Stern rubber-clad workers wade through murky puddles. Wizened truck drivers weave through congested aisles, hauling boxes of sea monsters. Knife-wielding mongers hack and bludgeon through colossal tuna carcasses, giant spider-legged crabs, blood-red octopuses and quivering gelatinous blobs. Hot-tempered traders navigate oil-slick floors and buckets of fish guts while clamorous stalls are thick with hagglers and the funk of the morning’s trawl.
To the untrained eye, Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is a bewildering scene of chaos and carnage with gesticulating guards and merchants shepherding crowds of zealous punters and bewildered spectators. But as my initial panic settles it’s clear Tsukiji is far from bedlam. The world’s largest fish market is a slickly choreographed operation — and has to be, as it handles more than 400 types of seafood, imports from 60 countries on six continents, and is responsible for pumping billions of yen into the local economy every year.
Over 2,000 tons of seafood move through its stalls every day, from miniscule anchovies and shrimp to hulking tuna and gigantic slabs of whale. Being able to witness this fishy melee, particularly the wholesale tuna auctions, has made Tsukiji one of Tokyo’s prime tourist attractions. It’s so popular, the market strictly manages sightseer numbers, with auction spectators capped at 120 a day and groups often queuing at 4am for the chance to glimpse a potentially record-breaking deal.
Sushi chain owner Kiyoshi Kimura bagged the most expensive fish ever caught during the first auction of 2013, with a cool £1m (Y155.4m) bid for a mammoth 490lb bluefin tuna. Minutes later the prized fatty behemoth was being carved up and served to gleeful punters at his flagship restaurant a stone’s-throw away.
Gripped by jet lag, I’d opted against the ungodly early start for tuna hawking and instead headed straight for the wholesale outer market — at a more humane hour of 9am — where, arguably, the real action happens, when hundreds of middlemen set out their stalls to sell to chefs, restaurants and other local businesses.
As I frantically dodge trucks and pails of fish entrails while outmanoeuvring haggling hordes, it doesn’t take long to see that Tsukiji’s claustrophobic maze of activity perfectly captures Japan’s well-ordered confusion, revealing as much about its culture as it does its cuisine.
Seemingly random aisles are numbered and grouped according to products sold, and each ramshackle stall has its own speciality, such as tuna, prawns or live seafood. Mobs of traders jostle and shout, but carefully tend to their dizzying displays, with whole fish always positioned eyes to the left and tail to the right.
I spy one intensely focused figure performing the skilled practice of ikejime — a technique for killing and bleeding a fish quickly by pushing a thin wire down the spinal cord, to ensure a richer texture and flavour — while over on the eel stalls, crude metal spikes pin down masses of wriggling bodies before they’re butterflied open.
Dozens of nonchalant fishmongers brandish sword-long knives and screeching bandsaws to cut translucent tuna slices with surgical precision. Carved into blushing bricks or, later, thinly sliced and offered up as sushi (raw or cooked and served with vinegared rice) or sashimi (raw), the ruby-red flesh is as pleasing to the eye as it is the palate.
Judging by the number of chopping boards groaning with bluefin, it’s clear Japan’s craving for it is insatiable. In fact, the country consumes a staggering 80% of all bluefin caught worldwide, with much of the global catch shipped to Tsukiji, causing relentless fishing and understandable concerns about dwindling stocks.
Tsukiji’s fish-filled theatre is a well-trodden step on Tokyo’s travel trail, but it’s far from touristy. It’s gritty, authentic and wonderfully unflinching — occasionally I spot a furrow-browed vendor berating an obstructive sightseer or shooing away a trigger-happy photographer.
I’d privately questioned how interesting a seafood market could really be but the thrill and spectacle of watching big fish and big money changing hands doesn’t wane as I rapturously wander past endless crates and cutting boards of dagger-shaped sardines, glassy-eyed mullets, live scallops and disembowelled monkfish (ankimo, the liver, is considered the ‘foie gras of the sea’, with a creamy, velvet texture that’s even lighter than its duck counterpart).
Despite the fishy carnage and pungent smell, I soon work up a fierce appetite. Just as well the sushi bars surrounding Tsukiji are opening and preparing some of the freshest seafood found anywhere in the world. Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa are the much-lauded, go-to breakfast joints following Tsukiji tours. Both, within stumbling distance of the wholesale market, are heaving by the time I arrive.
When a weary-looking American outside Sushi Dai tells me he’s been waiting two hours for a table — worth it, by all accounts — I impatiently look elsewhere for a sushi breakfast. I’m soon grazing a 14-piece platter at nearby Tsukiji Sushi Sen. It’s incredible to think I’m sampling some of the very fish I’ve just seen sold at the market. The sea urchin is sweet, creamy and briny while the velvety, fatty tuna melts on the tongue.
