Tokyo: Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場)

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Fish markets… a curious thing is that so far, none of the fish markets I visited felt remotely like a dingy, dirty wet market. Remember Sydney Fish Market? It’s all been pleasant, no putrid gut-wrenching smells.

I guess commercial fish markets are very nice indeed, especially the famed Tsukiji Fish Market in metropolitan Tokyo.

It was a bright and exceptionally sunny morning when we stepped out of our apartment at Shibuya and navigated ourselves to Tsukiji Fish Market.

I know. We were totally late! We definitely should be there before the sun is even up because that’s when the action happens and plus its a long wait to get a taste of the ridiculously famous Sushi Dai. But seriously, I don’t think we could manage a wake up call time of 3:00am and get there by 4:30am like most hardcore market goers, get in line and still function and enjoy ourselves?

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Already way past the buzzing wee hours, Tsukiji quietens down in the late morning

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Wandering around Tsukiji Fish Market

The first seating at restaurants like Sushi Dai and Daiwa-Zushi begins when doors open for business at 6:00am. Being there at 4:30am, get this, may not even get you into the restaurant for the first seating! It’s so madly popular because the seafood for the sushi will be at its freshest!

Other than crazy queues (bet you thought you left this behaviour behind in kiasu Singapore) at Tsukiji Fish Market, it is also known for being the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in Japan and surely it is one of the biggest in the world. This is also where the iconic Tuna Auctions are done albeit only in the wee hours of the morning.

EAT: UMAI SUSHIKAN

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Hunting of budget sushi at Tsukiji Market

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Not a fan of the queues? Check out Umai Sushikan!

Because we’re cheap hated to wait in line for hours just for brunch, we decided to take a look at the other sushi offerings at Tsukiji Market. After a review of the various restaurants, we realised that there was one that offered sushi and “bargain sets” that fit our budget, Umai Sushikan (うまい鮨勘)! 

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Really affordable price range for sushi sets at Umai Sushikan

You cannot believe how excited we were to see a place with minimal queue and a fantastic price while snaking queues were growing from the usual suspects like Sushi Dai! The super affordable price really was what sealed the deal.

We definitely heard all about how delicious and worth the time it would be for us to join the queue in the wee hours of the morning, but as we couldn’t really get ourselves to wake up in time, we thought so long as it was sushi from Tsukiji Market, the food would still be fresh and good. I mean so far, in Japan, we had yet to eat something completely a waste of our stomach space. Everything is at least of a certain standard which is above average what we’d typically find in Singapore. We were quite hopeful that the sushi, while probably not the best, would still taste good.

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Get up close with the chefs and opt for the counter seats

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Regular table seating also available if you prefer to dine communally with friends

Umai Sushikan is open from 5:30am to 3:00pm and has both counter seating and table seating. It’s a small little restaurant, very cozy, like most other sushi restaurants at Tsukiji (and in fact across the city of Tokyo), but it wasn’t ever claustrophobic or noisy. Everyone chattered in a pretty controlled volume and it was really a pleasant dining experience.

Being in Japan for the first time really felt a bit nerve-wrecking at times. I didn’t quite know how to behave and if I was being rude in some instances without realising (such as sitting on one of the empty reserved seats on a mostly empty subway train which earned the both of us dagger-like stares and hurried whispers from two old Japanese men until we realised and promptly shifted to the non-reserved seats). There’s way too many unspoken rules that’s embedded in their unique culture over thousands of years. Factor in a communication barrier and you can imagine how nervous I got when faced with interaction with a native Japanese and even in everyday actions such as taking a seat at a restaurant and even how to eat or order.

Towards the end of the trip however I really started to let loose and just enjoy the fact that I am a gaijin (外人), a foreigner and alien to their customs and I should just live that way. It is impossible for me to be politically correct in every move I make during my short ten-day trip to Japan. All I can do is apologise if I need to and respect the customs as much as I possibly can.

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Chef taking our orders and clarifying in a mix of Japanese and bits of English

When we were ordering food, we definitely stumbled a bit. The F Man learnt to use the word hitotsu  (一つ) which he randomly picked up after the first two days in Japan. I have no idea where he heard it, but he started expertly pointing at items and saying hitotsu very confidently. I guess he must have heard some of the cashiers and wait staff mention hitotsu in reply when he told them we wanted one of this item and figured it referred to “one of something”. He was absolutely correct!

