SUSHI FOR BREAKFAST AT TSUKIJI MARKET
Day 2 of our Mind Over Manga tour found a few of us waking early to trek to Japan's, possibly the world's largest and busiest wholesale seafood market, Tsukiji Market. Located in central Tokyo within walking distance of the ritzy Ginza district, Tsukiji Market is where fresh, frozen and dried seafood of all kinds are shipped in from points near and far to be bought, sold and later consumed by Japanese diners.
Why the 5:00 am wake-up call? Because the market opens at 3:00 am and is in full swing by 6:00 am, with various stalls buzzing with fishmongers, chefs, seafood brokers, delivery men, auctioneers and bidders. The main auction begins at 5:30 am and ends at around 7:00 am, when those giant frozen tuna are all purchased and shipped off to restaurants, supermarkets, brokers and processors. By 11 am, most of the market is closed for the day.
As we entered the market, we were bombarded by various motorized and foot-powered carts whizzing by, backing up and honking their horns at the tourists (like us) who came to gawk at the astonishing array of fresh fish and shellfish that pass through this market on a daily basis.
At one point last year, the market was closed to visitors due to a traffic accident involving a tourist, but recently re-opened to visitors. Out of consideration for the market's rules, we were warned to watch out for cross traffic, to not to touch the fish, nor use flash when taking our photos. So while Tsukiji is a popular tourist destination, it is primarily a place to buy and sell fish on a grand scale -- not a photo opp.
The morning air was crisp and cold, and despite what you might think, there wasn't a strong fishy odor in the air --only a brisk scent of the ocean, a sign of very fresh fish in our midst. Walking through the market stalls, we saw octopus, several types of fresh shrimp, clams, salmon, tuna, sea cucumbers, crabs -- many on ice, and more than a few still alive and moving.
We then checked out the main fish auction area, which had a small roped-off area just for visitors. This area was packed with tourists, most armed with cameras, jostling to take a shot of the giant frozen tuna being auctioned off that morning. I heard voices speaking in German, Italian, French, Chinese, English and Japanese as a United Nations of tourists marveled at the spectacle. If you've only seen tuna in a can, or sliced in your supermarket's seafood section, it's pretty astonishing to see how large these fish really are -- many were at least 4-feet long and probably weigh in at hundreds of pounds.
Once we got our chance to view the auction, we wove our way back out of the market to check out the adjacent market area a few blocks away. As we found out, Tsukiji is about more than just fresh fish, as we saw various stands selling fishmonger essentials like chef's knives and rubber boots, preserved fish, vegetables and seaweed, and a large assortment of fresh produce.
While we weren't there to actually buy fish, one of the main reasons (well, for me, at least) was to sample some of the freshest and tastiest sushi around at one of the numerous restaurants surrounding the main market. When Japan's fish market is at your back door, there's no excuse to have anything less than melt-in-your-mouth otoro (fatty tuna), creamy uni (sea urchin) and so-fresh-it'll-slap-you ika (squid) served to you on a platter, and at very reasonable prices too.
The eateries around Tsukiji market range from humble, blue-collar eat n' go places to slightly more upscale, tourist-friendly places, such as Sushizanmai, our breakfast spot for the day.
Located about 4 blocks from the main entrance of Tsukiji Market and near the Tsukiji Station on the Oedo subway line, the Honten branch of Sushizanmai was just a quick walk away from the main market. Clean, well-lit and welcoming, Sushizanmai was a nice spot to get our first sushi fix in Tokyo.
As we slurped on giant bowls of hot miso soup, Ito-san, our sushi chef went straight to work preparing a massive sampler of that day's fresh catch, including kani (crab), ama ebi (sweet shrimp), hamachi (yellowtail), anago (grilled fresh water eel), ikura (salmon eggs) and of course, otoro (fatty tuna). There was an extra fee required to attend this part of the tour, but believe me, it was definitely worth the price and the early wake-up call.
Want more? You can see more pics from my visit to Tsukiji.
HARAJUKU SHOPPING AND SIGHTS
We returned to our hotel to relax until our next time to meet up with the rest of the group (who had opted to sleep in instead of trekking to Tsukiji). Our next stop that day was to Harajuku, the home of fashion-conscious Lolitas, punks, emo kids and almost everything in between.
For many folks on the tour, this was their first immersion into Japanese pop culture, street fashion and fun, so there was lots to see and gawk at, and almost too little time to do it.
While browsing the Takeshita-dori shopping street and between peeking into the windows of various Lolita fashion boutiques, Svet, Leisl and I sampled some crepes -- with slices of cheesecake, chestnuts, fruit ice cream and whipped cream. Yes, it was yummy!
