A British Girl…In Tokyo!! Part 3 (Tsukiji Market, Hamarikyu Gardens and Asakusa)

Of course no trip to Tokyo for me would be complete without a visit to the famed Tsukiji fish market and I was determined to get there early so as to make the most of the atmosphere. I had heard that the Tuna auction starts at 5:30 with limited places available for visitors but I know someone who had been recently and they had said that the auction wasn’t really critical to see, as it happened I arrived just as the auction was ending and was lucky enough to see some of the tuna on display. What I hadn’t quite realized is that the main area of the market is not open to guests until 9am. I must have spent a good 15-20 minutes walking around, watching the chefs and locals buying their fish as the market stall holders prepped the days catch (fish is actually delivered to Tsukiji at 5pm the day before and left there overnight before they make the days preparations at 3am or so with the main action beginning from around 5am onwards) before security approached me with a piece of paper explaining that the market is closed for tourists until 9am, which allows the serious business of selling to be done before all the tourists get in the way and slow things down. I wandered outside to look at the restaurants and stalls that line the outside of the market in order to decide where to have breakfast. So many of the small sushi restaurants by now had queues of tourists stretching around the corner of the streets so I was glad when I happened across a small restaurant which had just opened and was empty apart from a couple of Japanese business men and 2 guys who I think had come to buy produce earlier from the market as they seemed to be very familiar to the Sushi Chef and the owner. I pointed at the sushi plate on the menu (in hindsight I should have been a bit braver and ordered piece by piece but the selection I got was great so not an issue) and a Kirin (at 6am!!!) and watched the sushi chef at work. The sushi was actually cut thicker than I imagined and the pieces were larger too – once the fish had been cut he scooped up some rice from the container behind the counter and formed a small base for the fish, dabbing a small dab of fresh wasabi between the rice and the fish as he went. Each piece was presented to me (direct onto the counter, no plate) and announced with some ceremony before he proceeded with the next piece. No chopsticks are used and no wasabi is given either as they don’t want the flavor of the fish obliterating, instead you pick up the sushi with your fingers and if desired dip it fish side down into light soy sauce before eating in one go. There is a small amount of pickled ginger (white in colour not the cheap bright pink version found elsewhere) to cleanse your palate before the next piece if needed. The Toro (Tuna Belly) was absolutely outstanding – it is one of those items people always rave about but I have never really been impressed with it until now – it literally melted in my mouth! Amazing! The Cuttlefish and the Maguro were also delicious, the freshness really was so evident, I have never eaten Cuttlefish or Tuna like it before and will be hard pressed to enjoy it again I would imagine! I didn’t enjoy the next piece of Seabass so much as I found it a little tough and chewy but the Horse Mackerel which followed was excellent, really meaty and oily and the Shako (Mantis Shrimp) was astonishingly good, I didn’t want to finish chewing it! The only thing I actively disliked, well I have no idea what it was!!! In the sushi pictures it is the middle one that looks slightly orangey in colour (between the mantis shrimp and the horse mackerel) If anyone knows what it was do please enlighten me! I also had some Maki Sushi with Cucumber and more Maguro inside which was fun to watch him make and again quite different to the usual Maki you find elsewhere. With a couple of beers and a sake (well you have to do it once right?!) My meal came to around $40 which given the quality of the produce really was something. I managed to “sneak” back into the market a couple more times to take some photos (quick snaps with the Iphone so as not to get in the way) and I eventually left the market a little after 9 am having spent over 3 hours exploring which was truly an unforgettable experience.
From here it was just a short walk to the Hamarikyu Gardens, originally a private residence for a Shogun (Feudal Lord) during the Edo period (1603-1867) now a beautiful and historical garden open for everyone to enjoy. They have head pieces at the entrance which you can take for free and listen to informative facts about the gardens history and landscaping as you walk around enjoying the gardens on one of their self guided walking courses shown on the headset map. It was very interesting to hear all the information they give you detailing its rich history, from its days as a duck hunting ground (there is now a small shrine to commemorate all the dead ducks!) to the trials for telegraphs that were held there and I was glad I had taken the headset as it added to my enjoyment immensely.
You can take a boat trip up to Asakusa for around $10 (700 yen) which takes you up past the impressive Tokyo Sky Tree and the Philip Stark designed Asahi Brewery building (sadly not open for public tours) The main draw in Asakusa is Sanja sama, one of the most famous Shinto Shrines in Japan (built to honour the 3 men responsible for the building of the adjacent temple) and the Sensoji Buddhist Temple, built in the 7th century and surviving intact throughout the Second World War Bombings. As the street leading up to the temple is lined with souvenir shops and street food stalls the area was completely packed and maybe not as impressive as it should have been, I would recommend heading there early in order to beat the crowds to make the most of the awe inspiring building. One interesting thing to look out for as you pass through the temple walls are the two huge straw sandals or O-Waraji. Made by 800 people of Murayama City in just a month, they measure 4.5 m in height and weigh 250 kg. It is believed these straw sandals are good luck charms and offer protection for evil. You can also, for a few hundred yen ($4) take one of the fortunes there. You gently shake one of the small hexagonal boxes until a numbered straw appears from which you match the corresponding number to receive your fortune (luckily mine was pretty positive so that was a relief!)
I managed to find a local restaurant away from the huge crowds, serving Tempura and Udon and so stopped to enjoy a plate of beautifully light and crisp Tempura Vegetables and Fish before heading back to my friends’ house in Meguro for some much needed rest after an extremely long yet fruitful day!

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