Man on a Mission: Tsukiji Market

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2 November 2016. It was my third day in Tokyo, and I was a man on a mission. Tsukiji Market I had originally planned on going alone to the Tsukiji Market auction on the day before, perhaps waiting out the night in a manga cafe or 24 hour restaurant. Unfortunately, nonstop rain and cold weather (especially for my tropical island boy genes) and a freezer-cold auction house scared me off. I decided to (almost on a whim) to go ahead the next day, skip the auction and thus the market proper altogether, and just line up for the (tourist trap) Sushi Dai and scour the outer market. After all, what would a trip to Tokyo be without waiting a few hours for some good food? Besides, with the transfer of the market to Toyosu on hold, I may still have one last chance to catch the auction later on.

I was a bit late in taking off, ending up on perhaps the third train of the day instead of the first, coming from Chitose-Funabashi station in Setagaya. A couple of ladies, one a Caucasian tourist, the other Japanese, maybe, but speaking good English, were on the same train, and I got the feeling that they may have been headed to Tsukiji as well. This was all but confirmed when they switched to the Hibiya line also. I thought about engaging them in your typical touristy banter, but I decided against it. After all, they were potential competition. I left them in the dust upon exiting Tsukiji station, as they had to figure out the giant tourist map to get their bearings, while I already had the market plotted out on Google Maps.

sam_3151In a stroke of karma, Google maps got me a bit lost, perhaps costing me a few places in the line for Sushi Dai. Instead, I found myself right outside the market proper. I guess I should have noticed something was up when I was seeing mostly delivery vans and those cool one-person delivery vehicles which I was about to call forklifts, but probably aren’t. I ended up about 100 meters from the market entrance itself, but was tempted to peek inside for fear of brusquely getting escorted out by security. Maybe I should have pretended to be one of the auction viewers, seen above being guided by a security guard to the wholesale market after the auction. It was 6:15 am. None of them looked particularly thrilled. Most had serious, if not tired, expressions. Perhaps I made the right decision in skipping the bidding.

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I finally found my way to Sushi Dai. Building no. 6 is a good marker, but the growing line of people is an even better indication that you’re there. There was a Filipino family all clad in Uniqlo ultra light down jackets waiting, and I was very much tempted to introduce myself as a long lost family member, but propriety got the better of me (thank goodness).

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Above-left is the line right outside their door, holding the next immediate batch. Around the corner, the rest of the line was waiting. The average waiting time was four hours, although I’ve read that solo customers could get bumped up if there are vacant slots due to the bigger groups. The lady in grey in the above-right photo takes the headcount of every party. The Japanese lady in front of me was in line alone and asked me to save her spot as she used the ladies’ room. I asked her to do the same for me a while later, but when I returned, she was gone. I later saw her with the aforementioned Sushi Dai lady led toward the back door of the restaurant. Hmm, special treatment?

At any rate, after waiting in line for three hours, at 9:00 am, I decided to abandon ship, since I still wanted to go around the outer market and perhaps walk around Ginza as well before meeting up with my family for lunch.

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Sushi Daiwa likewise had a line already, so I ended up in Sushi Bun, which was recommended by S of Table for Three, Please and a few other blogs I came across. They offer an “omakase” (chef’s choice) set at 3850 yen, which includes around 12 nigiri or gunkan, tamago and a roll, along with some miso soup with baby clams, and green tea of course.

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No photographs were allowed inside, but I was able to sneak this picture in through the window before coming in. It was busy, but not full, hence I was able to sit down right away. All the clients were locals – mostly youngish with a couple of middle-aged diners.

The tamago is served first, then the rest are laid down on a leaf in front of you two by two, in quick succession. It was not quite the flashy omakase experience they offered in other sushi bars, but more of a set meal that is truly prepared fresh in front of you. The sushi was fresh, the cuts were large, and service was friendly enough. It was a great experience, but it left me wanting, somewhat. On my next trip to Tokyo, I’ll definitely go for one of the more extravagant omakase sushi experiences.

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After Sushi Bun, I took a peek at Sushi Dai again. The dude behind me was now waiting right outside the doors. Perhaps he would be part of the next batch in around thirty minutes. It was almost 10:00 am. Four hours waiting time was just about right. I have no regrets.

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Some scenes from the outer market – fresh vegetables…

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Packaged nori…

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“Forklift” zooming in front of a shrine…

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Mushrooms! I think those are matsutake on the right. I didn’t get the chance to try them during my visit even if they were in season.

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Assorted dried foods. I took a taste of the dried shrimp and scallops.

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Caucasian lady making a sketch of the outer market scenes…

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Bonito flakes! I copped a pinch of their free samples.