It’s tragic to think the unique experience of Tsukiji will soon be lost. After more than 78 years at its present location, the market is set to relocate in early 2016 to a new, purpose-built, climate-controlled distribution centre on the man-made island of Toyosu, in the Tokyo Bay area. Officially, the reason for the controversial move is a commercial one: an attempt to keep pace with Japan’s insatiable appetite for ever-fresher fish (Tokyo may have mushroomed into a futuristic, neon-lit mega-metropolis but little has changed at Tsukiji since business began in 1935). But others fear this historic landmark is being sacrificed as part of a city-wide facelift ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
While Tsukiji’s imminent demise is being mourned by many as a further erosion of an older, quainter way of life in Japan, tradition still runs deep here, particularly when it comes to sushi. This deeply ritualistic style of preparing raw fish with vinegared rice dates from the 18th century, when it became the popular street food of Edo (Tokyo’s historic name). Since then, of course, Japan’s national dish has conquered the globe as a healthy convenience food. But despite its ubiquity I’m unprepared for the intricacy of the creations — and the sheer variety of underwater ingredients — on offer at countless sushi counters; places where the chefs are not just craftsmen but proud custodians of a delicate art.
Ask 100 Tokyoites to name the best sushi joint in town and you’re likely to get 100 different answers, such is the choice on offer, from chains to Michelin-starred joints. Having heard rumours of daunting top-end sushi restaurants, where prices aren’t listed and customers are expected to know their uni (sea urchin) from their ikura (salmon roe), I decide to get my bearings at Sushizanmai, in Roppongi, one of the reliable chain’s 30-plus locations in Toyko.
Sushizanmai may lack the top cuts of fish but it’s a safe bet for newcomers or those watching their yen, as you’re sure of a quality meal without an eye-watering bill. A shouted chorus of ‘irasshaimase’ (‘welcome’) greets me as I prop up the bar while the itamae (master chef) prepares dozens of elaborate, bite-sized morsels, sculpting everything from tuna, squid and freshwater eel to prawn, mackerel and snow crab.
As in most Japanese restaurants, the menu is illustrated with bright, kitschy images. Unable to speak more than a few words of Japanese, I’m tempted to just point, or opt for a set menu. But I decide to be brave, and clumsily negotiate a dinner price of Y2,500 (£14) with the itamae, giving him free rein to curate his own degustation parade of nigiri (sliced raw fish atop a block of vinegared rice), gunkan (rice with an ikura topping in a cylinder of nori seaweed), norimaki (sushi roll), and temaki (sushi in a nori cone).
Watching my sushi smorgasbord slowly taking shape is so engrossing I almost forget I’m here to eat. The master chef’s pride in his work is tangible. As the creative force at the heart of sushi culture his craft takes years to refine. Close to 10, in fact. After five years shadowing a sushi master, a wakiita (apprentice) slowly elevates to more important tasks such as preparing sushi rice. Only after the itamae is satisfied with his disciple’s treatment of rice, salt and vinegar can he move closer to the coveted cutting board, interacting with customers and preparing simple orders. Years later, the wakiita is finally crowned itamae. But it doesn’t quite end there. According to legend, a master chef only attains true greatness by being able to create sushi in which every grain of rice points in the same direction.
With such fine detail paid to sushi’s preparation I’m keen to eat it with the appropriate care and attention. My initial observations of fellow diners reveal how wrong I’ve been getting it. Rolls and pieces should be picked up with fingers not chopsticks, dipped in soy sauce fish-side down, and only ever eaten whole, while wasabi and soy never mix, and pickled ginger is a palate cleanser between mouthfuls — never a garnish. Conversation, meanwhile, is kept to a minimum, with diners eating dishes promptly once presented — it’s considered impolite to leave sushi for too long, as temperature, texture and moisture quickly change and diminish taste.
I’ve clearly got some way to go before considering myself a sushi connoisseur but adopting the basic etiquette feels like a triumphant step in the right direction. And come the end of my meal, I’m feeling sufficiently confident to tackle some of Tokyo’s grander and more revered establishments such as the diminutive but imposing sushi counters in the upmarket Ginza neighbourhood.
Those who aren’t afraid to splash the cash, or eat in an incredibly austere environment, won’t find finer sushi than at Sushi Mizutani. On the ninth floor of the Juno Building, sushi star Hachiro Mizutani holds court at a virtually silent 10-seat counter, serving a succession of flawless, seasonal fish cuts. It’s outrageously pricey — over £100 for lunch and upwards of £180 for dinner — but with three Michelin stars to his name, Hachiro wears Tokyo’s sushi crown with aplomb.
From steaming bowls of ramen and platters of crispy tempura to sticky yakitori meat skewers, Tokyo is an extraordinary place to satisfy your inner glutton with street eating. But it’s Japan’s delicate, refined — even artistic — dining I’ve come for, and so, having sampled Tokyo’s finest sushi I’m keen to try kaiseki ryori, the centuries-old Japanese version of haute cuisine.
With its origins in the simple meals served during tea ceremonies, the highly formalised kaiseki tradition evolved into elaborate and expensive multi-course dining among imperial and aristocratic circles, with small but immaculate seasonal dishes served in slow succession. Today, kaiseki is best enjoyed during a stay at a ryokan (inn), for a suitably ceremonial ambience, as well as ample time to appreciate kaiseki’s visually arresting and balanced dishes.
