Fresh Kill

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April 16th 2007
Published: August 6th 2007
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We tried to block out the smell as we hop-scotched past the neatly stacked carcasses on our pursuit for Tokyo’s Shangri-La of epicurean delight. Pools of blood covered the floor like remnants of some terrible massacre. It was 9:00 AM and we were determined to locate some of the freshest sushi in the World at Ginza Tsukiji Fish Market… for breakfast.

Gina, Jess and I had spent the previous night, a Sunday, trying to locate a non-existent nightlife in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. After hours of searching, the most action we found was a lifelike automated construction sign blurting out warnings in Japanese. Undeterred and eager to tune in Tokyo, we managed to ensure a less than pleasant night’s sleep with the few open locales we stumbled upon. The next morning arrived like an unpopular relative.

Having reached Tokyo too late on Saturday to peruse the fish market and advised of its closure on Sunday, we had precious little time on Monday morning to get the cylinders firing and explore before heading off to Nagano. Gina, not so convincingly, pulled herself from the sheets more worried about missing something of importance than desire to be alive. Jess and I inspected our wallets to find a surprising dearth of cash from the night before and concluded that a trip to the ATM would have to precede any tomfoolery; after all, Japan is oddly a cash-only society.

Greeted by dreary skies, we ambled out the hotel’s front door slightly disoriented and began our hunt for an ATM. Spoiled by our travels to this point, Gina and I had become accustomed to feeding our need for cash at any accessible ATM. Japan, however, is a closed society. So too is their banking system. In the course of an hour, we walked almost 2 kilometers, unsuccessfully fighting Japanese-language ATMs whose screens danced with taunting animated characters before spitting our cards back at us. I envisioned the translation to be something like, “Stupid foreigners, no Yen for you!”

Undeterred, we eventually located a Citibank kiosk amongst the chaos of a Shimbashi Station’s Monday morning rush. With Yen in our pockets, and a growing hunger, we examined the map and charted a course for the fish market, but not before a detour at the golden arches for Gina - after all, she doesn’t like sushi. I could see the signs of life return to her face as she chomped on her hash brown and demanded a photo. It wasn’t long after that we closed the distance to Tsukiji and found ourselves wandering amongst bulk fruit and vegetable vendors.

Motorized carts seemed to whiz by in every direction moving crates from one end of the open warehouse to the other. Not spotting any fish, Jess motioned towards the rear of the warehouse and began walking towards another large building in the distance. I grabbed Gina’s arm and pulled her out of the path of a kamikaze cart driver as he sped by with a razor thin margin.

An aroma of things from the sea filled our lungs as we entered the next warehouse. Neither displeasing nor inviting, the odor was quickly muted by the awesome spectacle of sea life, both dead and alive. The expanse was mind-boggling. Heaps of tuna, mackerel, squid and just about every other species from the ocean was being processed and sold. Blood was everywhere.

We walked up and down the aisles shooting pictures of various creatures from the sea and quickly realized the Japanese are strip mining the oceans. Our first two days in Japan had exposed us to the fish-dominated diet of most citizens, but we truly didn’t comprehend the demand until we saw the daily supply flowing through Tsukiji. Embracing the if you can’t beat’em, join’em mentality, we pressed on through the pandemonium in search of breakfast.

Adrift and without a clear target, Gina and I stopped and gazed in amusement as several squid jostled for position in a large tank. Unbeknownst to us, Jess had fallen behind and engaged one of the workers in conversation, eagerly seeking directions to quell his hunger. Gina turned and the Japanese man Jess was speaking with commented, “You pretty woman,” before turning back to Jess and asking, “Is this your wife?”

Declining any relation to Gina, Jess pointed a finger in my direction as he declared, “He is.”

The man’s smile stretched from ear-to-ear as he vigorously shook my hand. Jess, not straying from course, pressed the man further for any information on where we could procure our daily catch. The banter continued on for a few minutes longer before the man pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and began writing in Japanese. Suddenly, the Good Samaritan stopped mid-sentence and motioned towards the opposite end of the warehouse, “I show you.”

No one questioned his sincerity as we fell into single-file formation and trudged through the market, emerging at the other side. Jess, knowing a good deal when he saw one, occupied the man with questions and stories, stopping a handful of times to shrug in our direction. We found ourselves in an alleyway after a few hundred meters, along with fifty or so people neatly snaked in front of two doors. At about this time, Jess turned and introduced his new friend as Shiro San.