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One of many tamagoyaki stores. Most of them sell the whole omelet, which is definitely too much for one person on a mission to finish.

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This was the store front of one of the traditional Japanese knife-maker shops.

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My first stop was perhaps my favorite. In this shop, all they sold was otoro, the fattiest of the fattiest part of the bluefin tuna’s belly. This was truly ultra-prime stuff, and handily would beat out the “otoro” in other places. It literally brought a tear to my eye. Three large slices pressed into nigiri cost 3000 yen. It cost almost as much as my entire sushi breakfast, but this was more than worth it. Luscious, buttery, beautiful, melt in your mouth goodness.

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They also had toro and chutoro, which one could buy in small slabs, sliced sashimi, or the above nigirizushi. I would blow my entire budget just at this shop, but I had places to go and food to try.

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This man was grilling, torching, steaming and shucking fresh Japanese oysters and scallops (kake and hotate).

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Beautiful. Two steamed oysters at 500 yen and a torched hotate in soy butter sauce, also for five hundred yen. That’s what you would pay in Pesos for the same items in Manila, and they wouldn’t be half as fresh.

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More fresh tuna…

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An elderly Japanese butcher. I loved how a lot of the stalls had seniors working the knives, stoves and grills.

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A yakitori stand. I skipped this one, too.

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The founder of Sushi Zanmai welcomes everyone with open arms to the first 24 hour conveyor belt sushi chain in Japan.

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Another elder manning the front of the house.

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Grilled seafood for only 200 yen a stick. They also serve draft beer in a cup.

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Inexpensive and delicious, not dry or oversauced either: unagi (freshwater eel), ika (squid) and unagi liver. I would have gone for seconds, but across the alley they had…

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Crustaceans galore!

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A couple of steamed king crab legs cost me 2300 yen. I find the local Philippine alimasag and alimango crabs much sweeter, albeit not as meaty.

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Grilled scallops topped with torched uni (sea urchin). Delicious, but I’d prefer both fresh.

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I love these giant storefront statues. I would see a lot more of these in Kappabashi Dori, the Kitchen Street in Asakusa.

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Thank you to the tuna who gave their lives for our satiety.

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This store was selling more oysters, uni, and the above-depicted premium uni, served right from the shell. You will never get anything like this in the Philippines. Amazing, but pricey at around 800-1000 yen for a piece, if I remember correctly.

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After all the seafood, I decided to take a break with this wagyu korokke, around 500 yen. The store also sells fresh wagyu for cooking at home.

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Another of the popular tamagoyaki joints. This one had a sprawling line.

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I saw a feature on these scallop shells topped with various seafood which are grilled and torched, but I didn’t find the whole thing all that interesting, given that I had tried a variation of most of the items already.

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Dried seafood and a draft beer stall, which was just setting up to open at around 11 am. If you need a beer, there are cans for sale at various stalls even earlier in the morning, and there is actually a vending machine selling booze at the south east corner of the outer market.

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Snow crab and sea urchin buns and cute sushi-shaped candies for souvenirs. I passed on these as well.

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I bought this assortment of strawberry-topped mochi (chocolate, matcha and another flavor that I forgot) for 1000 yen if I remember correctly. This was to serve as my pasalubong/bribe to my wife and daughter for leaving them that morning. The strawberries the largest I’ve seen, and the mochi was soft and well-made, not unlike the overly chewy and gummy types that reach our shores. I’ve never been a fan of mochi, but this was enough to convert me. I’ll enjoy mochi, but only if it’s fresh from Japan. None of the nasty frozen stuff we get here.

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I capped my two hour walking breakfast tour (after my three hour wait) with a cup of joe at Yonemoto Coffee.

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I then walked to Ginza station, as I had to meet my family for lunch in Kichijoji.

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Before heading to the platform, I absolutely had to drop by Sukiyabashi Jiro, if only to see it for myself. I did not know that they already had a lunch service, which of course, was fully booked. As a Caucasian couple stepped in, I was able to get a glipse of the legendary shokunin (craftsman), Jiro Ono himself. I also managed to snap this photo before I saw the sign. So that’s twice in one morning that I “accidentally” disregarded a “no photos” sign.

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I transferred to the express train to Kichijoji at Shibuya station, which gave me a quick panoramic view of Shibuya crossing. I would have loved to have seen this at night. Despite thinking that I would skip lunch, I ended up in Kichijoji hungry despite everything I had eaten that morning. I had more than my share of pizza at the Shakey’s buffet, but that’s another story for another time. I promised myself that I would be back in Tsukiji before the trip ended, hopefully with my wife and daughter in tow, this time.

And I’ll definitely be back the next time I visit Japan, if the market is still there. Perhaps I’ll finally be able to attend the auction, too.

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