Ohayo, people! I am back! Japan trip had been many things for me and I will update you more about it later. For now, let me share about my last morning in Tokyo. I only had two things scheduled on that day: to fly back to Singapore and, before that, to visit the Tsukiji fish market. If you read this blog regularly, you might know that I am obsessed with fish markets and there’s no way I was going to miss the biggest, busiest, most iconic fish market in the world.
Since I really wanted to watch the early morning live tuna auction, I woke up, showered and rushed out before dawn. When the nice lady at the hotel informed me that the train would only start by 4.30AM, I even decided to take a taxi to get there before 5AM. Unfortunately, when I reached the market, at 4.40AM and 3,700 Yen poorer, the registration for the day had been closed. Apparently people started to queue from 3AM! Kinda like waiting in front of the Apple Store to open on the first day they launch a new product. And I would do exactly that, if only I knew. The thing is, the top websites that share information about the Tsukiji fish market mentioned that the registration starts at 5AM. WRONG!
Flabbergasted, and sleep deprived, I just stood there for some time, watching other tourists experiencing the same thing as I did. I wasn’t sure what else to do at that hour, going back to the hotel to catch up with sleep seemed like a sad option. That’s when I noticed people sneak inside the market, with some kind of map in their hand. I followed them, half hoping that there might be a secret passage to get inside the tuna auction. Instead, they stopped and formed a line at the street near an alley.
“What are you queuing for?”, I asked the red t-shirt guy in front of me. “Sushi”, he said. I looked at my watch. 5.42AM. Sushi? At this time? Who eats sushi for breakfast? Questions popped in my mind, but I joined the queue anyway. It’s not like I could go somewhere and do something better at this time. Also, there were 15 people in front of me, so it must be good. Almost all of us in the line were foreigners from different parts of the world. Who, at this moment, looked like we came all the way to Japan only to eat sushi. Some of them were reading Japan travel guides, some were talking among themselves, a few checked and replied to what I assumed as work emails; while I remained observing.
After some time I noticed the queue wasn’t moving, so I went to the alley where the restaurant, Sushi Dai, was located to check what’s happening. Apparently there was another line of people waiting in front of it, they were the first part of que-ers while we were on the second part. Essentially, there were 30 people in front of me, at 6ish in the morning.
Not long after someone came and passed a small cup of drink to each of us on the line. First, I thought it was coffee, I needed it so badly. Nope, it was hot green tea. Oh well, I took what I could get.
Around this time I started a conversation with the red t-shirt guy, who lead an interesting life, and career. He was in Tokyo for business trip and he would be staying there for almost a week (lucky him). I was curious about Japanese work life balance and sort of interrogated him about it. The chit-chat we had helped make the time go faster and eventually, we reached the final part of Sushi Dai queue. We stood so close to the entrance that we could take a peek inside the restaurant and watch people eat. I did exactly that, even took pictures of them eating, because I had no manners.
It was already 7.45AM and it didn’t take a genius to realize why we needed to queue for two hours just to technically stand in front of the restaurant and stare at people. Sushi Dai, same size as my room back home, has only like 10 seats available and the chefs took their time to talk with the customer. A quick google session revealed that Sushi Dai practice a Japanese tradition called Omakase.
Omakase (pronounced oh-mah-kah-seh), or simply put means the chef’s choice, it’s a course meal where we let the chef choose our food for us. Also, unlike in most sushi places, the chefs take their time to have a conversation and to explain about each dish they choose for us.
I was doubtful about letting others pick my food; I am a picky eater, more so when it comes to sushi. When I was trying to decide what to do the person who takes the orders came. She showed me a paper with two lines of Japanese words with 2,600 and 4,000 Yen written on it. “Choose.”, she instructed us. I asked her what’s the difference. “6 pieces or 10 pieces with one bonus.” she answered. Initially, I chose the 2,600 Yen, after all I just wasted thousands to come here for nothing. And, I wasn’t sure I could eat a single piece of sushi for breakfast. Meanwhile, everyone else ordered the full course. At the very last minute, I decided not to half-ass it since I had been queuing for more than 2 hours now. I told her I wanted to change my choice from 6 to 10+1, while praying I could stomach raw fish before even taking my morning dose of coffee.
8.05AM and we were in, or to be exact, we squeezed ourselves inside Sushi Dai; seated and ready to be served.
