Friday, June 20, 2014

40 Days of Summer (in Japan) - Part Nijuusan

Field trip! Today we're off to Tsukiji Fish Market, that famous place where dead seafood has never been more glorified; and also Tokyo Tower, the huge radio broadcast tower disguised as a tourist landmark. Let's go~!

Though we were having a tour of the market, we were to meet at the nearby Hongan-ji Temple, to meet with Prof Jacoobowitz's friend Yohei-san, the fourth-generation owner of a sushi restaurant nearby, who was going to bring us on the tour of the fish market. On my way to the rally point from the train station, I actually walked past the market, and I spotted this street which I swear is the exact same one Jiro's son walks out of carrying boxes of fish in Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Sadly, void of any master sushi chef apprentices.

The temple itself was a huge Buddhist structure but with some very unusual, experimental architecture. The facade looks nothing like a typical Buddhist structure, and the columns lining the front look almost Roman/Greek.

When you absolutely, positively have to meditate in Greco-Roman style.

There must have been a field trip or something that morning, because over the course of waiting for the rest of the class to show up, a few hundred schoolgirls started swarming into the temple grounds and taking photos.

Which, of course, was a distraction.

Yohei-san then brought us to the fish market. I've been here before, but again, not in the early morning where people bid for tuna and crazy stuff like that. It's a lot less chaotic in the late morning, when most of the trading is past and the stall-owners are just selling to the casual seafood enthusiasts.

Picture dump to follow!

Look at those beautiful slabs of tuna. BEAUTIFUL~

Processed fish for those who don't like the hassle of preparing your own meals.

Yohei-san stopped at most of the shops which were his main suppliers, from seafood to shellfish, and even the peripherals of a sushi business, like utensils, tea, and even the eggs. Here's a small slice of heaven from his tamago dealer:

This egg is proud it died for such a worthy cause.

Bonito flakes! They're so thin they waft in the slightest breeze, making people think it's alive.

(That's because they are.)

We also passed by this shrine (the Namiyoke Inari Shrine), which is apparently the unofficial guardian shrine of the fish market. It has a huge hoop at the entrance which Yohei-san showed us how to walk through before approaching the altar: left foot first, circle around to the left and then enter it again, circling around to the right, before passing through it the third and final time.

Now you're thinking with portals.

Yohei-san brought us behind the scenes of many stalls. Here we see the process of slicing up a tuna into manageable steaks:

"It slices! It dices! It makes Julienne tuna!"

"But wait, there's more!"

I also took many, many photos of dead and dying sea creatures, in a ironic parody of my aquarium trip two weeks ago.

Flounder from The Little Mermaid was so inaccurately portrayed.


No, these eels weren't shocking.

"If we pile on top of each other, one of us my be able to climb up off our backs to freedom!"

You'd think that the place would stink to high heaven, with all the raw seafood lying around. I actually noticed that the smell of the market was not very pungent at all. If you stuck your nose into a box, then yes, you'd get a faceful of it. But just walking around, all you get is a mild sensation of your nose telling you that it's vaguely aware of some fresh maritime creatures somewhere nearby. Perhaps it's due to all the ice, which keeps the fish fresh. Or maybe they just have good ventilation systems. Or maybe I had a blocked nose.

The selection of fishmonger's tools would not look out of place in a Medieval torture chamber.

One of Yohei-san's suppliers was very happy to whip out his octopus (not a weird euphemism), and handed it around for us to touch (still not a euphemism). A lot of people molested the tentacled creature, which is the inverse of what usually happens in Japan. I didn't want to get suckered into this so I kept my fingers slime-free.


Around the back of the market, bulldozers were smashing the empty Styrofoam boxes into the disposal area. Yohei-san told me that they're recycled, but they're cleaned first before being destroyed and rebuilt. I can't imagine how much Styrofoam goes through the market in one day.

It's basically an incinerator for fish coffins.

We also passed by the first ever Yoshinoya shop built after the 1923 earthquake. It's basically like going to the first ever McDonald's or KFC. Also, their sign is orange.

They have on display an original beef bowl from 1926.

The backstage pass for Tsukiji really gets you the best of everything. We got to ride one of the carts that the fishmongers use to transport their cartons of fish. With the whole class squeezed onto one cart and the road being bumpy and potholed, it wasn't a very comfortable ride, but it was hilarious and exciting at the same time.

The only way to travel.
(Photo by Stephanie)

Backstage pass access also gets you an inside look at the tuna slicing station, where blocks of flash-frozen tuna are whittled down into handy steaks, perfect for sushi and sashimi.

They spend so much on dismemberment insurance.

The best part of the field trip was yet to come: the obligatory sushi lunch and training session. We went to Yohei-san's fourth-generation-owned restaurant, Tama Sushi, which also, completely coincidentally, happens to be the sushi shop which invented temaki hand-rolls. How does our professor know such awesome people. How.

I didn't think the pearly gates would be so wooden, and framed with kanji.

Sushi master slicing maguro (tuna) with his bare hands.

You know the sushi you get at buffets at Sakae Sushi? Throw that out the window, because this is the real deal:

Tuna, squid, prawn.

Salmon, octopus, crab.

