Jet lag is a cruel mistress, so even though Tony & I had been awake for something verging on 28 hours by the time we had checked into our hostel and settled into our bed, we only managed to get approximately 3.5 hours of sleep before we found ourselves wide awake. Although we were certain we would sleep like the dead, it was definitely anything but a restful night’s sleep. Because of cost issues here in Tokyo, we opted to get beds in a 6-person dorm. This kind of communal sleeping arrangement is one I haven’t experienced since 2005 (and Tony has never done any kind of hostel living before), so both of us were really unaccustomed to and acutely aware that we were trying to sleep while surrounded by strangers. It was hard to let our guard down and initially relax, and to make matters worse, when we had drifted off into an uneasy sleep, a new roommate arrived at 3:30 am and loudly announced his presence, both in words & by turning on the very bright overhead light which startled us both awake. It was a rude awakening and we were never really able to get over it, so about an hour later, we decided that instead of lying in bed trying to sleep, we might as well slake our curiosity and excitement and start our first full day in Japan! And not to worry, we did so very quietly so as not to wake our fellow dormmates (we may be hostel newbies, but we do have some common sense!).
None of you will be surprised to hear that I had drafted up a rough itinerary for what to do on each of the three days while we are here in Tokyo, but given that we were rising with the sun, we decided the very best thing we could do was to throw the itinerary out the window and head to Tsukiji fish market and grab ourselves a sushi breakfast! Eating the freshest sushi in the world at the market was probably the thing we were both most excited to experience while in Tokyo, so we figured that our early start was the universe’s way of telling us not to delay and to start our trip off on the right foot. If eating raw fish (and sundry other aquatic lifeforms) for breakfast isn’t jumping into Japan with both feet then we don’t know what is!
To get to Tsukiji meant we needed to navigate the Tokyo subway system. Initially looking at the swath and swirls of colors on the map, you feel as though you are looking at a slightly more structured version of a 21st century Jackson Pollack painting. With two different operators manning the various lines and the abundance of Japanese characters, it’s daunting to say the least. However, as overwhelming as it seems at first, it is actually fairly easy to figure out and very user friendly. We have come to learn that the city of Tokyo definitely wants to do right by its tourists and the subway is no exception. If Tony & I can successfully make it to our intended destination on our first try after the travel day we had the day previously, anyone can do it!
Successfully alighting at Tsukiji station, we found the correct exit gate and made our way up to the street. As an aside, exit gates are critical in Tokyo! Do not just take any exit willynilly! Take the time to find one of the maps that lists the various nearby tourist attractions and the optimal exit to take in order to reach that destination; some of the stations have upward of 40 exits, so taking the wrong one could really put you at a disadvantage when it comes to finding your intended destination. That was clearly what had happened to the bewildered foreigner we encountered as we exited the station, so we agreed to band together and make our way to the market. Safety in numbers and all that…
It’s little wonder that our newfound friend Javier had found himself in quite the pickle because for as easy as the subway is to navigate in Tokyo, the streets are a whole different issue. Namely, they are very rarely marked with names, so even with a map in hand, navigating is really more an exercise in guesswork than anything else. That said, we did make it to the market (following the various Japanese wearing rubber galoshes and carrying large baskets was a good tactic). Despite the early hour, we were actually latecomers when it comes to Tsukiji. We had actually missed the times when the tuna auctions are open to a limited number of tourists, but were still there too early to actually enter the market, as the actual wet market where the wheeling and dealing (and chopping and hacking) is done is not open to tourists until 9:00. Thankfully there is a small area adjacent to the market that is filled with tiny shops and many restaurants, which seemed like a perfect place to bide our time AND fill our bellies because by this point we were STARVING. We happened to stumble upon the line for the crowd-favorite, Sushi Dai, which seemed like a happy accident since this was the place we had been wanting to eat at. But after waiting for 30 minutes only to find that the wait would be another 2 hours at least, we decided to cut bait and find a new place to dine. We love sushi a lot, but we won’t kid ourselves by suggesting that we’re huge connoisseurs or anything like that, so we figured that anything in the area would be fresher and better than anything we had previously experienced. After peeking into a few shops, we found one that offered fixed price sushi meals that seemed to be quite popular with other Japanese diners, so following the cardinal rule of dining in foreign places (eat where the locals eat!), we entered the restaurant.
