Writing, Travel Experience and Photographs: Sherine Shoukry
Japan is a foodie's best friend: simple dishes made with a parcel of exotic ingredients, making for very subtle yet unique flavors.
The Japanese aren't flashy with their cuisine - simplicity is what they do best: steam your rice, eat your soup, love your noodles, have a a cup of green tea with every meal, fish, fish, and more fish, always use your leftovers, and if you want a little treat, tempura is your friend. Being there - eating like they do for two full weeks - you realize how healthy and complete their diet is without any air of arrogance or exclusiveness. They take the quality of their food seriously, and that is what makes such basic dishes taste incredible.
Tokyo alone has held the record for having the most Michelin starred restaurants within one city for the past decade. That alone speaks volumes for how passionate they are about good quality food. For the serious foodie, at least one of these restaurants should be a must-visit. But if you want a little piece of advice - if you want to see the real deal with Japanese cuisine, taste the freshest ingredients and experience a little piece of history which has been around for 20 strong and successful generations - go to Tsukiji Fish Market.
True, it needs a little dedication. To see the tuna auction action, you must be there from a very early 3AM; they only take about 120 people to view the daily event, and even at such an early time in the day, you'll probably find a bit of a line.
If the auction is not high up on your list, skip it and get in at an equally-early-but-just-a-little-bit-better 5AM. You'll then be able to save a place in the queue for one of the market's several highly rated but comfortably casual sushi restaurants, like Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi. The restaurants there take no more than ten people at a time, which makes for a very intimate experience, but a rather long wait. Once you make it in, you sit and watch the chef prepare your food for you as you're served a gratis green tea - a beautiful gesture done in most restaurants in Japan, even going as far as refilling your tea for you whenever your cup is empty. No need to stress on how fresh the fish is, and how exhilarating it is trying different types of seafood, especially ones that are completely new to your taste buds. Worth the wait, and the early start to the day.
After kicking-off your morning with a healthy sushi breakfast, take a little tour around the fish market's surroundings - called the 'outside market' - where several products, from local ingredients to Japanese kitchen utensils, are sold for astoundingly low prices. There, you'll find your nori seaweed, your chopsticks, dried baby sardines too adorable to eat, bamboo steamers, bowls, and bento boxes. A great place to shop for the home cook, and a wonderful way to spend a morning.
At around 9AM, the fish market opens for the public. This is when the tourists can take their pictures, and the locals can come in to buy the day's dinner centerpiece. It can take from one hour to three wandering around the fish market, even if you're not intending to buy any fish. The insane variety of fish available at Tsukiji is second to none. Have you ever seen a red octopus? You'll find it there. Yellow-fin tuna twice your height? Also there. It's a pleasure just walking around the market, taking pictures, sampling some sashimi, and seeing the most interesting looking fish, ones you've probably never seen before.
If you get a bit hungry, a visit to the outside market again will fill your belly with delicious food. Food carts selling oysters, little nooks giving you lotus root tempura to sample, and several ramen restaurants line the pavements for miles. The most well-known ramen restaurant is actually a tiny food stall called Chuka Soba Inoue, and it's known in Tokyo as one of the places where chefs go to eat. An on-the-go stall with a wonderful atmosphere, only one type of ramen is served, which you eat standing up on the same table with everyone else, right on the pavement, almost one with the street. Intimacy is the name of the game in Japan, and that's a wonderful thing. The ramen itself is delicious, and especially comforting during winter days. Look out for 'the ramen master' - the man responsible for feeding his long line of customers and doing so calmly and efficiently.
You'll probably finish your day at Tsukiji around noon, and whether you then want to grab a coffee, go for a nap, or energetically continue your day in the big city, give yourself a pat of the back for doing so much so early in the day. It really is worth it, and not just for the incredible food you'll find at every corner of the area, but more importantly for the experience of being in the biggest and best fish market in the world.
P.S. Never skip dessert; Japan is one big playground for the lucky sweet-toothed.