“Come on. Time to get up. You said you wanted to go”
I can’t believe he is this chipper after only four hours sleep on a tatami mat.
“But I’m all warm and snoozy” I half-heartedly protest as I roll over and open my eyes.
Before leaving Australia, Steve had organised a tour of the Tokyo fish market or Tsukiji (skid-gee) as the locals referred to it. Very precise instructions were carefully written down in kanji, Japanese characters, for us to hand our 2.30am taxi driver by the friendly concierge of our traditional ryokan. We were to meet our guide, Naoto-san, at 3am outside a Lawson store. Lawsons are a chain of 24 hour convenience stores that we’d quickly fell in love with selling everything from hot fried chicken, pantyhose, and frozen portioned vegetables to sake and coffee in a can.
Taxis in Tokyo are delightfully clean and well-presented; the drivers clearly take great pride in their vehicles. From the pleasant scent of the interior to the white lace doily over the head rest, they’re a sharp contrast to most other taxis I’ve been in around the world. We handed the taxi driver our destination instructions and he shot us a querying look but as our fluency in Japanese matched his in English, we were unable to elaborate any further. Steve kept pointing at the card. I smiled and nodded which is my default position in these circumstances I increasingly kept finding myself in while in Japan. There was a lot of bowing all round.
Arriving at the correct Lawson store at the appointed time, we stand around in the cold and look at each other.
“Does it look familiar at all?” I ask Steve hopefully.
“Sure..”He replies slowly looking up and down the street searching for any movement. “How about I go in and get us a couple of cans of hot coffee?”
He returns moments later with four cans.
“One to drink now and one to keep in your pocket to keep your hands warm” he explains, tucking one into his own and handing me a second for my own jacket.
“S-M-A-R-T” I repeat our little in joke and kiss him on the cheek. His insider knowledge of Tokyo has come in handy each day we’ve been here so far.
Minutes later a slim man dressed in a dark grey puffer jacket, khaki hat and trousers tucked into his gumboots walks efficiently up the street. Naoto-san proves an affable host with great English language skills. Unsurprisingly, he carries a small notebook and an even smaller sharpened pencil adding to the list of English names for different market produce. Having previously worked for one of the five auction houses at the market, he knows his way around.
“If I need to, I may leave you as the security guards don’t approve of my market tours. Keep walking as normal and I’ll catch up soon. The market is open to the public but the government doesn’t like me giving tours here” Naoto-san explains as we make our way towards the market shrine entrance. Now I understand his incognito attire. If this were a tour of an American market, he’d have a heavily branded jacket, hat and clipboard .
It is dark, rainy and a bit chilly – in other words perfect weather to visit a fish market. Water cascades everywhere, in and out of buckets and tanks, along gutters in the stone work upon which clever merchants have laid wooden squares to raise their wares up out of the constant water flow. And everyone wears gumboots.
“Glad I wore woollen socks, leather boots AND my leather jacket” I say to Steve as I tuck my scarf in and button up my jacket.
He looks at his red trainers already damp from the puddles and shrugs. “It was high summer when I came here last time”
For the next couple of hours, we deftly follow our guide through the endless stalls, as he points out this type of fish or that type of mollusc while trying to avoid the fast and furious motorised transporters zooming in and out the tiny alleyways. Like market people the world round, the workers here only concerned with commerce. Carrying boxes stacked high they push passed us stationary observers clogging up their pathways.
After leading us up ill-lit stairwells to the rooftop of the car park next door, he presents his beloved fish market spread out below us in its fervid chaotic splendour. Beaming proudly his arms open like a conductor presenting his orchestra to the crowd. “It’s the biggest market of its kind in the world. Open six days a week. The government want to move the market down the river but nobody really wants it to move.”
He perks up “You want sushi breakfast? I’ll take you to the best sushi restaurant”
Nodding vigorously, we both answer yes multiple times as if once wouldn’t suffice.
“I can’t believe this many people get here at 5am to line up for breakfast” I say as I grab Steve’s arm half for warmth and half so we don’t get separated in the melee. Lined up like cattle at one set of doors, the restaurant wrangler keeps us in formation.
“I can’t believe you’re actually queuing for breakfast. There’s no way I’d get you to do this in Melbourne”
“Damn right. Mind you if we were having sake with our breakfast, maybe”
The windows and doors are fogged up so it’s hard to peer in to get an idea of what we are signing up for. This place is known worldwide so I’m happy to surrender to the chef and eat omakase style. Tokyo restaurant menus complete with photographic illustrations are a boon to the foreigner and we’ve become adept at the point and nod system of ordering. This morning though we are happy to just turn up and be fed.
“Luckily ‘sake’ is sake in Japanese AND English” I lean in and whisper conspiratorially.
It’s our turn and the wrangler herds us into Daiwa Zushi for our 12 piece sushi set menu. More bowing to our chefs is required as we sidle behind our fellow diners and find the two spare stools. There’s nowhere to hang jackets, so we stay rugged up as ceramic cups of hot sake are placed in front of us. Perched in place, I look down the length of bleached wood bar and take a sticky beak at our fellow diners and what they have on the wooden blocks that are their plates.
“So everything” Steve says more as a statement than a question.
“Wouldn’t miss it” I confirm.
I had eaten sea urchin roe in Melbourne but it wasn’t till I came to Tokyo with Steve that I got even close to how good it could taste. Its golden yellow flesh creamy in the mouth with a briny yet earthy flavour. We had just witnessed the uni auctions here at the fish market and learnt about the vagaries of the weather and catch. This was going to be the freshest seafood I had ever tasted without having to catch it myself.
The rhythm of the sushi meal played out in front of us like a well-composed symphony. Starting with the lighter fish such as aji and hirame moving through to richer pieces like the uni and the otoro (fatty tuna), the sushi chefs pride themselves their timing.
“You know, sushi is 95% behind the scenes preparation by the underpaid apprentices and these chefs out front get all the glory” I proclaim as I eagerly await the first offering that is placed in front of me.
Opened and exposed as it is on the rice mound, I gingerly touch the raw prawn. It flinches. I retract my hand.
“Well it is fresh” I remark shaking my head slightly.
Aji, hirame, ebi, maguro, tako, toro, o-toro and uni. The names have cadence all to themselves. Practised hand movements mesmerise me as I watch the rice being pressed into the perfect sized mounds, a smear of wasabi underneath the thinly sliced flesh and then two are brought together like the gentle of handling a baby chick.
“You’ve got to watch ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’. Their dedication to their career is incredible. Fourteen hour days, apprenticed for ten years learning to wash rice, cook rice, stir rice, toast nori, clean and prepare fish and that’s before they’re even allowed to assemble the sushi.” he implores. “It’s called shokunin. It means repeating the same skills over and over til you become the master artisan.”
“And women aren’t any good as sushi chefs. Hands are too warm and too small” he baits the rabid feminist in me. “Plus they menstruate you know”
“You can’t annoy me today. I’m in my happy place” I say grinning from ear to ear.