Our experience of Tokyo was probably different from most others’. There were no trips up towering skyscrapers, walks through busy shopping districts, or even a viewing of sumo wrestling for that matter. In fact, before we had even come on the trip, we knew the bustling metropolis would be serving more as a base for us than a destination. Having just come from Shanghai, another one of the biggest cities in the world, we were more interested in the charms of a smaller city like Kyoto or the natural beauty of a place like Mt. Fuji. However, as we found out in our brief time there, Tokyo had a lot to offer outside of the typical sights of a city.
We technically had four days in the capital, but three of those consisted of trips to the train station in the morning and from it at night with an occasional meal thrown in. The only real time we had in the city was our last day there, a full one that ended with a train ride back to Osaka to catch our flight. Wanting to make the most of it, we got up early and set off to see the Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world.
When we got to the market, the condition of the morning–cold and early–gave us and the other tourists a zombie-like pace. Bundled bodies shuffling around each other in the maze of walkways inside the market gates. Our sluggish state was by no means shared by the workers though for, while our day was just beginning, theirs was coming to an end. They zoomed around us from every direction, weaving in and out of each other like a school of fish. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t the only thing they shared with their product.
The drastic difference in pace, to our surprise, never seemed to bother the workers outside of an occasional eye roll or deep sigh. Even when we would do foolish things like stop in inconvenient locations to look at a map, pausing for long moments to try and decode the nearly illegible mixture of lines and symbols, the bodies, forklifts and trolleys would just move around us. This held true for other tourists too, but it didn’t mean that we had a happy coexistence with the market for, while it allowed us into it, it in no way changed itself to become a tourist attraction other than the slew of sushi shops sitting at its gates. Because of this, the market’s relationship with us was more of toleration than accommodation, which made the experience all the more unique and exciting.
Little by little, our bodies thawed and we migrated towards the back of the market to see where the actual fish were sold. As we made our way out of the crowds and down a dark hallway littered with dusty machinery, bright lights in the distance assured us that we were going in the right direction and, when we reached them, we entered into a world of styrofoam and ice on which laid fish of every size and color. We had read before coming that the fish were for sale only to restaurants and bulk buyers so we were largely ignored during our time there which worked to our advantage as we were able to work our way through the labyrinthine market without being pounced on by eager vendors.
Among the bountiful variety of fish and seafood we saw lining the aisles of the market, some of the more interesting ones were: sea cucumbers, blowfish, octopi of every size (and sometimes just their tentacles), sea urchins, and tangles of crabs, most of which were still alive. Occasionally we would even come across remnants of the 4 a.m. tuna auction, giant fish heads laying on the ground whose bodies were most likely in the back of some van heading to a restaurant. Seeing all of this seafood, even the tuna heads strangely enough, reminded us of the other reason we had come to the market: to try the sushi, which we heard would be the freshest we would ever have.
Finding a restaurant to satisfy our appetite for sushi proved easy enough, the tricky part came in choosing which one to go to as each that we passed had a line snaking out of it so long it would make an anaconda blush. This, we figured, meant that they were all equally good and we randomly chose a restaurant with a green awning that sat at the market’s entrance. After getting in line we began to creep forward little by little but our steps were too infrequent for our liking. Nonetheless, we waited, our appetites borderline ravenous as we watched satisfied face after satisfied face leave the restaurant. After over an hour, we stood at the front door, next in line to go in and hardly able to contain ourselves as we peered through the steamy windows at the people enjoying their sushi inside.
Finally, our names were called and we smugly entered, abandoning the rest of the line-dwellers to their fate in the cold. As we sat down and took in our surroundings, we found out why our wait had been so long. The interior sat fewer than a dozen and the staff consisted of one waitress, who doubled as the cashier, and two sushi chefs. After settling in, the waitress brought us a mug of oolong tea and laid out a banana leaf before us which we knew would soon be decorated with the colorful variety of sushi we had just ordered. A bowl of shrimp head soup was added later and we filled up a dish of soy sauce in preparation. Now fully ready, we watched the chefs artistically prepare each of our rolls, slicing slivers of fish and adding pinches of wasabi to the balls of rice in their hands.
We had heard that the process of becoming a sushi chef was an arduous one, requiring years and years of training and experience before getting certified. While we initially questioned the necessity of this, as we slid the first salmon-capped roll into our mouths, we realized it was a process we were extremely grateful for. Eel, shrimp, squid, and tuna followed along with rolls of sea urchin and fish eggs. We meticulously chewed each bite, wanting to savor each new flavor and texture we were experiencing. As we did this, the sushi, so carefully prepared, practically melted in our mouths. We’d had sushi many times before, but this felt like we were trying it for the first time–a kind of born again sushi enthusiast.
After savoring our last piece and knowing that there were people waiting anxiously outside, we paid our bill and left the restaurant to a barrage of jealous stares from the faces in line. After the fish market, we debated where to go next. We had wanted to see a few more places before leaving, but after pulling out our map, we realized how poor our planning had been and just how drastically we had underestimated the size of Tokyo. For some reason we expected temples, museums, gardens, and shopping districts all to be clumped together conveniently in one place. Apparently, the zoning commissioners of the ancient city didn’t have tourism in mind when they laid it out.
With the sights we wanted to see in different corners of the city, we realized that we would only have time to visit one and decided on the oldest temple in Tokyo: Sensoji. As we got off the subway and walked up to it’s iconic front gate, we wondered if we were going to see a temple at all. Crowds and noise exploded out of the entrance, making for a very un-templelike atmosphere, but exciting nonetheless. Eager to see what the commotion was about, we maneuvered through the people and entered the gate, passing under the giant red lantern that hung from its ceiling. As we did this, the path we were walking on became lined with rows of souvenir shops and food vendors which both eventually led to the temple itself. Looking off into the distance was like looking down a hallway with the mass of heads serving as the floor, the store fronts as the walls and the sky as the ceiling.
Wanting to reach a less claustrophobic space, we made our way down the path to the second gate, which looked strikingly similar to the first, and passed through it into an open plaza. The smell of incense filled the air and we gazed around, taking in the different features of the temple. A pagoda jutting out from the landscape, the main temple with a mob of people filing in and out, the Tokyo Sky Tree off in the distance, and, one of the more unique features, giant sandals mounted on the wall of the gate.
It was bittersweet walking around the grounds knowing that this would be our last experience of Japan outside of the interior of train cars and airports. With this in mind, we made sure to enjoy the temple to its fullest, which reduced our pace to a slow contemplative meander. Minutes turned into hours and, as the lights and lamps slowly started to flicker on around the temple, we knew the moment we had dreaded had finally come. Despite only spending a week in the country, we had grown attached to it. We were aware of course that we were experiencing everything through the all-too biased tourist goggles, where everything is new and wonderful, but we’ve been many places before and this one felt different.
Perhaps the feeling could best be summed up in one of our very last experiences in Japan. After getting a train back to Osaka late that night, we discovered that the subway trains and city buses going to the airport were no longer running. So, with no place to stay and both of us being too stubborn to pay for a taxi, we decided to just wander around the city. At about 3 a.m., after getting some coffee at a gas station, we went back to the bus stop to sit and wait for the 3:30 bus. As we sat and sipped our coffees, an old street sweeper came by and began making his rounds. After sweeping for a short while, he saw us sitting there, came over, and proceeded to carry out a conversation with the handful of English he knew. After a few minutes of exhausting his arsenal, he gave a friendly wave and went on sweeping down the street. Even at 3 a.m., in an unfamiliar city outside in the cold, we still felt comfortable. For us, more than the sights and tastes, this was Japan.