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Sushi and sumo: that’s what Tokyo does. I’ve said this before and it is as inaccurate now as it was then, but when you travel to far off lands, it is as important to search for true meanings of your destination as it is to see how you previously perceived that destination.

I have been to sumo, I have eaten sushi, but until yesterday morning, I had never been to Tsukiji.

Let me make a more formal introduction. America, this is the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tsukiji Fish Market, this is America. Many know you, but too few know you, Tsukiji.

The Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market is a large market for fish, fruit and vegetables in central Tokyo. But, those of you who have heard of Tsukiji, and certainly those that have been there, don’t remember the stalls of produce or knife shops. That is because the Tsukiji Market is best known for being one of the largest and certainly the most famous fish market in the world. Housed mostly under three or four adjacent warehouses, some open-air and others kept chilled, Tsukiji handles over 2,500 tons of marine products per day. According to the Tokyo tourist bureau, those 5 million daily pounds of fish are seven times as much as Paris’s Rungis, the world’s second largest wholesale market, and 11 times the volume of Fulton Fish Market, North America’s largest which is now in the Bronx of New York City.

Tsukiji is at the top of the fish market food chain in every pertinent and measurable category. The market handles over 400 different types of seafood, “from penny-per-piece sardines to golden brown dried sea slug caviar, a bargain at $473 U.S. a pound,” according to National Geographic. Seafood from 60 countries on six different continents finds its way to Tsukiji.

Indeed, Tsukiji is so popular as a tourist attraction that the early morning tuna auctions, regarded as one of the most important travel sites in the world, were closed to tourists in May of 2005. That is, of course, unless you are with an insider. If you have learned anything about me, you would know that I know how to get me an insider. It is all about connections. Or just asking anyone and everyone for help.

His name is Ken, a sushi chef for more than a decade and a half, and he agreed to wake up and meet me outside the Tsukiji market at 4:30am. If you want to take in Tsukiji, there is no choice but to meet in the darkness and sneak into the eerily subdued market.

We cut our way past the public market, with doors opening and boxes moving. We walked towards factory-like warehouses as motorized carts and forklifts buzzed around us. We strode through individual sellers, setting up containers of live sea eel, pickled octopus, crab and every fish I ever knew and plenty I didn’t. We walked and the market began to wake up. It did so quickly, within the next half an hour, what was a quiet clamor when we arrived became giant, busy crowds.

Once we managed through the mangled labyrinth of seafood, a veritable waterless ocean community where $28 million (USD) of fish is sold daily, we were on to the closed warehouses. Walking close to Ken, I opened a door, covered with a sign that read “NO admittance,” and was shot with hundreds of frozen tuna, lying on the ground, as they were poked and prodded by flash-lighted, rubber-booted buyers and sellers. (See Photo Album)

We moved from room to room, as Ken passed the “medium grade” tuna to find the highest, largest, and most expensive. Even the smallest tuna were four feet long and weighed over 200 pounds.

The average weight, Ken mentioned to me, was over 1,000 pounds just twenty years ago, but over fishing has drastically reduced that number, plummeting the average to a few hundred pounds. Tuna fishing was once seasonal. These days, Tsukiji will have auctions for hundreds of these massive tuna six days a week throughout the year. So, today, the largest blue fin tuna rarely exceed 1,000 pounds.

Still, Tsukiji is, it has been said, the Wall Street of seafood. Since the sushi craze of the late 1990s made the Japanese delicacy a global event, 500 pound tuna from New England or Spain are frozen and sent to Tokyo to be auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars, then shipped around the world to the finest restaurants, from Philadelphia to London, according to Ted Bestor, an American professor who has written books and countless articles on Tsukiji.

As Ken and I were finishing our tour of the frozen-solid, recently imported fish and the less-frozen locally fished tuna, crowds began to form around 5:30am and the auctions commenced. It was the ordered chaos that speaks of Tokyo the city.

Tens of auctioneers will sell 200 tuna in just a half an hour, about one every ten seconds. Only licensed bidders can fight for each tuna, which are heavily investigated prior to each auction. In between the swarming hoards of screaming auctions, Ken told me about the industry’s concern over dwindling blue fin numbers, as Japan’s craving for its favorite fish steadily increases and its diet is modeled after in almost every region of the world. I posed for silly photos with fish before we walked out and headed to the one portion of the Tsukiji experience that every tourist can and must do. A seafood breakfast.

