The Rough Guide recommends getting to the Tsukiji fish market, nice and early – 5 in the morning – in time to get the freshest sushi and sashimi in Tokyo. Rubbishing that advice, we arrive at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and have a poke about. The streets that surround the auction market, the jōnai-shijō, are really quiet and there’s almost no-one to be seen. The shutters are down and nearly all the stalls are vacant. Some stalls have fish, muscles, crabs and other sea-dwellers, but no-one’s buying. It’s a ghost market. Maybe everyone did get up at 5 a.m.
Apart from us overlooking the important detail that the market is closed on Sunday, the quietness of the area is partially due to the March 11th earthquake and tsunami which devastated large parts of the northeast of Japan. One of the repercussions of that disaster was that the Tokyo tuna fish auction has been closed to the public (i.e tourists). We knew that from a notice in our guesthouse and when we get to the market area, we’re reminded by a strange sign with an odd understanding of cause and effect.
So the auction market is closed and the surrounding streets are bare. Thankfully, there are quite a few restaurants, which judging from how busy they look, are doing a roaring trade. By now I’m hungry and when I see a carousel sushi restaurant, I make an earnest plea to the girls to go inside – I’ve never been to such a restaurant and the prospect of Tokyo’s freshest sushi makes me very excited. The girls are hungry too and so we decide to go to Kaiten Zushi. It literally translates as, ‘Going Around Sushi’, but I prefer the more liberal translation of ‘The Sushi Train’.
Because a first visit to a proper sushi restaurant is such a major event in any person’s life, Sachiko’s takes a moment to remind me of the difference between sushi and sashimi: sushi is typically a small piece of raw fish, wrapped in rice and nori (seaweed); sashimi is a much larger slice of fish often resting on top of a much smaller portion of rice. The word sushi means ‘rice in vinegar’, which was the old way to keep rice preserved. Sushi is frequently prepared with raw fish, but it can be made with cooked fish, only vegetables or even chicken and still be sushi. The word sashimi means ‘pierced body’, which is now a defunct meaning. Sashimi is always thinly sliced raw fish or meat and can be served by itself or with rice. It’s only sushi that tends to be used for terms such as ‘sushi restaurant’ and ‘sushi chef’ even though you’re as likely to get sashimi as you are sushi.
Inside Kaiten Zushi, there are just three seats left: we sit up at the counter which encircles the chef’s food prep-area: an island in the centre of the restaurant, crammed with stacks of little plates and containment units of fresh fish. In full view of everyone, the chefs cut up the raw fish, delicately creating tasty morsels of sushi and sashimi, before placing them in pairs on little plates that then travel around the restaurant on the moving carousel. There’s a real hum of activity, the chefs all call and shout boisterously around the room as they announce the latest type of fish that they’ve prepared. There’s a picture menu for the gazillions of different fish that are available, but it’s not even necessary to look at the menu to get fed in this place.
As Eddie Cochran sang, there are three steps to heaven; he wasn’t singing about sushi restaurants, but he might as well have been:
Step 1. Wash hands with the hot towels that are provided and adopt a posture of alert readiness
Step 2. When the sushi of your dreams rolls nonchalantly by, quickly pick it up and dip it in the wasabi and soya sauce mix
Step 3. In one piece, lodge the sushi in your mouth and eat until compelled to utter expletives of the highest praise
Over the course of about 20 minutes I eat tuna, salmon, mackerel, eel and whale; the tuna and salmon are so extraordinary, I have a second plate of each. There really is nothing like eating good sushi.
For a start, the size of each sushi piece is perfectly designed to fit in your mouth in one go; no need for cultural training here, forgot those chopsticks, just one hand is required. Such simplicity puts the eater in a more elemental relationship with his food.
