arrived at the door, we were hustled inside with some quick Japanese words. Since we had a party of 5 and the entire place only sat 12, we were separated and spread along the sushi bar. My brother had prepped us for the experience, explaining that there were many different kinds of sushi, but if we wanted a wide sampling we could order the special set that contained a variety of 12 sushi pieces. “Set-o” he taught us how to say it in Japanese to our non-English speaking chef. The cost $36 (US). I figured, “Well, when in Rome…” (“when in Tokyo,” really.) It was 8:30am.
“Set-o.” I said. The chef nodded and went to work crafting a dozen fresh pieces of sushi, setting them in front of me as a cup of steaming hot green tea landed at my spot on the bar. I was wedged with a bag on my lap and a sushi diner cramped on either side. I fumbled with my chopsticks in the tiny room, like a man does with a pool cue when the pool table is wedged in the back of a bar with a low hanging light and placed too close to the walls. We ate quickly because there was an unarticulated pressure to hurry, since the eel-like line outside was growing quickly and the raw fish fillets spread along the sushi bar weren’t getting any fresher.
The sushi was good. Was it the best in the world? I’m not sure yet. My favorite: the semi-fatty tuna roll. My least favorite/most hated: sea urchin. (Sea urchin is brownish orange, has the consistency of toothpaste, and tastes like shit. Or fish. Or fish shit.) I have been traveling for six months and the only thing I’ve had so far that I will never eat again is sea urchin. I had it in China and hated it. I had it again here, but mostly because the chef, who was standing right in front of me in a very small room, had an exceptionally sharp knife and didn’t speak any English. Thus I ate ANYTHING he put in front of me.
Nearing the end of our sushi breakfast a friendly English-speaking Japanese couple sat down next to Maya and I and struck up a conversation. The husband and wife were nice to share with us a bit about the sushi bar, what we were eating, and asked about our initial thoughts on Japan. As we were getting ready to leave the wife leaned over and asked us if we had tried a certain type of fish she had just been served, saying the name in Japanese. “Um, no,” I replied, not really understanding her. “We haven’t. What is it?” I ask nicely. The woman looked at us a bit nervous, glanced quickly to the side a few times, and using her hand to cover her mouth so her neighbors could not see, she said, “It’s…” mouthing the rest of the sentence towards us. I wasn’t able to read her lips, but as a courtesy I nodded.
“Would you like to try it? You really should,” she told us. “Well, um…” I paused.
“It is only good absolutely fresh,” she said. “And this restaurant is the only place you should get it because it is the best and the freshest,” she insisted. The line outside snaked back further and turned another corner, the crowd grew more impatient as they waited.
“Well, we couldn’t, we must get g….”I said, as she cut me off by offering up a taste. The small, white noodle-like thing slid a bit around the plate. “Well, if its the best in the world….” I said and used my chopsticks to grip the little elongated bite and put it in my mouth. It didn’t taste like much, it was a bit slimy, and tasted similar to some of the strange sushi pieces I had in my “set-o.” I asked, “What kind of fish was it again?” “White fish,” the woman assured. “White fish,” I thought. We thanked the couple, paid our bill, and slipped out of the restaurant into the early morning sunshine.
As we wedged our way between the crowd, clinging tightly to our bags, Maya poked me in the ribs, exclaiming, “I can’t believe you ate that!”
“Ate what?!” I questioned.
“The…um….from the lady,” Maya smirked.
I stopped. “What? What was it? I couldn’t read her lips, what was it?”
Maya laughed. My stomach sunk and my face dropped. “What was it!?” I demanded.
“It was….um…um…” Maya paused purposely and glanced cautiously to the side a few times, whispering so that no one might overhear, “The woman said….it was…um…. FISH SEMEN.” She smiled proudly.
The next hour was spent in search of a stomach pump and a Coke machine. In the end, I survived. The lesson here is: When in search of “The World’s Best” anything, you better damn well make sure that you actually want it.
(click the photo below to see more photos from the Tsukiji Market)