Accepting our fate, Gina and I fell into line as Jess and Shiro San shared laughs a few meters away. I looked down at my watch as a few patient patrons peeled off from the line after 10 minutes and told Gina we’d be pushing our check-out time at the current pace. I relayed the same issue to a completely distracted Jess after another five minutes, who replied that Shiro San supposedly knew the restaurant’s owner.

Sensing our frustration with the delayed gratification, Shiro San pushed past the waiting clientele and shouted some Japanese into the 10-seat eatery. After reemerging, Shiro San waited approximately 5 seconds before motioning us up the alley. Our movements went unnoticed by the lingering crowd.

Again shrugging his shoulders, Jess confessed that he had no idea what we were doing, though it didn’t take long for us to realize that Shiro San was leading us to the back of the restaurant. Standing sandwiched in an even narrower alleyway, we watched as Shiro San conversed with a waitress while pointing in our direction. Moments later, he instructed us to wait and bid us adieu. Naturally, we laughed at the absurdity of our predicament not knowing if Shiro San’s actions expedited our situation or made it worse.

We stood outside the backdoor for ten minutes watching the waitress wash dishes as a sous chef skinned eel. As time elapsed, we began imagining an elaborate joke at our expense. Silly Americans, Sushi is For the Japanese. Moments later, two patrons rose from their barstools and exited the front door, where the line had grown to at least seventy. The waitress didn’t follow them this time and instead came toward us. She couldn’t speak English, but the point got across just the same. Before anyone could offer a protest, we were making out way past the pile of dirty dishes and skinned eel.

The chef greeted us like long lost relatives; the other patrons did not. No menus were offered, no orders were taken. Various cuts of fish started appearing before us, all accompanied by the old chef’s smile. Again, the other patrons didn’t seem as enthused. It wasn’t until the next couple retired from the bar and a familiar face from the line out front walked past that we knew the contempt could be cut with a knife. We could not have cared less.

Gina allowed the chef to pile fish in front of her, not wanting to be impolite. Luckily, Jess didn’t seem to mind eating two pieces for every one of mine, oftentimes groaning in delight. Our feast lasted 20 minutes and concluded with an exit past several stunned patrons-to-be. We hurried back to the hotel and packed, departing 20 minutes shy of the check-out deadline.

Anticipating cool weather for a majority of our stay in Japan, Gina and I had sought options for storing a bag of warm weather clothes in Tokyo to lighten our load while training about for two weeks. Having spotted lockers while exploring the city by rail, we headed for the main Tokyo rail station since it was the largest and also the origin of our Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano. Like a clip from a Three Stooges episode, Gina, Jess and I bumbled about the station for the next half hour securing tickets and trying to decipher whether a locker could be used for more than a 24-hour period. Stopping three different passersby, none of whom spoke decent English, we finally concluded that our attempts to be travel smart were in vain.

Gina, Jess and I headed for the platform to catch our train to Nagano, now lugging 2 roller bags, 2 daypacks and a large bag of summer clothing. Knowing that Gina already struggled with her two bags, I offered to play Sherpa for the rest of our trip and assumed responsibility for our unwanted travel companion. We boarded the timely Shinkansen, stowed our luggage and found our reserved seats. I dozed, Jess read and Gina blogged for a majority of the next two hours, as the Japanese countryside rolled by. A slight drizzle started as our train climbed the elevation on our way into Nagano, a city famous for holding the 1998 Winter Olympics.

A bone chilling cold waited to greet us as we disembarked at Nagano station. Not having booked accommodation in advance of our arrival to Japan, Jess had called a hotel from the Shinkansen and arranged an overnight near the train station - the only caveat was that the room was supposedly for two people. Acknowledging that it would look better for Jess to check-in with Gina, I handed him my large luggage and waited patiently in the adjoining McDonalds. The happy couple returned to fetch me fifteen minutes later and we set off to explore the drab, featureless town.

We made a half-kilometer loop before deciding to retire to our room and await better weather the following day. Unfortunately, better weather never came.

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


30th April 2007

i was there, it's all true.
except for the part about finding money. it was actually harder than that. for the record: this was the ONLY day my pigeon Japanese made a difference in outcome and thank God. That was some good fish! Thanks for your share Gina...
30th April 2007

Those people will eat anything. Looks like I have to give up seafood to maintain the balance.
21st May 2007

Another side of Tokyo
I was stunned to see these photos, not the usual city views, buildings, crowded people in malls, restaurants. etc. But here, you showed the sea food markets which Japanese would love to visit! It seems that you really enjoy Japanese food! I noticed from the rest of your trips in Japan, always eating....eating...! Aoshi!!!

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