At times it amazes me that while I have a vocabulary of Japanese words at the back of my head, The F Man has an exceptional ability to learn “on-the-go” in a foreign land just by listening and he just has the confidence to go right ahead and uses the vocabulary he picks up. He’s a genius in that sense. I can pick up words by linking the kanji to Chinese characters I am familiar with and visually I recognize words quickly, for The F Man it’s all about the listening comprehension. That’s something I learnt about my boyfriend during this experience abroad.

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Chawanmushi

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Creamy silken chawanmushi

We decided to really go out and have a great meal when we were at Tsukiji Market, especially since we already snagged a cheaper meal at Umai Sushikan, so we really didn’t cut corners when we started ordering our food. We ordered this chawanmushi which had such an insanely creamy and silken texture. It was heavenly!

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Sushi set

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Gotta love the fresh sushi from Japan

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My favourite salmon nigiri!

We ordered individual pieces of sushi and a sushi set to share and it was really so good. While this wasn’t the top restaurant to dine at in terms of popularity, I was already completely enjoying every morsel. I have no idea what the sushi at the famous ones are gonna taste like!

The premium rice is really the key to why everything in Japan tastes so extraordinary. I can eat an entire bowl of rice clean in Japan because it is so starchy and fragrant.

The fish and seafood was fresh, from the tuna to the salmon nigiri. My only regret was that I did not order sashimi!

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My first taste of fatty otoro

I did however taste my very first otoro (fatty tuna) nigiri. This beautifully marbled otoro was buttery and practically melted in my mouth. I feel a little bad that I ate and left The F Man with not even a little bit of it to try. I insisted he order another piece if he wanted it, because damn, it’s too good to share and besides, I came here specifically with the task of eating one whole piece of otoro nigiri for myself!

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Anago-don with Miso Soup

Other than the otoro nigiri, what really left an impression was the anago-don. Firstly, it was such a large bowl. Secondly, there was so much anago (salt-water eel) on top of that mountain of rice.

The F Man and I are big fans of unagi (fresh water eel) but we had not yet tried it’s cousin, anago, prior to our trip to Japan. Some people may find unagi a bit too bold in flavour and some may even find it fishy, but we totally love it. We discovered when we dug into our bowl of anago-don though, that while both were eels, they had a slight difference. Like, the anago was so much softer than unagi and was a little sweeter as well. I actually prefer anago over unagi after this encounter!

うまい鮨勘 築地市場店
〒104-0045 東京都中央区築地
5-2-1築地市場内4号館

Umai Sushikan Tsukiji Outlet
Chuo-ku, Tokyo, 104-0045
5-2-1 Tsukiji Shijo Area 4

Open from Mondays to Saturdays from 5:30am to 3:00pm.

EAT: TAMAGOYAKI

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High-grade omelette and Lobster or Shrimp Processed Goods

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Checking out Daisada for some tamago on a stick

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Ooh, just look at that!

Other than eating at a sushi restaurant at Tsukiji Fish Market, we also grabbed a bite from this stall selling tamagoyaki or (a favourite of mine) called Daisada. Tamago is a sweet sort of omelette.

The specialty store has been open for over 80 years and is still going strong. The omelettes are freshly prepared in the kitchen at the back by seasoned chefs.

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At just ¥120 per stick, this is a great snack if you’re hoping to fill your tummy a little before you start your queuing at any of the sushi restaurants.

We also came across many shops selling a lot of barang-barang (odds and ends), traditional goods, and even green tea at Tsukiji Shijo. I would suggest to avoid buying any knick knacks and souvenirs from this obvious tourist trap and stick to just eating what you can.

大定 市場内支店
魚がし横丁7号館
104-0045 東京都中央区築地5-2-1 C棟

Daisada Inner Market Branch
Uogashi Yokocho Area 7
Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Tsukiji 5-2-1, Block C, 104-0045

Open Mondays to Saturdays from 4:00am to 3:00pm.

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