June 15, 1999
I got up this morning at 4:30 am and went to Tsukiji. There were a lot of people on the 5:30 train, it seemed. When I got to Tokyo and transferred to the subway, I began to see a lot of people in rubber boots. I followed the rubber-booted men out of the subway station and towards the market.

There are two Tsukijis, actually. There is a block or two filled with stalls selling all kinds of fish, produce and other cooking goods such as those gorgeous steel Iron Chef knives. I went there first, wandered about a bit. It was fairly bustling, with guys on motorbikes and carts driving down the narrow alleyways. A few tourists skulking about too.
After awhile, I began to wonder about the real Tsukiji. I found some more rubber-booted men with baskets and cigarettes to follow down the street and over a rise in the road straight into Tsukiji’s hive. I know “hive of activity” is a cliche, but I am at a loss to describe this epicenter of noise and action and movement on every sort of vehicle in every direction. I felt a little superfluous there, but it was an exhilarating place, filled with people, noise, traffic, stalls, and every kind of seafood, some of it alive and splashing, some of it frozen solid. Huge tunas (maguro) were thawing out everywhere, waiting to be cut.

This is also probably something that has already been said, but Tsukiji is ground zero for fish in a nation that consumes the stuff passionately. Walking in there is like walking into an airplane hangar – it’s dark and your eyes have to adjust to the light. On either side of the trading area there are “roadways” of traffic going in and out – motorized carts, bicycles, dollies, scooters, even rickshaw-like contraptions. Guys are zooming around with innumerable white styrofoam packing crates. Outside, on one side of the market, the used crates form a huge mountain.
I walked up and down the narrow aisles trying to take it all in – the colours, the giant tunas, a row of live crabs – one vat of them in water, another crate of sand covered crabs. I wanted to touch them to see if they were really still alive. There were great varieties of octopus and shrimp and a beautiful unidentifiable bright red set of tentacles. Several, actually.
Everyone was busy – I was trying to see it all without getting too much in the way. It got so that as I walked, each time I came to a crossing I would look both ways for traffic coming down the busy “streets”. A few of the old guys were very friendly as I stopped by to gawk at their fish. Omoshiroi!
At one stall, I thought the old man was slicing his hands in the hair to tell me to get out, but he was smiling so perhaps it was his way of waving hello. His stall mate also gave me a cheery hello and ohayo gozaimasu. I’m sure they are used to tourists stalking around, perhaps they wonder why we should be interested in being there. “I work here, what could be interesting about a fish market?” Tsukiji has inspired a few ethnographies and analyses and I certainly wanted to go out and write my own. Quite a few of the sellers smiled and said good morning. When I stopped to look at a box of enormous tiger shrimp, I was startled by calls of “Money! Money!” I was confused until I realized the man was saying “Morning!”
Seeing all that fish in various states of preparation did not diminish my longing for a fresh sushi breakfast. Across from the main building was another one with rows of food stalls, noodle bars and a few sushi places. Maybe my geography was wrong but I had expected more sushi bars. I reasoned that people who handled fish all morning would probably not want to eat it again right away.
I fought my way back through the market and dodged and swerved my way back across the busy parking lot? loading docks? to the food stalls.
I found an open sushi bar; to my surprise it was empty. I bought the lowest-priced set, which included the coveted maguro, buri, ebi (prawn) and iro iro (stuff I ate but did not identify) nigiri sushi and finished off with a set of kappa (cucumber) and tuna maki. The chef, who was quite young and adorable, set down each item in front me on the high, clean wooden bar above the counter as he made it. He smiled as he set down each piece and said “Dozo!” It was such good-tasting sushi – the maguro was heavenly, did it come from the market that very morning? I imagine it did. To finish, the chef gave me a bowl of seafood miso soup which was also unexpectedly fresh. I think it might have had sardines in it but it was absolutely delicious. Even the green tea was real matcha, thick with floating green leaves.
Yum.

(I wrote this entry in my diary later on the same morning while sitting at the Board of Education office with my fellow English teachers in Chiba City, Japan. I’m glad I wrote down as much as I did, because this is the best food experience I ever had. No other sushi even comes close.)

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