First serving was fatty tuna. Oh man, my mouth is watering now looking at the picture. It was absolutely delicious! There and then, I knew I made a good decision of ordering the full course.
We were also served miso soup on the side, together with hot green tea, a small brick size of egg omelet and ginger. The purpose of the ginger was to cleanse your palate before you eat the next sushi and I only found out about it when we were half way through it.
Then came horse mackerel. I didn’t know how it got the name but I was so glad that it was on my table, and later in my mouth, because ohmigwad, YUM!
This was another type of tuna sushi. Look at how fresh it was. Words are not needed to describe the taste of it.
Other than putting the finest sushi into my mouth, I really liked the way the chefs interacted with us. There were three chefs and each of them served 3 to 4 customers. The one who served me was a young and friendly chef. He greeted me “Apa kabar?” to me and “Namastee” to my friend when we told him where we from.
The guy in the picture above was the main chef. He was full of smiles and looked like he really enjoyed working as a sushi chef. I asked the chef how long does it take to become an Itamae (sushi chef), and he answered, “20.”. 20? Like 20 years?! WOW! What a dedication. I felt more appreciation towards the whole experience. Also, even if it’s such a small place and we needed to wait for hours to get it, the vibe inside was excellent. It made me happy and all giggly or, maybe, I was high on sushi!?
“It’s still alive”, the chef said. And I thought “eh?!” It’s one thing to slurp oysters, but eating an “alive” thing with rice felt very unusual. But, it didn’t stop me, took one bite and of course loved it as well.
There were a few more sushi served, but I am not going to post it here, because it would be a repetitive of yummy, so good, delicious, and amazing. The strangest one I tried was the sea urchin. It looked unappealing to me, but ate it anyway. Taste wise, it was okay, wouldn’t order it by myself.
We were also served maki like sushi of tuna and cod roe. Reaching to the end of the sushi journey, I started to feel full and very VERY satisfied.
Finally, for our bonus round, the chef let us pick any type of sushi we wanted. We could go for abalone, octopus, even sperms sacs of cod fish. I asked his recommendation and the chef asked “bonito prawn?”. Bonito prawn it is. Juicy and a little sweet, it’s the perfect ending of a perfect sushi experience.
The whole meal took around 35 minutes. We thanked the chef. Told them all were “very oishii!” and stepped out.
On the way back, I stopped at a small coffee shop at the market itself. With 3 hours of sleep and stomach full of sushi before 9AM, I needed my fix, and I needed it strong. Sipping the black coffee, I reminded myself that even though I couldn’t see what I really wanted to see in the first place which is the tuna auction, I should consider myself extremely lucky that I got to eat at one of the best sushi restaurants in Japan and only had to wait for two hours for it, while others had set the record of 5 hours. If this means I should come again to Tsukiji and I will, hopefully before they relocate to a new place due to the 2020 Olympics preparations, because I kinda dig the historic part of the current place.
My tips to successfully visit the Tsukiji fish market:
1. Check the Tsukiji fish market calendar because there are days they are closed for public.
2. Grab a to-go coffee, power bank for your phone and light reads or friends to keep you entertain.
3. Be there by 3 AM (I am not joking!).
4. Visit the live tuna auction and make me jealous.
5. Queue in front of Sushi Dai for an hour.
6. Queue in front of Sushi Dai for two hours.
7. Make friends with strangers on the line. Come on! You are in it together.
8. Queue in front of at Sushi Dai for three hours.
9. Order the full course at Sushi Dai, enjoy the fantastic sushi experience and be extremely happy before 9AM.
10. Go back to your hotel* by train to shower and catch up with sleep.
11. Enjoy the rest of your time in Tokyo.
*If it’s your last day in Tokyo and you are flying somewhere later, get your bus ticket to airport before going back to the hotel. The bus goes to the airport once every twenty minutes and the tickets get sold out very quickly. If that is the case, you might have to run to the airport check in counter while dragging heavy luggage or worse, like miss the flight; like we almost did. More on that next time. Thanks for reading.
How about you, where did you have the best sushi experience so far?
More: Build your appetite by watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi or maybe try it yourself for 30,000 Yen of 20 courses in half hour. If you can’t get the reservation because well you are not the president, try one of these highly recommended Tokyo sushi places instead. Also Do you know the best way to eat sushi is by using your hand? Enjoy and don’t forget to bow down and say domo-arigato for one of the best meals in your life.