Jetlag woke me up at 3:30 AM this morning, which left me with a big chunk of time before my flight to Singapore at 11:00. Fortunately, I had a plan: head down to Tsukiji, the world's largest wholesale seafood market, to check out the action and snag a bite of super-fresh sushi. I would have preferred to have slept until 4:30 or so and gotten up in time for the first subway (left the nearest station at 5:04 AM), but since I was up far before that I decided to leave early and to walk.
I arrived at the market at 4:39 AM, which I thought was going to be way too early, but the place was packed with people and fish. This place is a big tourist draw, so it's a bit disorienting to learn that the place is nothing more than a big warehouse complex crawling with forklifts and semis. There's nothing charming about it in terms of a market.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The charm, it turns out, rests in the little alleys off to the side of the market, where little tiny stalls do a brisk business in the freshest sushi that you can imagine.
On the recommendation of several Japanese friends, I decided to try a particularly famous one called "Sushi Dai." I had heard that it opens at 5:00 AM so I thought that it was good that I made it there so early, but it turns out that I wasn't the only one with this idea. When I strolled up around 4:50 or so, this is what I saw: a big mass of Japanese hipsters and salarymen, out for a last bite after a long night of carousing the town.
Wait Line for Sushi Dai, 4:50 AM on a Monday
The woman with the pad is taking orders. The way it works is, she tells you that you can have whatever you want, but everyone orders the Chef's special…she relays that to the three sushi chefs inside, who make your sushi right at the tiny bar (which is, truth be told, only slightly bigger than our bathroom at home, and seats no more than 12 people). They take their time: the special comes with 11 pieces, and it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to go through it. Had I arrived any later it would have been way too late–I didn't get a seat until 5:45, and by 5:00 the line behind me had 30 more people in it.
A problem arose, though. I'm allergic to shellfish, and this is one of their specialties. I had a friend write up a big long note about this to give to the chef or the waitress, and it is currently sitting at home on my printer. So, last night I took it upon myself to learn how how to say "don't kill me with shellfish" in Japanese. Here's what I pieced together from various internet forums (apologies if this is horribly impolite): Sumimasen. Watashi wa koukakurui no arerugi ga arimasu. Sakana wa OK desu. Osusume wa nan desu ka? Literally, "Pardon me. I have an allergy to shellfish. Fish is OK. What do you recommend." I whipped this out for the waitress and it seems to have worked perfectly, for the chef kindly substituted interesting fish choices for the three shellfish items he was giving out (live shrimp sushi, sea urchin roe sushi, and live octopus sushi).
OK, enough of that, after waiting for all that time, how did it taste? I can't say that I'm the world's leading expert on sushi, but numerous Japanese people have told me that this is the best sushi in Japan, and that means that it has to be in the running for best sushi on the planet. It was clearly the best sushi that I've ever had. Everything was fantastic: so fresh, so perfectly soft, so simple and good. The biggest surprise was not the high grade fatty tuna, which was delicious, but rather the sleepers like smelt, flounder, sea bass, and my favorite, Spanish mackerel. If you've had mackerel before, you know it can be off-puttingly oily and fishy tasting. This stuff, though…the chef lightly brushed it with a sweetish salty glaze and topped it with scallions, and gave me firm instructions not to eat it with soy sauce. Nothing fishy or oily about it, just clean and tasty.
Spanish Mackerel Sushi
The scene at the tiny little restaurant was also great, with Japanese chefs working their gigantic knives while screaming Japanese things at you (which, truth be told, only mean "HERE IS SOME SEA BASS" and "I HOPE YOU LIKED THAT" and "THANK YOU FOR COMING").
The Chefs at Sushi Dai (Pardon the Flash)
After that great meal, I made my way back to Narita for my flight here to Singapore. This was uneventful, although it was JAL business class so it was quite nice. From one big Asian metropolis to another, then. Tomorrow the real work part of the trip begins.