In providing Tokyo’s restaurants with the necessary amount of fish to feed their hungry customers during the day, the Tsukiji market, inherently, begins its operations extremely early. At 3:00 A.M., to be exact, before sunrise, at which point, wholesalers lay out the fish that were caught the previous day in preparation for the morning auction, while others inspect the quality of the fish and assign estimate prices. With this in mind, my group of friends and I had forgone sleep during the night, with the few exceptions of unintentional naps, and left our dorms at around 5:00 A.M.
The stench of fish filled our nostrils even before we arrived at the market, as we emerged from the Tsukiji station. By the time we arrived at the market at 6:30 A.M., there were still a few bidding wars for the freshest fish lingering on in the reverberant and low-ceiling entrance building. Japanese men, wearing baseball caps with their auctioning numbers, walked around the remaining fish nonchalantly with a tough look on their faces, once in a while poking at the fish, as the auctioneer fervently rung a bell at unequal intervals and yelled out in Japanese at an uncanny speed.
Following the auction, our group dispersed into the market area looking at the numerous fresh fish being sold in the approximately 900+ stalls operating in the market. To say the market area was busy would be an understatement—it was chaotic. Men and women in aprons and boots were running all over the place, often with some part of a fish in their arms. Others zipped through the crowds on compact vehicles that had a large steering wheel found in trucks and a space in the back that carried fish that were too large for human arms. All the while, trucks and forklifts sped around the fringes of the market trying to transport fish out into the city. Amidst all of this, there were the tourists, me included, who seemed to be constantly in the way of all the locals working or shopping in the market. Little sympathy was shown towards me as a visitor, as the locals would either yell at me to get of the way or sound off an exceptionally loud honk from their small vehicles, sometimes inches away from knocking me down or running me over.
Having experienced the market’s hectic environment and pungent smell of fish, my friends and I moved on to our final plan of the morning–eating a sushi breakfast at the famous Sushi Dai restaurant. Unlike the experiences of most visitors of the restaurant, my group only had to wait 45 minutes as opposed to the usual hour and half to get a seat. This tiny restaurant, which seats only 14 people, is unique as it, literally, serves the freshest fish, consequent to its convenient location right next to the Tsukiji market. I tasted flavors I never knew existed. For lack of a better phrase, each sushi melted in my mouth. The food was so good, I forgot to take photos of it (there are plenty shots online, however, be warned, once you see them you’ll get hungry). In addition to the “freshness” factor, Sushi Dai is interesting as it offers a very immediate gastronomic experience. Following our order of the 11 piece sushi set, the three chefs behind the bar made each sushi in front of our eyes and then reached over and placed them in front of us. There were no waiters serving us and sucking up hoping for a larger tip or fancy ornaments that complimented each sushi. It was just plain sensational food.
Unfortunately, since the disastrous earthquake, which damaged nuclear plants, hit northeastern Japan in March of this year, there has been a significant decrease in the number of visitors at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Accordingly, there has been less business, thus resulting in fewer workers at the, once frantic, market. The Chicago Sun Times recently reported that the intense fears of radiation in Japan and around the world are subsiding consequent to the debunking of various misconceptions of how safe Japan really is. Hopefully, over time, the market will be able to regain its unique vitality.