We only had three days in Tokyo, so we had to make the most of this electrifying city. To write the end before the beginning, we can sum it up by saying we left Tokyo with a strong desire to return. In the first part of this series, we will share with you the incredible food scene we experienced in Tokyo. Part II will delve into our exploration of some of the city’s sights and neighborhoods.
From Sea to Table
Do you ever wonder where that little piece of tuna you’re eating came from? While it’s hard to know for certain, there is a pretty good chance it passed through the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the largest fish market in the world. The action starts early here, with fish auctions for the high-end catches running from 5am to 7am. We arrived around 6:30am and dove right into the chaos that consumes the heart of the market.
This is not your typical neighborhood fish market; Tsukiji is home to fishermen who are selling massive quantities of fish to wholesalers. According to Wikipedia, over 400 types of seafood are sold at Tsukiji on any given day. If it lives in the sea and can be eaten, it’s sold at Tsukiji Fish Market.
Aside from the extra large bivalves and colorful octopi, we were most impressed by the humongous tuna that we saw. Workers handled these whole frozen tuna with hooks and gloves, maneuvering them from the ground to counter tops. There, they are cut in half using band saws and then into smaller pieces by knives that looked more like swords.
Hop on the Sushi Train
Although a novelty in the States, sushi train restaurants are not so uncommon in Japan. Excited to try some of the fish we saw at Tsukiji the day before, we headed out to dinner at a sushi go-round in the Asakusa neighborhood.
We enjoyed some of our favorites, such as Hamachi (yellow tail) and Aji (mackerel) and also tried a few new things, including abalone and crab miso soup.
After the waiter tallied up our tower of plates, which ranged from 180-700 Yen/plate, and added in our sake, the bill came to about $50 USD. Not exactly a cheap meal, but compared to a sushi dinner for two at home, it was a steal. Well worth the dent to our backpackers’ budget!
Many fantastic restaurants in Tokyo are very unassuming. There is little to no signage out front, and you often do not even realize they are there. We were intrigued by a certain restaurant near our hostel. Each day during lunch, we noticed a line of people that stretched down the block, but in the evening it was hard to tell if the place was even open. The front doors were shut, and the building had no windows. After two days of walking past with our curiosity teeming, we finally gave in and slowly opened one of the sliding wooden doors to take a peek.
Inside, we found several tables of people sitting on tatami mats and enjoying traditional Japanese cuisine. The menu wasn’t well translated, so we did what we normally do in that type of situation – we smiled and pointed to the dish that everyone else was eating. Turns out the dish is called “Dozeu-nabe” (this website describes the dish pretty well). The dish was composed of small river fish that had first been cooked in sake and then transferred to a shallow metal dish. The fish then simmered over hot coals with green onions and fermented soy sauce on top.
When the waitress first brought the dish to our table, our faces must have looked hilarious, as it didn’t look too appetizing. She graciously showed us how to properly prepare it. Halfway through the meal, she stopped by to tell us that one of the cooks was very impressed after observing our chopstick skills and Japanese dining manners. We always try to be culturally conscious travelers, and it was nice to hear that our efforts are appreciated! In the end, we could not have been more satisfied. Dozeu-nabe is delicious, and we were thrilled at the authenticity of dinner that evening.
Hibernating in the Sake Dens
Visiting an izakaya (sake den) was on our must-do list upon arriving in Tokyo. These Japanese style pubs are where the locals relax, loosen their ties after work, and often get helped out the door by a waiter as they stumble with an arm over their friend’s shoulder.
Following our tatami-style dinner, we made our way to a nearby izakaya that served up delicious tapas (for lack of a better word), meat skewers and generous glasses of sake.
After six large cups of refreshing cold sake, a sampling of pork temple and chicken liver, and some great people watching, we were set for the night and made our walk home with nothing but smiles on our faces.
The good thing about spending at least three days in a city is that it gives you the opportunity to truly experience the local cuisine by eating nine solid meals. Between our tatami dinner, visit to the fish market, sake den experience, and many more meals, which we did not include in this post, we felt as though we had a good grip on the Tokyo food scene. As we mentioned, we left Tokyo wanting to see and taste more, and we will certainly be back someday.