The best part, the absolute best part, was being able to try making sushi ourselves. You get to wear the robes and the apron and the hat. The master chefs stand by you and instruct you with simple gestures and noises of affirmation. And everyone gets a turn, and the people who aren't currently smashing rice with their fingers gets to taste the poisoned products of the others' labour.

Josie, looking like an ice-cream vendor from the 50's.

This guy shouted something at our professor, presumably for not following instructions.

You're welcome, Regina.

Payal got to make tamago (egg) sushi!

The actual sushi construction process isn't very difficult. You splash your hands with vinegar water to prevent to rice from sticking; I presume also to add a touch of flavour and to disinfect your fingers. Then, you grab a ball of rice, roll it into a ball in the palm of your hand. After taking a finger and dabbing it in the wasabi, smudge it onto the slice of fish, then slap it onto your ball of rice. Pat down the top and sides a couple of times, and then yell a Japanese phrase which I cannot remember while you place the sushi on the board in front of the customer. Easy.

I ate that one myself.
(Picture by Payal)

We didn't want to leave the sushi place, but we had a trip to make to Tokyo Tower. Yohei-san graciously gave us parting gifts: coasters from his utensils supplier with distinctly Japanese-style prints on them, as well as a large Japanese tea mug. He was so nice; I'll come back to eat his sushi when I'm in Tokyo again.

Magneto orders pasta for lunch.

Tokyo Tower is really tall, but the fact is that Japan's buildings are usually equally so. On the walk from the train station, we couldn't see the tower until we rounded the corner:

It's like the Eiffel Tower's cousin.

I love how secret societies are now so visible.

I think they took "green building" way too seriously.

International orange!

Our prof had connections here once again, this time with a recent Yale graduate who had started working in a studio nearby, which collaborates a lot with the management at Tokyo Tower. His name is Steve, and he was the one who worked out a lot of the details of the visit. Best of all, since we were invited to the tower, we didn't have to pay. Woohoo!

We took an elevator to the Main Observatory, 140 metres up. You got a very beautiful view of Tokyo in every direction. It was a pretty sunny day, with only the horizons fogged up, so you could see almost everything. What was also very delightful was an automated robot, which was designed to patrol around the observatory and had screens for kids to play and learn about the tower, I'm guessing.

Of course it's not a robotic death machine in disguise.

It was on its way back to its charging station when we showed up. It just goes to show the extent of Japan's robotics program.

Hee hee, "docking".

Everything the light touches is our kingdom.

We also got free passes to travel up to the topmost level, the Special Observatory, at 250 metres above sea level. Josie, who is scared of heights, kept shrieking and grabbing my bag as we ascended.

Obligatory artistic shot.

The top of the tower isn't that much more spectacular than the view from the Main Observatory. You just get the experience of being so high up that it's insane. I asked our guide what happens during an earthquake; he says that the structure is built to withstand earthquakes up to a magnitude of 8.0 on the Richter scale. You're also stuck up there until the quake is over, because they don't operate the elevators in that situation. I wonder how much you'd be swaying, 250 metres up in the sky in a tiny box of metal and glass.

On our way down back through the Main Observatory, one of the special things it had were the see-through floors. Everyone was wary of stepping on them at first, but like all things you fear, you gotta try them first. It's a freaky sensation, with nothing but a thin sheet of glass separating you and the rest of your life.

They have a secret button which activates the trap door.

Talk about having your head in the clouds.

Steve let us cut through the souvenir shops on our way to the studios where he works. I bought at shirt which identifies all the major types of sushi. And I also saw this stress device:

That's what she said!

Steve works for this company which does events, and has a lot of ties to Tokyo Tower. They have huge studios for all their events; apparently they screened the first World Cup match between Japan and Ivory Coast here, to an audience of 600.

I wonder if Studio Uranus is this huge.

On this show-reel showcasing what events the company does, included this sport called Bubble Soccer, in which players immerse their torsos into inflated plastic balloons and try to play soccer. It looks like hilarious fun.

Also, you can't get penalties for hand-balls in this game.

We spent an hour asking Steve questions about working life in Japan. It's apparently very draining if you work for a Japanese company: you have almost no time to yourself, and you constantly have to stay late even if you have no work, because if you leave early you're not a "team player". The work environment is changing, slowly, but it's going to take some time, so you're better off working in an international company or MNC.

That's Steve! Hi Steve!

All in all, Tokyo Tower was great, and I even managed to slip in some product placement for my school.


A bunch of us headed to Ginza for karaoke afterwards, but the big place we originally wanted to rent was way too expensive. As we were exploring the streets of Ginza, someone spotted this small dodgy karaoke den with very affordable rates, and a decision was made. We sand for a couple hours, and everyone had many, many drinks, especially Mel and Brynne, who polished off two bottles of cheap plum wine. I'm not sure how much Payal had to drink, but she was certainly slightly tipsy.

We had dinner at this noodle bar, the vending machine kind. It was the only one that was completely empty, and so could fit all six of us. I'm not sure why it was empty; the ramen they served was really good, and cheap as well. I had some spicy dry combination which was really quite spicy, too spicy for Japanese tastes, I'd imagine.

A fun, fun day out with seafood and radio towers. Life has never been so wonderful.

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