Thursday, November 20, 2014

Japan / Tsukiji Fish Market

A trip to the Tsukiji  fish Market is on every list of top sights in Tokyo.  This place is the real thing, not remotely dumbed down, little trucks and carts whizzing everywhere, fisherman shouting and bartering, complete with several hundred pound tunas, live eels squiggling in vats of salt water, and every color and shape of seafood you can imagine.  The market is divided into two parts - the inner market for wholesalers, where store owners and chefs come to shop and haggle; and the outer market, lined with little stalls and restaurants where normal people come to buy their fish for the day and fisherman get their breakfast after an early morning on the water.

Approaching from the outside, it just looks like  a bustling warehouse . Step inside though and you are in the midst of the world's largest fish and seafood market. Walking through the endless aisles of the inner market, it's hard to believe there is anything left in the ocean after the catch. There is every species and size of shellfish, mollusk, octopus, squid, fish and caviar here. Things that are instantly recognizable and others that you never knew existed.

The building feels ancient, like a relic from the past that resists all notions of modernization. You are constantly dodging carts and forklifts, shimmying down tiny aisles, stepping over puddles and trying not to get in the way. It is frenetic and exciting. A symphony of moving parts, sights, sounds and action.

Every stall specializes in one thing or the other. Great uni over here, the best crabs over there, gorgeous roe around the corner.  Tokyo Chefs have their favorite spots, but as a tourist it's fun just to walk the aisles and take it all in.  Like most of Tokyo, it is an assault on the senses. The action starts early, around 5am for the famous tuna auction with brokers bidding top dollar for the good stuff.  The inner market starts breaking down around 10am, with the outer market following suit a few hours later.

Bicycles are common here, and a reasonably easy way to get around the market if you know where you are going. Large tour groups are banned from the market, so you never get that feeling of following the tourist hoards to the guidebook highlights. Small, private groups are allowed though, which is what we did. This was our only organized tour in Tokyo and it was the perfect place for it. Having a guide let us know what we were looking at, she found us a great sushi spot for lunch, and helped navigate the labyrinth that is the Tsukiji  fish Market.

Some beautiful roe on display.  The market in it's current form has been there since 1935. They are building a shiny new building, scheduled to be opened next year, that will move the inner market and it's tuna auctions a few miles away. The outer market will remain where it is. This is somewhat controversial and kind of a bummer to the foodie tourists coming to see this place in action.

Seafood in every color, shape and size.

Mmmm...dungeness crab, dusted in panko breading.

Sashimi grade tuna, ready for sale, and snacks.

Some pretty sea snails.

No idea what kind of fish these are, but they look like they would make great darts. 

Fresh octopus tentacles, ready for a sashimi plate. 

I've never even seen shrimp this color.  An electric orange with blue roe.  Gorgeous.

Bet you can't guess what these are. They waste nothing here. 

The aftermath.  Looks more like a horror movie than a market.

Fresh urchins.  Danger, sharp objects. 

And their beautiful uni.  Better than any foie gras you'll ever have.

Ever seen wasabi in it's non-grated version? These are the little plant stems, recently harvested. It grows along stream beds in Japan and purportedly has anti-microbial properties, which is part of the reason it's served alongside raw fish. They sell this all over the market, along with the wasabi graters.  You won't see this at SuperFresh.

Another specialty of the fish market, and Japan in general, is the venerated steel used for knives. There are a few shops in the outer market where you can pick up a hand forged, authentic hocho.  These are high carbon steel, feel amazing in your hand, and are insanely sharp. Once you pick out your horse, they'll sharpen it up and even engrave your initials for you.

Finally, lunch time! Our guide found us a great sushi counter down some alley of the outer market which we never would have found on our own. All of the fish was on display in table top cases and we got a front row seat to watch the chef's in action.

Watching sushi and sashimi being prepared by a trained chef is mesmerizing. With a deft hand, they know just how to slice that piece of fish to get the optimal color, texture and most importantly flavor.

Some beautiful uni & roe rolls were little treasures of umami. We sampled a selection of tuna, yellowtail, hamachi, mackerel, shrimp, and salmon.  The fish literally melts in your mouth in a lusciously piquant, eye-popping burst of flavor. Having the chance to consume said sushi just yards from the world's largest fish market is an unparalleled experience. One of my favorites experiences in Japan. 

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