We also went to check out Kiddyland to check out their selection of toys and souvenirs. Last time, I only got to check out one floor. This time, I got to take a peek at several floors of Kiddyland joy, including the Hello Kitty floor, the Anime / Sci-Fi floor (where I found Japanese Star Wars tengui towels and hankerchiefs) and the I'm-not-sure-what-floor-it-was, where I found various odd-flavored hard candy 'drops' in cans. By 'odd,' I mean they had some unusual flavors -- like gyoza (which tasted like sweet garlic - ick), foie gras, and an Akihabara-themed candy called "Moe-chan strawberry milk," complete with an oh-so-cute maid on the label.
Another interesting find that I didn't get to investigate (because I ran out of time) was a tabloid-sized newsprint comic that was handed out on Omotesando by the new Nike Store up the street. What made it interesting was that it was filled with illustrations by manga artist Yuichi Yokoyama, creator of Travel and New Engineering, as well as much of the decor at the New People shop in San Francisco. The theme of this Nike-commissioned manga? To "capture the critical moment of 11 Nike athletes who have changed what sport could be."
Check out this YouTube video announcing the opening of the Harajuku Nike Store -- at the 1:28 mark, you'll see one of the Yokoyama-created murals. The Nike Harajuku blog also has more about these murals. (Sorry, only in Japanese) Also fabulous is this video of Japanese beat-boxer Daichi creating sound effects to match Yokoyama-sensei's art.
Later that afternoon, we visited the Design Festa Gallery to meet some of the exhibiting artists and see their creative space. The Design Festa Gallery is essentially a rental gallery space, where visiting artists can show and sell their work for several days for a modest fee. The assortment of art is ever-changing, so if you like checking out some non-traditional Japanese art, this is the place to go.
DORIA DINNER AND ONSEN EVENING IN ODAIBA
Our last stop on this busy first day in Tokyo was Aqua City in Odaiba, a mall filled with shops and restaurants, not to mention a pretty nice view of Tokyo Bay. There was also a not-quite-life-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty, which was positioned to be seen with the Rainbow Bridge in the background. In the misty rain of that evening, it almost looked like we were in New York City... well, not exactly -- but it was pretty surreal.
By then we were pretty hungry, so we went straight to the restaurants floor. After nixing yakiniku and sushi spots as too expensive and burger joints as too... American, we opted to try Kobe Motomachi Doria. Kobe Motomachi Doria specializes in Doria -- a creamy baked casserole that's a signature dish of Japanese-style Western cooking. It was a pleasant, reasonably-priced place to eat with a nice view of the Tokyo skyline -- but I had to eat and run to make it to my appointment at the nearby Oedo Onsen Monogatari spa.
The Oedo Onsen Monogatari spa is designed to look like a retro, Meiji-era hot springs resort. Once you get in, you get a yukata (informal kimono/robe) of your choice, and a locker key on a wrist band, to open the locker where you'll store your clothes. The locker key also has a barcode that you can use as a virtual 'wallet' -- spa, restaurant and souvenir shop clerks scan in your code, and your purchases are charged once you check out.
I couldn't take photos inside the spa (for kinda obvious reasons, since once you're in the baths EVERYONE is nude). But it was a pleasant, albeit slightly kitschy experience. The large indoor and outdoor baths are segregated for male and female patrons (again, for obvious reasons) and provide numerous options for steaming, soaking and sauna-ing. For an additional fee, you can get a massage or get your dead skin cells nibbled off your feet by the "Doctor Fish."
In between spa treatments, you can also enjoy a snack at one of the many restaurants, play traditional (and un-traditional) carnival games or shop for souvenirs to take home.
General admission ranges from 2,900 yen for daytime use to 2,000 yen for entry after 6:00 pm. It's open from 11:00 am to 9:00 am the next day, making it a nice place to chill out after a long day of touring. We only had about an hour and a half at the spa, which was much, much too short a time to relax -- but it gave us a good sampling of the Oedo Onsen's pleasures.
One downside to the Oedo Onsen? You can't come if you have any tattoos at all -- no matter how small and un-yakuza-like they may be. There are lots of signs (in English and Japanese) advising patrons of this fact. We were told that staff members will ask patrons to leave once they spot a tattoo. Welcome to Japan.
Once out of the tubs and onto the trains, that was the end of Day 2 of our Tokyo journey. You can see more in the Manga Tour 2009 photo gallery, as I'll be adding more photos over the next week.
Stick around for my report on Manga Tour Day 3, when I "go rogue" -- or at least off the designated itinerary to check out the Takehiko Inoue mural at the Museum of Contemporary Art, geek out at Nakano Broadway, and take in the sights (and shopping) in Shibuya and Shinjuku. Just for fun, you can also check out my report from my prior year's visit to Harajuku.
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Image credits: © Deb Aoki