Thursday, August 20, 2015

Early Morning at Tsukiji Fish Market

A couple months ago just as I was planning my itinerary for the multiple trips to multiple destination, I suddenly realized it's been a long while since I went to Tsukiji Fish Market and that this might be the last chance to go before the market's moved further away from the city some time next year. So I tweaked my itinerary a little bit by adding an additional stop in Tokyo at the end of my second Japan journey.


The Wholesale Section of Tsukiji Fish Market
I arrived in Tokyo at 6 in the morning by coach, put away my suitcases in a locker in the train station, and went straight to the market, when it's still at the peak of action in the wholesale section, where the trades and transactions took place. The core of the market actions which most people talked about - the tuna auction - starts every morning at 5:30am and normally closed to visitors, and in the early morning just as the auction ends, all the fresh goods - not only the tuna but other seafood and vegetables and fruits - were brought into the wholesale market, either on display for inspection by prospective buyers or for loading up into trucks and move to various parts in town. By 9am the market is near to close, when all good were picked and packed, stalls cleaned and emptied and workers leaving until the whole process began all over again in the wee hour the next morning.

Workers operating the Turret
The prized Tuna waiting to be picked up by their buyers
I think this is only my second time walking through the narrow lanes and stalls inside the wholesale market as I normally couldn't wake up early enough to come, and I was fascinated just by looking at those freshest, seasonal catch that was literally just unloaded off the boat a few hours before, with such wide variety and sheer quantity. This is where restaurant chefs came for their ingredients, which will soon end up in their sushi counter or kitchen for their customers' enjoyment. I almost wanted to just reach in to the boxes and grab a taste of some! It was "challenging" walking through those wet, narrow lanes lined with stalls, with people walking fast with their big shopping basket, or workers driving the unique-looking motor cart (known as turret) in all directions, but I love the atmosphere and the feeling of being surrounded by all these yummy food! And fish and seafood are not the only food items sold in the market -  right across from the street is the vegetables and fruits section. It's as much fun going through those stalls checking out all the seasonal produce available there too.

The ever-popular Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa - you don't even see the end of lines from this picture
After a sneak peek at the actions in the "inner" market, I was ready to explore the surrounding outskirt area, aka the outer market, where restaurants and cafes and small shops were located. It's almost 8am then and that place was already packed with mostly tourists and some workers who just finished their shift. Most tourist came here for a few sushi restaurants in the small alley known as Uogashi-yokosho (the Fish Alley) - particularly Sushi Daiwa and Sushi Dai since they were the most mentioned by the foreign guide books. I have tried both previously but to be honest, I wasn't too fond of either. The lines were way too long (unless you go there at 5am when they first open, the waiting time could go for a few hours), they were overpriced, with food only so-so and service non-existent. And I am still bewildered by people who could stand the gruesome heat for hours just so they could enjoy their 15 minutes of time inside for a few pieces of sushi prepared in a rush so they could usher you out asap for the next round of customers.

Yoshinoya - Shop No 1
Instead, I followed my fellow blogger Growing Boy's advice to stop by Yoshinoya, at another shopping alley round the corner. Yes, that's the famous chain with branches worldwide selling gyu-don, the beef rice bowl. Just before you gave me the look of me writing about a common fast food joint, this Yoshinoya is a bit different, for this being the very first shop of this franchise before it began its world domination. History has that Yoshinoya started at the old Nihonbashi first market in 1899 and moved to the current location at Tsukiji when the market was moved here, in 1926. 

Gyu-don and Miso Soup at Yoshinoya
So, for many, this is like a pilgrimage to their beloved beef rice bowl, and for locals, these are the type of shops they go after their hard-working shifts at the market, for something simple, cheap and cheerful. It's quite full when I got in but at least there's no line. The menu was similar to what you would see in any other Yoshinoya stores, except here only beef was served, staying true to the original menu. You could have a choice of the gyu-don - thinly-sliced beef served on a bowl of rice with sauce, or gyu-sara served on a small plate without rice. Either it's because of the long bus ride the night before or that nostalgia feeling at the flagship shop, I think this is the best food one could find at 380 yen (around HKD$25 for their regular-sized gyu-don) That plus a bowl of cheap but hearty miso soup.

Where? Yoshinoya Tsukiji Shop, Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, Tsukiji 5-2-1, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
吉野家築地一号店 - 東京都中央区築地5丁目2−1 中央卸売市場フードC
Web: http://www.yoshinoya.com/shop/tsukiji/

Iwasa Sushi - the hidden gem at the fish market
With a satisfying bowl of rice I felt like I was ready for more food. Okay yes, while I am not fond of the long waiting lines, I still want some sushi at the fish market today. So I went as far away from those popular shops and walked into Iwasa Sushi (岩佐寿し), which in my opinion is the hidden gem of the market. The place - with counter-only seating - was still packed like any other sushi places around, but the waiting line was much shorter (because there were less tourists). The shop is owned by some fish brokers so they have easy access to the fresh ingredient directly from Tsukiji Market and it's frequented by the market workers too because of the same reasons.


Iwasa Sushi - Kai Sushi Set
A number of set menu was available, and I chose their signature shellfish sushi set (貝づくし), which came with 7 different types of shellfish, a roll and clam miso soup. Well, these are not the fine classic edo-mae sushi done in perfection that you would get at the Michelin-starred restaurants elsewhere in Tokyo, but the quality of the ingredients was pretty decent. I basically got a taste of almost all popular and common shellfish sushi items, from akagai (arc shell) and torigai (giant cockles) to kobashira (small scallops) served as gunkan-style sushi and cucumber-clam roll. And service was friendly and I never felt rushed.

I personally still found sushi at Tsukiji a little overpriced and probably not worth the venture in the early morning - just pay a couple thousand yen more you could have a fuller, finer lunch at a proper sushi restaurant in the prime Ginza area instead - but if you felt compelled to try on the sushi at the fish market to "complete" your pilgrimage exercise, this is the one I would recommend.

Where? Iwasa Sushi, Block 1, Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, Tsukiji 5-2-1, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
岩佐寿し 東京都中央区築地5丁目2−1 中央卸売市場 場內1号館
Web: http://www.iwasasushi.com/ or (Tabelog) http://tabelog.com/tokyo/A1313/A131301/13007649/

Many people start their morning with a cup of coffee, but I had one to conclude my morning run at the market, at an artisan cafe on a side street about 10 minutes away, next to the Tsukiji Metro Station. Turret Coffee - named after the special motor cart used inside the fish market - is compact yet comfortable, and most importantly, served awesome coffee. The beans were sourced from the famous Streamer Coffee Company, where owner Kiyoshi Kawasaki was trained before opening his own shop in late 2013.

The menu was simple with a few coffee items - espresso, the signature Turret Latte, or some seasonal brews, and for non-coffee drinkers, chai tea latte or hot-spiced cider. Espresso was served in a sake cup of your choice, and the namesake Turret Latte was served with beautiful art pattern with the fine milk foam. Customers can enjoy their cup at the chair/table at the back of the Turret - a working model parked inside of the shop, or at the bench outside, especially when it wasn't as hot as the day I was there. I definitely enjoyed my time there, cooling down with a great cup of iced latte served in the Mason jar - I probably ended up spending more time chilling in there then my time combined walking and eating at the market, and just as enjoyable. 

Where? Turret Coffee, Ground Floor, Tsukiji 2-12-6, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Turret Coffee 東京都中央区築地2-12-6 SK東銀座ビル 1F
Web: (Facebook) https://www.facebook.com/TurretCOFFEE


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