Waking up before 5 a.m. during one’s vacation is never an easy feat. Especially when you’ve spent the night before stuffing yourself until past midnight. But we had to if we wanted to see the action in Tsukiji Fish Market. Known as one of the world’s largest fish market, it handles over 2,000 metric tons of fresh seafood every day. It’s also become a tourist attraction—much to the supposed chagrin of the workers there—for the tuna auction held every 5:30 in the morning. But first we had to get there on our own.
It was a Friday and C had to go to work. My husband and I were not going to smoothly maneuver our way around Tokyo’s busy stations the way we did last night—with our very tall friend as our guide. He took our map of Tokyo Metro and told us where we should transfer and what train we should take. We had to take the Den-en-toshi line to Shibuya, from Shibuya take Hanzomon Line to Aoyama-itchōme, and from there take the Oedo line and go down Tsukijishijo. As much as I would end up loving the efficient train system of Japan, on that first morning, I suddenly missed the simple linear MRT and LRT lines of Manila. Being the designated navigator of the entire vacation, I was furiously taking notes. My husband kept asking, “Do you get it? Do you know it na?” I suddenly had a flurry of images of fighting couples in Amazing Race.
Once we got to Sangenjaya Station we headed to the ticket counters. There are maps on top of the vending machines dispensing the tickets in all the stations in Tokyo indicating the stops and the fare, but for a few seconds I could only stare at it blankly. Wondering what it all meant. When in doubt about the ticket fare, C advised us that we could just buy the lowest priced ticket and check the difference at the fare adjustment machine on our destination station. It also sounded complicated, but it was a problem we could figure out once there. After getting our tickets, we were faced with the dilemma of what platform to take. “Do you know where to go?” My husband asked. To the left or right? I approached the uniformed train station employee by the manned gate, showed him the map and asked, “Shibuya?” He pointed to the platform on the left and bowed.
“Domo arigato!” Two of the four Japanese words I knew. I would be uttering them every time whenever I’d show my map to a train station guard throughout the trip. It only didn’t serve us well once when I was faced with an intercom and the Japanese at the other end couldn’t point to where we were supposed to go.
When we finally got out of Tsukijishijo Station, it was the same problem. To the left or right? This time there was no uniformed train station employee to ask. I looked at my notes and 19-page itinerary, where I had included directions and a map. I also looked at the print-out I had of a DIY tour of Tsukiji Fish Market. The main entrance of which is supposedly in front of the Asahi Shinbun building. From where we stood, I couldn’t see the Asahi Shinbun building. Wasn’t Tsukiji Fish Market just above the Tsukijishijo Station? I was stumped. We paced up and down the block, not sure at what street we should turn to. Then my husband spotted a couple of Caucasians with cameras hanging down their necks heading down the street on our right, next to a gasoline station. “Let’s just follow them.” And so we did. The street was lined with a few carts and parked delivery trucks. Save for some Styrofoam boxes stacked in a pile, it was very clean like many of the streets of Japan.
Then slowly the market revealed itself. Forklifts and motorized carts started rushing past us and it’s your duty to get out of their way. We entered a large warehouse, which turned out to be the market’s famed wholesale area, and there it was—stall after stall of every fresh seafood known to man. Those huge tuna being sliced with large band saws. Boxes of crabs, oysters, shrimp. In some stalls, prime tuna cuts were encased in a glass display like the precious commodity that they are. I felt like I was going around a museum. Each stall an installation art, with its prized seafood and workers performing their routine quietly, precisely. Fellow tourists taking pictures, observing, gawking, resisting the urge to touch the sea wonders.