On taste alone, sushi is incomparable: the flavours of the raw fish are delicious and perfectly balanced, there’s none of the harsh imbalance caused by pungent sauces or overcooking; the taste is also singularly enhanced by the nuances of its extraordinary freshness. This is in truth impossible to distinguish from the inherent flavours of fish itself: because it has been caught the day before, or even sometimes only a few hours earlier, the fish is exquisitely fresh, and in effect the sushi sings in your mouth delivering pure pleasure to all your taste buds.
Having eaten a portion of sushi, one doesn’t bask in it’s aftertaste, for the hotness of the wasabi sauce delivers a short sharp kick to your senses, the kind that makes your eyes widen but doesn’t burn your throat. The effect leaves you momentarily startled.
All the fish we get is extremely tender and we don’t need to chew diligently and progressively to break down the food into sufficiently small chunks that can be swallowed safely; the sushi simply melts in your food, distributing flavour and taste in every direction. As Moe of the Simpsons said when trying the Flaming Homer for the first time: “It’s like there’s a party in my mouth, and everyone’s invited”
Sushi is surprisingly filling, which reinforces the fact that it’s serious food: it’s no mere tit-bit delicacy, when you’re hungry, sushi will fill you up in record time. And because it can be prepared in a flash and eaten in a jiffy, one can have the equivalent of a full meal in five minutes. Sushi turns the concept of fast food, as some sort of compromise on quality, on it’s head.
All the while there’s a great buzz around the restaurants. Sushi chefs are famous for their boasting. It’s said in Japan that the louder the sushi chef, the more customers he will have. At one point, one of the chefs announces that he has only ten plates left of a certain cut of tuna: the hands go up as the diners all around the restaurant cry out, very quickly the ten plates are taken and their contents hoovered up.
Although sushi is by all accounts very healthy food, it can’t be said to be entirely ‘guilt-free’. This is brought up when an ordinary-looking sashimi of red fish goes by on the carousel. Sachiko, with some surprise, says “Oh, whale!”. The window of time to choose is quite short, if I pause for a moment the plate will be gone down the line where somebody else will probably take it. So out of curiosity, I take the plate of whale and Sachiko and I share it.
Sachiko expresses her surprise that I ate the whale with so little inhibition, so familiar is she with the Western disapproval of the Japanese custom of eating whale. To the Japanese, it’s simply something they’ve always eaten and the criticism appears somewhat selective: why are whales so precious, what about other fish or even other animals (the Japanese half as much meat as most Western nations). As a tourist in Japan, I’m pre-disposed in the name of experience to try everything, including whale, at least once. But I’m also aware of the declining trend in the world’s fish population and after only two days in the country, I’m pretty sure that Japan is playing a leading role in the direction of that trend.
Later on I’m flabbergasted when I learn that Japan consumes 30% of the world’s fresh fish. It’s a staggering statistic. Apparently there’s a fear in Japan that tuna is soon going to be subject to the kind of strict quotas that whaling is now subject to. This goes some way to explaining Japan’s very combative official line when it comes to whaling. Eating sushi is a wonderful experience, but it does have an environmental cost.
This external cost is almost certainly not reflected in the price of the sushi we eat, which in the Kaiten Zushi restaurant is indicated according to the colour of each plate: the prices range from ¥180 (about €1.60) for a white plate up to nearly ¥1000 (about €9) for a blue plate. Each diner retains their own stack of plates and when the time comes to pay, this stack is used to calculate the bill.
But even this simple technique has been superceded by a technological solution: attached to the base of each plate is a magnetic strip: when the waitress comes to tot up our bill, she runs her little scanner up and down our stack of plates and without a need for any manual calculations, works out our bill.
That’s more or less it for the Tsukiji fish-market. If I could choose music to soundtrack our exit from the market area, I’d choose a totally unique local band: thanks to the excellent Al Jazeera Playlist, I found out about a band made up of former Tsukiji fishermen called Gyoko. Their song called Maguro, (literally: Tuna) is a completely original combination of punky funk-rock and a shouty homage to tuna. I highly recommend it.