January 31, 2017
Two-na, too-na, tuna! I went the way of chilled tuna that had traveled up the Pacific rim from the warm tropical waters of my archipelago to this chilly fish port in Tokyo. My early morning visit to Tsukiji Fish Market was a sequel to my tour of General Santos City Fish Port Complex three years prior. Yellowfin tuna from Celebes Sea were prepped in GenSan before they turned up sashimi-grade in Tsukiji.
The day started in the middle of the night. My friend Taka showed up at my hotel at the most unholy hour of 3AM. We had just come from a long night of drinking at an izakaya. While he was fired up for something fishy so early, I was effectively a zombie running on sheer willpower. But that was how a Tsukiji visit rolled. We had to beat early birds and stand to be counted no later than 3:30AM because visitors were limited to 60 at a time on a first-come, first-served basis.
Even so, the information center by Kachidoki Gate was packed when we came in. Did everybody else stay up all night to get there earlier? We registered, donned our neon gear, and sat on the floor, as did everybody, to listen to a Japanese fish expert with impeccable English well into his hour-long lecture on all things tuna. It was approaching 5AM when we marched out in one file to keep away from busy port activities and forklifts zipping by. The morning was still dark; my lame-ass padded jacket and woolen beanie were no match to the frigid temperature. I thought I’d catch pneumonia, not tuna.
We entered a warehouse in the sidelines to witness the tuna auction – the musical. Upon ringing the bell, sellers standing on small wooden platforms started singing the pricing and closing of bids as the audience of buyers inspected frozen tuna corpses laid out before them. The entire proceedings were Greek to us, even to Taka. Still, it was quite a fascinating yet, apparently, serious business.
Twenty minutes later it was over. Dawn was breaking when Taka led me crisscrossing the maze of alleys and stalls of the Inner Market. We got acquainted with marine creatures of all shapes and sizes, sliced and cut up by fishmongers. Eventually we passed by a small and rather nondescript restaurant accented with the familiar bright orange of one of my favorite fastfood chains, Yoshinoya. It was the chain’s first restaurant, relocated to Tsukiji in 1926. Sadly, I could only settle for a photo op as it had not yet opened for the day and we had no time to wait. It would have been fitting to sample some maguro sushi in Tsukiji or a beef bowl with my favorite garnish, beni shōga (red pickled ginger), in Yoshinoya Store No. 1.
The frigid morning called for a hot cuppa coffee. While waiting for another friend to join us on a road trip, we parked ourselves in Yonemoto Coffee Head Shop. Its welcoming warmth drew us in. Steaming coffee went well with people watching in the cozy cafe. An old couple, seated a chair apart, was having a sandwich, coffee, and conversation for breakfast. Gibran’s words – “let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you” – came to mind. Such decades-long (perhaps) intimacy was comfortable in a sugar-free way.
Our friend Koji finally emerged from the subway stop, but he hadn’t had breakfast. We had one for the road –tamagoyaki, a sweetened omelette cake, while standing on the curb. We had sweets, not seafood, in the world’s largest fish market. But it was just the kind of sugar rush needed to jump-start a trio of sleepyheads for a road trip to the neighboring prefecture.