Tokyo for Foodies: Tsukiji Market & Tsukiji Soba Academy

November 30 2009 - 5:33 PM

The first of a series of posts inspired by a recent trip to Japan

Having recently returned from a stint in Tokyo, I must say, this is a city that is Very Serious about eating. Here you will find cuisines ranging from French to Indian to Japanese and everything in between. The city has more Michelin stars than any other, more than NYC and Paris combined. In Ginza, I saw a cantaloupe on sale for $233. Or, you can walk into any corner ramen restaurant or try some grilled hüpfburg kaufen squid from a street vendor and be rewarded with a delicious meal. They truly value good food and gastronomy as a culture, hence the city is a magical wonderland chock-full of fun activities for foodies.


There are no specific restaurant recommendations here, since you can find exhaustive listings in a wide variety of guidebooks. Besides, many of my meals were spur of the moment picks and turned out great anyway. In my 10-days here, I never had a bad meal, and moreover, I never had an unattractive meal. Even the random $2 pork chop sandwich I picked up at a train station was fabulous, and was impeccably wrapped to boot.


Many restaurants in Tokyo have English menus or plastic displays to model their menu offerings. If you’d like to know a little more about what you’re eating, or be able to read Japanese menus, I recommend picking up Robb Satterwhite’s What’s What in Japanese Restaurants, which gives you the characters for popular menu items in various types of Japanese eateries. If you have more time, I’d also learn katakana, the Japanese alphabet for (mostly English) loanwords. This will instantly give you a Japanese vocabulary of a couple thousand words, and allows you to look at a menu and read サラダ (sarada) for salad, チキン (chikin) for chicken, and スミノフ (suminofu) under the Vodka section for Smirnoff.


Without further ado, here are some fun things to do in Tokyo:

Tsukiji Fish Market

This one’s a no-brainer. Tsukiji Market, or Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, sells just about anything that lives in the sea. This is the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market, with about ¥2 billion worth of seafood sold here daily. At one point, the sushi on your plate probably passed through a Tsukiji wholesaler. In particular, the market has gained worldwide notoriety for their tuna auctions, a popular attraction for foreign tourists and locals. The catch is that you must rise and shine quite early; the auctions take place from 5-6:30 am and the visitor’s entrance is only open until 6:15 am. Flash photography is not allowed.


The rest of the market is equally entertaining, with every seafood product imaginable, dead or alive. You will see all manner of crustaceans, buckets of wriggling eels, iridescent jumbo shrimp, and even a few turtles. Naturally, the floors will be covered with water, so don’t wear your best dress shoes. You should also be sensitive to the fact that this is first and foremost a workplace, so get out of the way of anyone wearing galoshes, carrying boxes or driving a loaded cart.


After viewing the market, have a traditional sushi breakfast at one of the restaurants in the buildings just north of the horseshoe-shaped market. Mmm, salmon roe and sea urchin at 8 am…


Tsukiji Soba Academy

Just a few blocks away, you can take a crash course in making soba noodles from scratch at the Tsukiji Soba Academy. Soba master Akila Inouye is a wonderfully patient instructor, and takes you through a demonstration of how to make ni-hachi (“2-8”, or 2 parts wheat to 8 parts buckwheat flour) soba noodles. “Making soba is very simple,” he explains. “You simply need to mix the dough, roll it out and then cut it!” Hmm, easier said than done. Still, watching a soba master expertly cut soba noodles to the requisite 1.3 mm width was inspiring. Next, you get an opportunity to make your first batch of soba noodles. After kneading, rolling and cutting my dough, I sat back proudly with a tray of (rather uneven) soba noodles in front of me. “How long does it take to get good at this?” I waved at my tray. “Twenty years!” was the response. No matter, it all tasted great once cooked and dipped in soba sauce. For one final lesson, Akila showed us how to properly eat and slurp our soba noodles. (The Japanese slurp their noodles loudly to show how delicious they are.) After a few attempts, I finally got the hang of slurping noisily without hitting myself in the face with noodle strands.


“Thanks for coming,” said Akila. “Don’t forget to friend me on Facebook!”