Escaping the city
After a few days battling Tokyo’s frenetic pace, I head out to Hakone, Tokyoites’ favoured weekend retreat — just 90 minutes away by train, set in a national park with jagged, misty mountains and, on a clear day, views of Mount Fuji. The town was once a checkpoint on the Tokkaido, the road linking the shogun’s capital in Edo with the imperial capital in Kyoto. For centuries, weary travellers have flowed into Hakone to bathe in its hot springs (onsen) at traditional ryokans.
Sitting on the banks of the Sugumo River, KAI Hakone is a modern, high-design take on the ryokan, enveloped within green forest and overlooking Mt Fuji, with ultra-minimalist rooms of tatami mats and sliding paper doors, and guests stripped of their modern shackles unwinding in kimonos and wooden clogs.
Within minutes of arriving I’m decompressing from Tokyo’s thrum in a blissfully hot pool overlooking woodland. It’s difficult to leave such respite but the prospect of a multi-course kaiseki menu, showcasing fresh Pacific seafood and seasonal produce from the nearby Ashigara area, lures me to the intimate fourth-floor restaurant.
Sitting silent and alone in a dimly lit, paper-partitioned room with only the gentle murmur of distant voices, it’s clear I’m embarking on a slow and sombre ritual with very particular rules. The sound of delicate shuffling approaches before a sliding screen opens to reveal a small smiling face behind a comically oversized tray, loaded with intriguing plates and bowls.
Perhaps sensing my bafflement at what to say, do or eat first, my softly-spoken hostess politely explains the kaiseki concept and order of courses: various appetisers, sashimi and a clear soup, a series of grilled, steamed and fried dishes, before servings of rice, miso soup and a light dessert.
Kaiseki is food for the eyes as well as the palate: a delicate art form, balancing taste, texture, colour and form. I resist the urge to stuff my face with deep-fried chestnut tofu, sake-marinated shrimp, steamed eel and mushroom tempura, and try — as is the idea — to admire the imaginative way it’s all presented on woven bamboo plates and in lacquer bowls and stoneware pots, before quietly reflecting on the taste as it hits my tongue.
Each small course makes way for the next, forming a careful procession of contrasting tastes, temperatures and sensations. It isn’t always clear what I’m eating but as my admirably patient hostess explains, the joy of kaiseki lies mainly in its appeal to the senses and an appreciation of the moment.
Two hours, nine courses and one chilled bottle of sake later my gastronomic odyssey draws to a close. But not before post-dinner tea and cake.
Well and truly sated, I’m invited to the lobby to sip green tea while a traditional kamishibai storyteller narrates folktales using illustrated paper scrolls. All meaning is lost on me but it’s surprisingly moving and works as a lulling story before my inevitably heavy slumber. With an eight-course kaiseki breakfast waiting for me the next morning, I need all the sleep I can get.
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Japan Airlines and ANA all fly direct from Heathrow to Tokyo. Alternatively, Finnair has daily flights to Tokyo from both Heathrow and Manchester via Helsinki.
Average flight time: 12h.
Most international flights arrive at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, connnected to the city by rail and the Airport Limousine Bus. The Keisei Skyliner is the quickest route between Narita and Tokyo Station, while there are several bus and fixed-rate taxi services downtown.
Central Tokyo can largely be covered by train using just the looped JR Yamanote Line and Metro, although the city’s rail and suburban train lines are all well integrated. Tickets can be bought at vending machines but a prepaid Suica or Pasmo smart card is more convenient and valid on the subway, urban JR services and Greater Tokyo area buses. For journeys beyond Tokyo a seven-, 14- or 21-day Japan Rail Pass for tourists allows unrestricted travel on JR trains across Japan but must be bought before arriving in the country.
When to go
Tokyo can be visited year-round, although spring is popular for its cherry blossom and autumn for its foliage — both seasons offer cooler temperatures, around 15-23C. The summer rainy season lasts from mid-June to mid-July, while the heat and humidity are at their strongest in August.
Need to know
Currency: Yen (Y). £1 = Y172.
International dial code: 00 81.
Time difference: GMT +9.
Where to stay
The Peninsula Tokyo: From Y44,000 (£256) per night.
Hotel Okura Tokyo: From Y40,215 (£234) per night, including breakfast. Traditional tea ceremonies cost Y1,500 (£9).
KAI Hakone: From Y41,000 (£239) a night, including a seasonal kaiseki dinner and breakfast, and use of onsen facilities.
The Rough Guide to Japan. RRP: £9.99.
How to do it
Japan Journeys offers the eight-night Total Japan package, taking in the main sights of Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Hakone and Miyajima island, from £1,199 per person based on two sharing. Price includes B&B accommodation (including one night in a traditional ryokan), a meet-and-greet service on arrival, airport transfers and a seven-day Japan Rail Pass, allowing unlimited travel on the entire rail network, including the bullet train. Excludes flights.
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)