We didn’t reach the famed tuna auction, but we decided to have some sushi for breakfast. As our friend reminded us before leaving his place, “Eat only in the restaurants with the long lines!” Judging by lines, Sushi Dai is probably the most popular sushi bar in the market. It always has a long line of people waiting to be served. And the wait can take an hour or two. But we here hungry and we had to meet some other friends to go to Ueno Park. So we simply parked ourselves in front of the counter of one of the eateries at the outer market. It served 11 types of sashimi, including maguro (tuna), ebi (prawn), ika (squid), fish eggs, sake (salmon) and uni (sea urchin) on top of a cold bowl of rice. Though bleary-eyed the entire morning and feeling a bit disoriented, the hot tea and the cold, raw seafood roused and reminded us of where we were: In Tsukiji, Tokyo, having sashimi. How could the day get any better?
Apparently, the sublime sight of cherry blossoms has a way of making the day even more fantastic. We went to Ueno Park with our two good friends from Manila, who were just as thrilled to be in Japan as we were. Overly thrilled we sure were that the first and lone cherry blossom tree we see we started taking pictures of it like it was the last cherry blossom tree in Tokyo. When we looked behind us, farther away we could see a pale pink canopy of cherry blossoms over a path crowded with hanami-ready locals and shutterbug-happy tourists.
As the delicate cherry blossoms only bloom for a few weeks in spring, it’s become a Japanese tradition to celebrate its arrival with hanami or cherry blossom viewing parties. Blue tarps get spread out under the trees, in the parks and gardens, as the Japanese eat, drink and gaze at those pretty pink blooms all day long. It can be quite an intoxicating sight—especially when you’ve ingested copious amounts of birru and sake—which some Japanese seated on the blue tarps were already in the midst of doing. Not a bad way to spend the day. Meanwhile, we had to content ourselves in joining the throng of other tourists walking under (I read later on) more than a thousand cherry trees, snapping pictures of its branches robust with blooms, snapping pictures of each other with as much of the blooms as we could squeeze within the frame, grinning at the camera, grinning at each other, and only stopping to eat huge, custard soft takoyaki balls. It wasn’t so bad as well.
In the afternoon, the four of us decided to head to Shibuya to meet C, who worked nearby, for dinner at Ginza. But not before stopping by Tokyu Hands in Takashimaya Times Square in Shinjuku and getting overwhelmed by its many floors that can put anyone in a consumerist coma. My legs were sore from walking around Tsukiji and Ueno though (and anticipating the walk around Ginza) that after a couple of floors and every Japanese knickknack imaginable I just wanted to sit down.
We found our seats in probably one of the busiest Starbucks in the world, on the second floor of the QFront building. There, seats get snapped up quickly and everyone face the window for some serious people watching. What makes this Starbucks such a no-brainer stop, particularly among weary tourists in Tokyo, is that it overlooks the Shibuya Crossing. The large four-way intersection is where a huge surge of pedestrians cross, underneath many giant video screens. If you fell in love with images of Japan from the Hollywood movie Lost in Translation, the Shibuya Crossing probably made an impact—what with the dream-like scene of the 3D dinosaur making its way across the video screen on the façade of the QFront building—but it will not always be that surreal. At least not on the video screens. When we crossed from the Hachiko Exit of the Shibuya Station, some random and forgettable Japanese commercials were playing on the façade of the building. But walking across that iconic intersection with the rush of people still felt like a dream.
Take note! Be sure to always have a Tokyo Metro Guide brochure , which has the Tokyo Subway Route Map. You can get a copy at the Tourist Information Center of Narita Airport Terminals 1 and 2 and most Tokyo Metro stations. You can also download a PDF file from Tokyo Metro
Tsukiji Fish Market 5-2 Tsukiji, Chūō-ku, closed on the second and fourth Wednesdays of most months, Sundays and public holidays. Effective May 2010, visitors are prohibited from entering the wholesale (inner) market before 9 am. Those who want to see the tuna auction should keep in mind that the number of visitors has been limited to 140 per day. That means you have to be there before 5 am. Check the very helpful japan-guide.com for more details. Tsukiji also has a retail (outer) market that is worth the stroll and where tourists are more than welcome.
Ueno-Kōen JR Yamanote line to Ueno, Park exit