Day Seven – Tokyo – Fish Market and Food Tour (Part I)

Day seven started, like so many others, with a Boss coffee. Did I mention how much I love Boss coffee? Boss really is boss of them all, as the can says.

I needed coffee becuase we got up early (relatively) to head down to the see the world famous Tsukiji fish market. We had grand ambitions before actually arriving here of going on the 4:00am tour to see the actual tuna auctions take place. That was quickly squelched when we watched a documentary about it and found out only 100 people are allowed on the tour. Meaning you could show up at 3:50am…..and have absolutely nothing to do until 7 or so when the surrounding market opened up if you weren’t one of the lucky few.

So, we decided 8am was a much more civilized time to wake up and go, and so it was done. We took the JR line (LOVE that pass) to the surrounding market. The stalls are very very close, like one or two people wide at most, and everyone selling super fresh fish from whatever was brought in that morning at auction. Delivery of said good from auction to stall was done via electric ride-on pallet jacks. Think of the stand-up forklift at Home Depot and you have the idea. Except these were crossed with the speeder bikes from Star Wars and went close to the speed of sound. They were really cumbersome and did not at all belong in a public market, so of course there were dozens of them.

The market itself, like many others in Asia, had anything you could think of: fruits, veggies, fresh roasted coffee, kimonos and beautiful hand-drafted knives. The latter we ended up buying. Japanese knives are quite different from what North Americans use as it is sharpened on only one side and the angle of sharpening is more (or less, I forget) and are incredibly sharp. We bought one from the craftsman who made them and they honed the edge for us as we waited.

All this before breakfast! Which was also a fish market specialty: Coal grilled seafood on a stick. For ¥200 (about $2.50) per skewer we got one each of whole scallops (foot and all), swordfish, eel and squid. All amazing.

But we had still not actually seen the fish market part of the fish market. We did eventually find it and got to the entrance where a guard came over and showed us a sign that told us entry to this area was prohibited until after 10am. The reasoning, it turns out as we turned our backs, was that the speeder delivery wrecking machines that were going the speed of sound in the market were here going as fast as purely theoretical particles and in significantly greater numbers. We stopped to watch as the graceful ballet of car, pedestrian, wrecking delivery machine and cargo truck took place. Some would say On Golden Pond is a masterpiece, but those people have never seen the Tsukiji Fish Players classic.

This took us to about 10am, so we needed to hightail it back to Shibuya (see Day Six) to meet our food tour guide. The day we had waited for since, well, our previous food tour a couple days ago. This food tour is with Culinary Backstreets, a company we had one tour (that we paid for, and one we just sort-of joined with the same guide the next day) in Istanbul and absolutely loved it.

We met in front of a famous dog statue (super quick version of the story…university prof takes train every day to work, dog comes with him to the station. At night he comes home, dog is waiting at the train station for him. Prof dies. Dog continues this daily schedule for years more anyway. Japanese people adore this loyalty, name entire section of Tokyo after dog. Dog’s name: Shibuya)

Noam is the guides name, and he is originally from San Diego but has been living here for about 12-years and is married to a Japanese national. Which fulfills Pro Tip #1 of get a speaker who does both languages. We learned some lessons from the tour with Kevin, so we keep our mouths shut from the get-go (see Day One Food Tour)

Noam had us start in the basement of the department store we were sitting at. Here’s the thing about basements in supermarkets in Japan: they are amazing for food. Like…amazing.

Actually lets expand the circle on that for a moment…here’s the thing about food everywhere in Japan: Its all amazingly fresh, even in tiny convenience stores. There are legions of 7-11 stores (18,000 actually), and every single one has an entire refrigerated section stocked with fresh nigiri sushi, rolls, steamed buns and more. They almost always have a hot plate with tako or something else hot and a broth with something floating in it. In addition to a hot tray with chicken katsu and tempura. And all amazingly fresh. It is absolutely culturally acceptable to grab dinner from a convenience store on the way home. The hot Safeway chicken is okay, this is not next level, this is about 26-levels higher than that.

Which for a North Americans is the complete opposite of what you would think. There are exactly 3 reasons to eat at 7-11 at home:

  1. You are drunk and its 3am and nothing else is open
  2. You are on Jackass (and its also 3am and nothing else is open)
  3. You’ve rolled snake eyes in the game of life and taqitos from 2002 on a roller and nachos with Cheeeezzzzeee (TM) are now fine dining for you

The 7-11’s are well lit, don’t have skid row regulars hanging out in front of them, and are totally devoid of sticky Slurpee on the floor. In short they are a useful business in a neighborhood, not the place for a wine-tipped cigar and the lottery ticket being counted on as an RRSP.

But I digress (if you don’t believe me, read the prior tangent). So the basement of the food store (which was called Food Show) had stall after stall of fresh fish available to take home, already cut as most people don’t have the skill to do it themselves, and maybe held a dozen cold case bins holding dozens of perfectly prepared and fresh sashimi sushi boxes like you would see at any restaurant ready to take home. Noam took us to a tiny little corner where there was a bar where you could eat sushi. So we did. And it was fantastic (if you are wondering, as clearly you are, the place was called Fish Power, because….Japan). Noam made us take note of the logo and then pointed out that all the refrigerated boxes in the bins were all made by this tiny restaurant. Their main source of income, he told us, was wholesaling sushi to supermarkets, and selling it here was more of a “why not?”. So yes, you can literally get sushi-restaurant quality fish to take home with you from a supermarket as you leap off the train on your commute home. God I love Japan.

We wandered the supermarket for another half hour or so. Once you get out of the produce and sushi sections there is a whole other world of vendors making yet more amazing food. Ogimiachi (spelling) at one, tempura’d everything at another. We tried karage, but done properly (natch). Karage at home is usually a chicken wing (or a few) lightly battered and deep fried. Here it was boneless thigh meat, mixed with soy sauce, then dipped in light batter mixed with soy sauce and deep fried. The tastes could not be more different. At another we tried a Portugese cake which was great, and the okonomiyaki station. Which surprised Noam becuase they had not been there before. Why? Well becuase the vendors rotate in every few weeks, so you can try new foods and keep coming back and not have the same thing twice. All in the basement of a department store. Makes Superstore look sub-par now, doesn’t it?

What there was not was the strange fish odour you get from some grocery stores (Save-On Foods in PoCo, for example, is the LAST place I would ever buy fish). Fish should never smell fish-y.

After the supermarket we got on transit to go to another neighbourhood in Tokyo. This, Noam explained, is how Tokyo works: each neighbourhood is a micro-cosmos as part of the bigger city, kind of like Metro Vancouver. The one we were going to was far enough out of downtown Tokyo that families would travel there on the weekend to chill and stroll and relax. Oh and eat.

And so we will….

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