The favorite choice? Sushi. We walked to a sushi bar and took our seats. I saw that the clock read 6:45am. I sipped the best hot green tea I’ve ever had as Ken ordered a Japanese beer and sushi by the piece. We sit in front of our sushi chef and Ken dissected every motion by our food preparer. We are in Tsukiji, where some of the best sushi chefs in the world call home.

He asked me what sushi was and I answered: fish in rice, ignoring Tamago (egg) and other exceptions. (I was with a professional, I got nervous). He nodded, then broke down sushi in its language of extraction. Four tastes, he explained, was all that sushi meant. Hot, cold, sweet and sour. The hot of the wasabi, which is put in each roll in Japan, the cold of the fish, the sweet and sour in the rice mixture. It was in this way, he explained, that many Japanese dishes were traditionally considered sushi.

He laughed at my puzzled nodding, gulped his beer and thanked the chef at the first round of sushi was plopped on our trays. He bit in first and shot me a look of approval. He added as I went to dive in, that I should notice how the rice melts away and I’m left with the fish. American sushi, he explained, which is great in its own way, has become a much more compact food. A great sushi chef catering to a knowledgeable eater will make the rice hold, but allow each granule to crumble in the mouth, Ken said.

I have had sushi in Tokyo before. It was always good, but I have had some great sushi in the United States. It was my understanding that Japanese people prepare the Japanese dish with fresh produce both in the States and in Japan, so what could be the big difference?

Well, the difference, I suppose, was that the sushi Ken and I were enjoying was using fish that was swimming just hours before. Remarkable. The rice melted away and I was left with the fish. The best fish I had ever tasted. I didn’t know what to do. Each piece was the best I had ever had. It was the best fish I ever had.

I hadn’t finished swallowing an Amaebi roll, the broiled seal eel still clinging to my gums, and I looked at Ken and told him that I didn’t know that I liked fish that much. He laughed a big laugh, pounded his piece of horse mackerel, with a touch of soy sauce, and ordered another beer.

All told, I spent 4,000 yen ($34 USD) on sushi in two hours. I know. But, it was seven in the morning, I was drinking mug after mug of warm green tea, alongside a sushi chef who told me we were eating some of the finest sushi even he had ever had and so we just kept ordering more.

We had a Tokyo specialty, octopus or tako and zuwaigani, Japanese hairy crab. I even answered Ken’s challenge; I pounded down Komochikonbu, herring roe with studded kelp, and wanted more. We had five different tuna rolls, including my favorite of the day, aburitoro, fatty tuna.

The tuna is just barely seared to bring its flavor to a head. Ken claimed the technique originated there in Tsukiji and was difficult to be found anywhere else in the world.

We walked outside after paying our bill, and Ken laughed at my eyes, which must have been glazed in amazement. I had never spent more than $6 on a meal and left without complaint. I am cheap, I eat a lot. I left satisfied, I left amazed, I left empty-pocketed. I left overwhelmingly pleased.

We walked to where we had locked up our bikes, and, after a goodbye and thanks, we rode off, my stomach full and mind empty, save for recounting each bite I had taken that morning. Quite a beginning, it wasn’t yet nine am. That was Japan.

Jaa mata,
Oh, and if you’re curious, here is most of the sushi we had. I missed some, but these are some of the fun ones.

Aji- Horse Mackerel
Tai- Sea Bream
Maguro- Upper dorsal fin area Tuna
Chu/toro- Half and Half Fatty and Lean Tuna
Hotate- Live Scallop
Mirugai- Horseneck Clam
Akagai- Live Red Clam
Engawa- Fluke Fin
Kanpachi- Young Skip Jack
Zuwaigani- Japanese Hairy Crab
Amaebi- Sweet Shrimp
Tako- Octopus
Anago- Broiled Sea Eel
Komochikonbu- Herring Roe Studded Kelp
Ikura- Salmon Roe
Aburitoro- Seared Fatty Tuna with Nira

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