Prologue: Babs and Dave, one of Babs's best mates from school, are both turning 30 this April. About a year ago I pitched to the gang of 'em that Tokyo would be quite the place for the boys to turn 30. The utter fabulousness of the city worked its magic and convinced a group of 6 from the UK, Netherlands and Hong Kong to come join us for various bits of fun in Japan. Wahey!
Above: Pieces of sushi are hand-made and placed one by one on a wooden board between the diner and the elevated sushi chef, with short intervals in between. This was about as many pieces as I could stand to leave for a sushi group photo before my photographic resolve dissolved
If there is anything better than starting your day in Tokyo with a sushi breakfast at Tsukiji fish market, the big Daddy of all fish markets, it is, as I found out, ending your day there.
7.30am: Breakfast of Champions
My face is pressed up against Daiwa Sushi's window, to gauge our waiting time. The sushi chef closest to the window half-smiles with pity but gently beckons me to back away from the glass. I do. I pace. I babble semi-deliriously to Babs, Chris and Helen, my breakfast companions. I've looked at a lot of tuna through glass today.
A few diners make their way out, but there is the eternity of the next 2 minutes while their spots are cleared and wiped down. I'm hopping on one foot then the other. I wonder if this is how and why so many Japanese people pursue Zen Buddism.
And we're in! We're sat as 2 separate pairs at the extreme ends of the L-shaped counter, but no one minds. We didn't come here for the conversation.
An empty wooden block is placed between each of us and the elevated sushi chef.
"Mix?" he says. We nod.
And so he does, throwing a series of shapes and layers and textures more sublime than the best of my favourite DJs. Maguro (tuna) and ikura (salmon eggs) maki. A fat raw prawn. Ika (squid). And -- as my eyebrows jump and my heart stops -- toro (already fatty tuna belly) and chu toro (even more fatty tuna belly). This was going to be financial hari-kiri. But what a worthy death.
Babs and I make semi-obscene little noises of profound enjoyment as we chomp down on each piece of sushi. I don't understand how the 2 American women next to us are managing to carry on a full conversation about something that is not about sushi. Or any kind of conversation at all. No one else is talking. Not the Japanese businessmen, not the other tourists. Only one bald gaijin with his Japanese friend, but at least he's talking to the chef about the fish, in fluent Japanese. (I don't know what about, I just hear the key fish words).
6.30am: Gawking At The Goods
We wander through the labyrinth of some 1,700 stalls selling some 450 species of seafood, dodging handpulled and auto carts and forklifts as we go. Separate post to come on this section. Too many photos!
5.30am: Tiptoeing Around Tuna
We're prowling about the perimeters of Tsukiji's famed tuna auction warehouse at the back end of the complex, right on the water. Reports in our group's array of guide books had been mixed about whether visitors were still banned from the auction room or allowed back in, so we peered through whatever open doors and glass panels we could to try and gauge the situation.
In quieter sections I would nip in for a few minutes to get a closer look at the proceedings. It's nowhere near as loud or as boisterous as I thought it would be. I watch buyers peruse rows upon rows of iced-over tuna torpedos, throwing their scythe-like hooks into shortlisted tails, and hacking out a pinch of raw meat to chew on for the all-important taste-test. Pretty pink pieces of tuna on slabs of rice is one thing. But a warehouse full of tuna carcasses does, I admit, conjure images of casualties of war or some other disaster, laid out for identification and burial.
Inevitably a security guard shows up and nudges me back out the door, apologising all the way. I sure am glad this is Japan rather than Germany, where I've seen bouncers super-efficiently pitch over-rowdy Oktoberfesters out of beer tents...
Later I find out that unless you're in a prebooked school group, visitors these days are not allowed into the tuna auction room. Doh!
We finally stumble into the little area where visitors are shepherded into to observe the auction proceedings from a distance. This is just one of many ongoing auctions all along the length of the warehouse (I suspect grouped into tuna-size batches).
3.30am: Singing in Shinjuku
The group decided that the only way to stay awake for the last hour until it was time to pile into a cab and head east to Tsukiji was to sing at the top of our lungs. Babs scored points for decoding the huge Japanese remote control. Then lost them again as he deliberately experimented with changing the key to a song midway. Three times.
By this time I'm having a splitting headache so right after taking these photos I take a very strategic 30 minute disco nap on the far end of our karaoke room. It made all the difference.
As we leave, Babs and I marvel at all the establishments still open: pachinko bars, karaoke bars, girlie bars, noodle bars, sushi bars, donburi bars, and 24hr internet + magazine + DVD cafes that are a cheap option (compared to taking a taxi home to the suburbs) for partygoers to hang out and nap until the metro system wakes up again. Like New York, this city never sleeps. And as much as I love New York, it's hard to deny that there's a lot less trash on the streets and less stress about potentially getting mugged while walking around at night here. I kinda like it that both the police and the yakuza see to that.
11pm: Boys Just Havana Have Fun
Dave and Colin decide they're in the mood for cuban cigars, so we take shelter from the cold at Havana Bar somewhere in Shinjuku.
Before that we stumble down into a basement bar called God Bar Jazz, where we're the only people in there and drinks are horrendously overpriced. The jazz comes from a CD rather than a band (I don't see any space for any kind of band to perform at the best of times). The bar's saving grace: chocolate covered potato crisps.
8.30pm: Shinjuku Shabu-Shabu
The group was in the mood for shabu shabu for dinner. I didn't have any leads on where to go for this in Shinjuku, so we had to employ our usual "stare at the menu and stick your head in the doorway" method. This wasn't our luckiest of discoveries. The hotpot was sufficiently tasty but clearly priced for punters more interested in the pretty waitresses in midriffs and miniskirts rather than the food.
3.30pm: Checking Out Cherry Blossoms
We're in the thick of cherry blossom season, and one of Tokyo's favourite viewing sites in Ueno Park. There are a couple of fun ways to engage in this breathtakingly beautiful activity (if simply walking under the canopy of a boulevard of cherry trees isn't thrilling enough for you).
1) Rent a boat at the pond on the south side of the park. The pink swan boats match the cherry blossoms perfectly.
2) Pack a picnic lunch and mat and spend the afternoon under the blossoms making up haikus.
1.30pm: Ravishing Ramen
By pure luck we stumble into Kyushu Jangara Ramen right in front of Harajuku metro station for lunch. I find out later that this is one of Tokyo's most popular ramen purveyors.
The pork bone broth (the first thing I always test with any bowl of ramen, I've realised) is beautifully rich, and the slabs of lean pork belly have their marinade seeped right through. The hard boiled egg has a lovely just slightly runny yolk (think egg fondant), a magic trick all chefs I've crossed chopsticks with in Tokyo so far seem to have mastered.
10.30am: Meetup at the Meiji Shrine
We start the day by walking around the Meiji Shrine gardens.
Some 3 million people worship at this Shinto spiritual centre of Tokyo during the major holidays. Many buy these 500-yen wooden blocks below to record their wishes and prayers.
I like this one below.
And on that fitting note, I bid you and this 22-hour day good morning, and good night. I need a nap.
Tsukiji Market Building 6
5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
+81 3 3547 6807
(5.30am -1:30pm; closed Sunday)
Kyushu Jangara Ramen
Meiji Jingumae "Harajuku" metro station
Come out of Exit 3, and it's on the left