Now, I have already said that we were SUPER EXCITED for this meal, and having read so many raves about sushi in Japan in general and at the fish market specifically, to say that we had sky-high expectations is probably an understatement. So is it any surprise that given our (likely unrealistic) expectations, Tony and I found ourselves a little bit underwhelmed by the meal we had? Don’t get me wrong: it certainly was not bad, not by any stretch of the imagination! In fact it was all generally very good, and we did get to have some “sushi firsts” we had been waiting for a very long time to have, specifically uni (sea urchin) & toro (fatty tuna). The uni was MUCH better than the iteration I had experienced in Naples, Florida (hardly surprising… and also why I still considered myself to have never really tried uni before), but the toro was disappointing. I had expected it to be buttery and unctuous, but it was very firm (and even had a piece of chewy connective tissue in it!) and if I’m completely honest, it didn’t have tons of flavor. Personally, the highlight of the meal was probably the tamago (egg) sushi, which was had a pronounced sweetness that is definitely lacking in the U.S. & Canada. In any other situation, we would be hard-pressed to find fault with the meal, but our expectations being what they were, we walked away mildly disappointed. I wanted life-changing sushi; sushi that the heavens (or the seas!) would part for, and this wasn’t that. Apart from our ridiculous expectations, we think several other factors could have combined to result in our relatively lackluster experience:
- As Tony rightly points out, just because locals are eating somewhere, that isn’t proof that the restaurant is any good. I mean, if you came to the U.S., you would probably assume that Taco Bell and McDonald’s are where it’s at… so maybe we picked a place that was good but not great.
- Tony and I may legitimately have sucky sushi palates and even if we had been dining at Jiro’s sushi joint itself, we may not have the tastebuds required to tell phenomenal sushi from average sushi. I mean, when it comes to wine, Tony and I can’t tell a $9 bottle from a $50 one, so the same may be true for sushi as well.
- Maybe we have just been really lucky and have eaten some really excellent sushi while in the U.S.
In the end, we paid 6100Y for our sushi breakfast experience at Tsukiji. We ordered one chef’s recommendation plate (10 pieces of sushi, 2500Y) and one special omakase set (12 pieces of sushi, 3600Y). Both meals came with green tea and a bowl of miso soup. While it did sting a bit to pay over $70USD for a meal we didn’t love, those prices are pretty much fixed in the market area, and you’d be hard-pressed to eat for any cheaper if this is something you want to do. We had always planned for this to be a relative splurge in our budget, but we still had a bit of sticker shock, perhaps because the meal hadn’t lived up to the hype. It’s not an experience we are sad we had—if we hadn’t done it, we always would have wondered!—but it’s not one we feel we need to have again. It also will not be the last time we have sushi in Japan, but we plan to do so in a much more budget-friendly way in the future. And yes, hopefully this experience will teach us to try to keep our expectations in check, because it is rare that reality lives up to what we build in our own minds when we let our imagination run wild!
Having fueled up, we were now ready to see the place where the ingredients for our meal had been purchased. I wish I could say that Tsukiji itself managed overcome our ambivalent introduction to Japan, but unfortunately it only heightened the mixed feelings we were experiencing. There is no denying that Tsukiji is a sight to behold, a real force to be reckoned with. Nor can I argue that I didn’t appreciate being able to witness a completely unvarnished slice of authentic Japanese life occurring before my very eyes; Tsukiji is a working market that operates despite tourism rather than because of it. And I think therein lies the crux of our discomfort at being there: it is a place of business where countless Japanese are toiling at their livelihood and given the sheer volume of people and products, no matter how conscientious you are, how hard you attempt to remain inconspicuous, the fact is that you will be in someone’s way. As cool as it was to marvel at the sights, sounds & smells, we HATED feeling like we were possibly impeding the stall owners’ ability to conduct their business. As tourists cannot purchase anything from the stalls (nor do we pay anything to visit the market), the vendors do not benefit in the slightest from having us there. Without question, by being there, we are nuisances. While we wandered around the restaurant district prior to entering Tsukiji proper, we saw an ad for a book that referred to Tsukiji as an “involuntary tourist destination”. At first I thought this might have been one of those funny “lost in translation” moments, but having stepped into the market myself, I think that phrase pretty much gets at the heart of the matter.
Like the sushi breakfast, visiting the market isn’t something that either Tony or I regret having done, nor is it our intention to dissuade you from visiting. It really was an interesting place and offered a glimpse into a part of Japan that you likely won’t get anywhere else. However, I think it’s important to try our best to be responsible tourists, and in all the reading I had done on Tsukiji, never once did I read anyone speak about it as anything more than a fun attraction. Guidebooks encourage people to visit and I understand the appeal, but please be mindful when you visit, not just about your actions (obviously, don’t touch or lick(!) any of the merchandise!) but about the amount of time you spend there. Also, as we would later discover, there are actually tons of markets in Tokyo, many that rival the vibrancy of Tsukiji, but are definitely more tourist friendly, so in the end, we don’t feel that Tsukiji needs to be the be-all end-all of your Tokyo market tourism. For Tony & myself, having a “cool” experience at the expense of people just trying to do their jobs is not worth it, so we were in and out in under 30 minutes.
So, within a few hours of exploring Tokyo, we were unsettled and overwhelmed… and it wasn’t even noon yet! Stay tuned for our next post, in which we talk about the rest of our day… After this rocky start, things can only improve, right?