The sun hadn’t yet risen when we stepped onto the silent streets of Ginza. Tokyo never sleeps and even at five in the morning there were still people out, but compared with the crowds and noise of day, pre-dawn seemed downright post-apocalyptic. Why wake before dawn and shamble alongside hungover salarymen? Two words: Tsukiji Market.
Tsukiji Market is the biggest wholesale fish market in the world, which admittedly doesn’t sound like an exciting tour stop. But it does have a certain appeal. Many people come for the fast-paced tuna auction, so popular that the market has to restrict the number of tourists each day. And while the indoor market is closed to visitors entirely until 9 a.m., the outdoor market is wide open, spilling over with fish, seafood, knives, groceries, and turret trucks.
But I didn’t get up at four in the morning to watch people buy and sell fish. I didn’t get up this early to ogle at pretty knives. I didn’t even get up this early because of jet lag. I got up this early for sushi.
Don’t offer me sushi in America. I hate it. Fine: I used to like it, but after having sushi in Japan, there’s no going back. Our options are sushi that’s good, but too expensive; sushi that’s mediocre and will just make you miss Japan’s; and sushi so bad that no price is low enough to make it edible. Call me snotty if you want; call me a spoiled hipster foodie. But first taste the sushi in Japan and see if you don’t change your mind.
If you want to keep liking sushi in America – if you want to keep liking the wretched strip mall conveyor-belt sushi we have in America – do not eat at Daiwa Sushi.
We found Daiwa in Building 6 of the outer market, and although it was only about 5:45, there was already a line. A kitchen assistant leaned out the door and asked how many people were in our group. Unfortunately, our group of four was quite large for the twelve-seat restaurant, and we’d have to wait a little longer for space to open up. After about half an hour, they finally ushered us in.
The place was quite warm from the press of bodies, the seats narrow and bolted to the floor. Behind the bar, old Japanese men frowned at the fish they cut and scowled at the rice they formed. They looked up, and there was a smile for us. The kitchen assistant asked for our order and we made it easy for him: green tea and an omakase (“chef’s special”) set for each of us. In no time flat we had our tea – scalding hot, just like the Japanese like it – and about a minute later the chef plopped a beautiful piece of tuna onto my wooden plate. It glistened softly in the yellow light with a patina of soy sauce, and I have to admit I got a little verklempt just looking at it. I didn’t have long to be emotional, though; piece number two was on its way. I stuffed the tuna in my mouth.
Oh yes. This was what I got up early for. The rice was slightly above body temperature and the fish slightly below. The tuna was lightly sweet, the rice slightly sour. A tinge of wasabi tickled the back of my throat. Of course, tuna is a pretty basic sushi. Although it can be brought to the very precipice of culinary achievement in the hands of a great master, even an apprentice can make decent piece of tuna nigiri as long as the ingredients are fresh enough. To be sure the early wake-up call was worth it, I’d have to try everything.
The chefs at Daiwa did not let me down. In fact, they surprised me. It’s hard not to like tuna, shrimp, and eel – sushi so tasty that they’re considered “starter sushi” for people who want to test the waters – but sushi like squid and salmon roe have a somewhat less broad appeal. I’ve never liked the sour flavor and springy texture of squid, and the fishy flavor and disturbing “popping” texture of salmon roe have always made me gag. When these two were laid on my plate, I knew I would eat them, but I strongly suspected I would not like them. But instead of the dubious flavors and textures I was ready for, I got deliciousness. Although the odd texture of the salmon roe was still too strange for me to enjoy the sushi as a whole, the flavor was subtle and salty, like the first whiff of ocean salt in the distance. Meanwhile, the squid straight up blew my mind. Far from the sour taste I’m accustomed to, this squid was nearly flavorless except for a subtle sweetness, an almost floral character. There was no chewiness, either; instead, each bite cleanly broke apart the meat. There was plenty more sushi – sea urchin, sweet omelet, tuna rolls, and so on – but I walked away shocked and scandalized that I had loved the squid the best.
By the time were we done, we were all stuffed and happy. We shuffled to the back to pay, thanked the chefs, and walked onto the streets of Ginza. Already the sun was dawning on our first day in Japan.
Address: 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0045
Get there: Currently, Daiwa Sushi is located in Building 6 of the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tsukiji Fish Market is half a block east of Tsukijishijo Station (Oedo subway line), or is accessible via a short walk from Tsukiji Station (Hibiya line) or Higashi Ginza Station (Hibiya and Asakusa lines). However, the Tsujiki Fish Market is slated to be moved to Toyosu in spring 2016, and it’s unclear at this time whether Daiwa Sushi will move along with the fish market or will re-establish itself in the new fresh fish market being established by Chuo Ward. All the more reason to go soon!
- Arrive early! Daiwa opens at 5:00 a.m., but by 6:00 a.m. the line is already almost impossibly long. By 7:00, forget about it. There are tales online of people waiting three hours. Don’t be a statistic: get there early. I suggest you stay at a hotel in the area, arrive at Daiwa by no later than 5:30, explore the outer market after sushi and the inner market when it opens at 9:00. If you must see the tuna auction, plan it for a different day altogether.
- Go in a small group, or be prepared to break a larger group into pairs, or at least groups no bigger than three. Although the whole group might not be able to sit together, it will ensure everyone gets in as quickly as possible.
- Get the omakase (“chef’s special”) set. Japanese chefs aren’t trying to push old stock; Japanese people are culturally foodies and would never stand for it. The chefs truly select the best there is to offer. Besides getting you what’s freshest and most seasonal, it’s also saves you the trouble of fumbling through sushi names when you’re barely awake. The standard omakase set at Daiwa is 3500 yen (~$35 USD) for seven pieces of nigiri and one set of six rolls.
- Eat quickly. Unlike other delicacies around the world, it’s better to eat sushi immediately after it’s served, and to eat it quite quickly – a single bite is best! Sushi is best within moments of being served. The temperature of the rice and the fish are both extremely important: too warm or too cold and you get the wrong flavor profile. Besides that, there are people behind you in line and it’s disrespectful to both them and the restaurant to laze through what’s designed to be a quick meal.
- Use your hands. If you’re quite good at chopsticks and have used them for sushi at home, feel free to use them here. But if you’re worried about your skills because of lack of practice (or lack of sleep), this is not the time to practice! You’re much less likely to crumble sushi when eating with your hands, and using them is both polite and traditional.
- Forget the wasabi. Although a little wasabi is a nice contrast against the sweetness of the meat, you only need a tiny bit, and that tiny bit is already applied to the bottom of the fish by the chef. They don’t even put wasabi on your plate at Daiwa, so don’t ask – you’ll be happier without it.
- Do not – do not! – put soy sauce on the rice! Doing this can ruin your sushi beyond repair. The soy sauce will dissolve the sugars binding the rice grains together, making the sushi almost impossible to handle even with your fingers. It will introduce far too much salt, making the sushi unpalatable. Lately sushi chefs have begun brushing on a small amount of soy sauce for customers, and if you notice that this has happened for you, count you lucky stars and just start eating. If you don’t see this, put a small amount of soy sauce on the fish before eating.
Based on my diary entries from November 7, 2013.