Tokyo part A: tuna, tea and tumult (in which our hero goes to market)

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After two months of living in each others pockets, it was time to spend a day apart.  Well, perhaps not a whole day, maybe ten hours?

Travelling with one person for extended periods of time is a particularly intense examination of your relationship.  After all, when else in life do you share almost every waking moment with someone, without the time apart afforded by jobs, hobbies, separate friends?  Even when you happen to be married to your travel buddy, this is highly unusual.  Indeed, at home we deliberately kept some separate interests, if nothing else just to give us something to talk about!  Along with our different work schedules (Kirstie’s Monday to Friday, mine…ahem…variable), this enabled us to successfully avoid seeing each other sometimes for days on end.

Whilst divorce was never really on the table, nevertheless we both felt like we needed some time apart to decompress, and bitch about each other to random Japanese people in dingy sake bars (the fact that they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Japanese being a useful aid to privacy).  Due to time and price constraints in Japan, this was scaled back from two full days in separate hostels, to one daytime (with a meeting in the evening to pursue our most important shared interest…beer).

Tokyo, bounteous Tokyo, provided the perfect venue to begin my day of flying solo: Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market.

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Apparently this market has its origins in 16th century traders from Osaka selling their off-cuts after delivering fresh fish to Edo castle, having been invited there by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate and seemingly a seafood conoisseur.  After the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the city council of what was now Tokyo decided to replace 20 severely damaged private markets, including the old Tsukiji market, with three municipal markets, and Tsukiji as it is today was born.

Tsukiji is home to a large wholesale area, including an auction area, an even larger retail area, and a periphery with sushi restaurants, a vegetable market, and innumerable small shops selling tourist tat (though somehow still in a classy Japanese way).  The auction area is the main draw for many tourists: watching the frantic, polite, ordered bidding process in the daily tuna auction features highly on many guidebooks’ top Tokyo sights.  To see the tuna auction, it is recommended to arrive at the market not long after 3am, as visitor places are strictly limited to 120 people per day so as to not disrupt the work of the market.  The actual bidding takes place from 5:25am to  6:15am, so this involves a lot of waiting.  Once inside, visitors are treated to an obscure ritual of mysterious hand gestures and arcane tuna wisdom, with the frozen tuna (weighing up to 300kg) being sold off to market wholesalers, restaurants, national chains, or anyone else with a special license.  Price equals prestige (in press and public perception), so overpaying can sometimes make good business sense. In January 2013, in the first tuna auction of the year (which is particularly prestigious), a new record was set when a 222-kg tuna sold for around $1.76m to a prominent sushi restaurant chain (not Yo! Sushi).

3am is very early, and I wanted to have some beer the night before, so I had to ‘research’ all this info.  I went around 9, when the wholesale area had largely wound down, but there were still lots of oddly shaped sea dwellers hanging out in poly boxes in the retail zone, as well as a good deal of tuna slicing (mostly with bandsaws).  Trying to avoid getting run over by the super-stealthy electric buggies that flit about the market, whilst dodging fish-water as closing sellers hosed down their stands, was about as dirty and disordered as Japan ever got for us.

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Filthy.

Of course, there had to be sushi.  If you really want, you can queue round the block for sushi within the market complex, as recommended in all the guidebooks.  Queuing is something of a ritual in Japan, as previously noted, frequently precisely controlled by painted lines on the ground, telling you exactly where to queue for your train, bus, etc.  Maybe the waiting adds to the final experience?  As a Brit abroad, you would perhaps expect me to enthusiastically join with my Japanese comrades in pursuing this noble art.  But why, when you can go less than a block away, and have some of the freshest sushi you are ever likely to get, freshly-assembled by grizzled sushi veterans, without queuing?  It was fine.  By which I (and they) mean delicious…

The ordered chaos of the market (emphasis on the order) was echoed by my experience at Shibuya crossing that evening.  When you think of Tokyo, you probably think of Shibuya (helped by it featuring in literally every movie set in Tokyo for any length of time, excluding perhaps period costume dramas).  Bright lights, busy pavements, manic yet polite and perfectly synchronised, like urban ballet.  Everyone waits for precisely two minutes while the traffic lights cycle through, then suddenly all the cars are stopped, and it begins.  In contrast to Kirstie’s experience the next morning, when 8am was far too late for any sort of on-the-way-to-work rush hour, at just before 6pm the crossing was rammed with shoppers and commuters.  This isn’t even quite peak time.

This is frequently called the busiest crossing in the world.  Apparently, up to 100,000 people use it per hour (that’s 3333.33 people per crossing cycle), and the Starbucks with a 2nd floor view of the drama is their highest-grossing store.

Between my early-morning fish fest and my early-evening crossing fun***, there was just time to go back to Harajuku to eat another massive crepe, buy a ceramic lucky cat, and drink a bubble tea.  If you’ve managed to avoid this so far, it originated in Taiwan, has engulfed Asia and will soon conquer the world.  Be afraid.  It’s delicious.

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The more astute amongst you may have noticed Kirstie and I ended up doing somewhat different activities on our day apart.  It turns out, we do have quite different interests, but at the end of the day we still enjoy each other’s company.  It was a refreshing change, but we haven’t actually taken a full day apart since.  Oh, and I can’t remember where the tumult was, in case you were wondering.

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