Tsukiji Fish Market and the best sushi we have EVER eaten
Saturday, January 28, 3:45am. The alarm was set for 4am, but we were still trying to get off of US time and were wide-awake. We bundled up and set out into the still dark Tokyo morning for our 2-mile walk. The streets were quiet except for the occasional car or bicycle. We walked by a bar and saw a few patrons still drinking from their Friday night out. Ruben kept looking at me with the “you are nuts and why are we walking through the streets of Tokyo in the dark?!?!” look. And suddenly there was action: people walking the streets, refrigerated trucks parked but running, fork lifts jetting about. We had arrived at Tsukiji Market, a huge wholesale fish and vegetable market, notorious for the daily live tuna auction. They allow 120 visitors each morning to view the auction, and everything I read said to queue up at 5am and they give tickets to the first 60 people to view from 5:25-5:50 and the second 60 get tickets from 5:50-6:15. We arrived at the ticket location at 5:02. There were 3-4 other people milling around. I had expected a line of some sort. And then I saw the sign: Sold out for today. At 5:02?? That’s when we learned a little about the Japanese psyche. If someone says they will meet you for lunch at noon and you arrive at noon, you are late. She has been waiting for you for at least 15 minutes. Five am really meant 4am or even 3am to get into queue. This was our last morning in Tokyo and our only chance. I was bummed but we decided to wonder around and see what we could see. The wholesale area is technically off-limits to non-wholesale buyers until 10am and it was only 5:15. Around the sides of the wholesale area are retail stalls selling fish, tchotchkes, fruits and veggies, plus tiny restaurant stalls. And fork lifts driving around at the speed of light. That’s when we saw THE line. The second quirk of the Japanese psyche: they LOVE to queue. When Ruben sees a line in the US, his first comment is, “nothing is worth waiting in line for that long.” In Japan, we got into line first, asked questions later. Without knowing what we were doing, we had just got into line for Sushi Dai, considered one of the best – if not the best – sushi restaurants in Tokyo. The door to the restaurant was around the corner, so not only was there the line we were standing in, but there was also a holding pen outside the front door. First you line up, then you move to the holding pen, and then you get one of 12 precious seats inside. We waited. And we waited. Then someone brought hot tea to the queue. And we waited. Our new “friends” in the line said we could sneak into the wholesale market even though it was now only 6:30am – just look like we were interested in buying something. Ruben and I took turns, so one of us could hold the coveted spot in line. WOW. I have never seen so many gorgeous tuna: huge fish, being carved into quarters, steaks, individual sushi portions, with long swords and small chef’s knives. Fatty tuna belly, lean tuna, positioned side by side so you could choose. Back in line, one hour passed; two hours passed. Finally at 8:30am, 3 hours after getting into line, 12 satisfied customers left the restaurant and 12 of us happily filled their seats. Three sushi chefs held court. There was nothing to do but put our stomachs in their hands. For 4000¥ per person, each guest receives 9 pieces of sushi, one sushi roll, fish based miso soup and one final piece of sushi of your choosing. We ordered a small bottle of cold sake – so what that it was 8:30am?? We had been up for what felt like days by now! – and let the show begin. With the sake, we got 2 bonus treats of marinated fish before the sushi started flowing. Each sushi chef makes one piece at a time for the 4 guests positioned in front of him (or her – this is the first time I’ve seen a female sushi chef!). He places it in front of you and you eat the most perfect bite of sushi before he makes and presents the next piece. The chef would instruct you how to eat each piece: “no soy, already has,” “ok, soy.” We started with fatty tuna. It was like velvet: rich, smooth, delicious. And this was no skimpy slice of fatty tuna. This was a thick, long cut of fish that draped over both ends of the warm rice. For the next 45 minutes, bite after bite arrived:
- Fatty tuna
- Spanish mackerel
- Lean tuna
- Uni from Hokkaido – so sweet and fresh, and not a hint of iodine
- Red snapper
- Live Clam – that danced when the chef slapped it
- Mixed seafood roll with shiso leaf
And finally we got to choose our last bite. Options included salmon, oysters, eel but the winter seasonal "specials" included fatty yellowtail and to quote the menu “cod sacs of sperm.” I stuck to the delicious, albeit safe, Hamachi and Ruben went with his go to “when am I ever going to have another chance to try this” choice of, you guessed it, cod sacs of sperm. I will let him describe the experience but I will never forget the look on his face as he popped it into his mouth – horror, delight, surprise?
Forty five minutes later, we were stuffed with THE best sushi we have ever eaten and it was time to relinquish our seats to the next 12 lucky (or patient) guests. Would we wait in line again? Absolutely. Am I sorry we missed the tuna auction? The alternate plan certainly made up for it.
If you go: Sushi Dai opens at 5am and seats the first 12 people in line. After that, expect approximately a 45 minute wait for every 12 people in front of you. The menu is chef’s choice, 4000¥ per person, cash only.