Impressions of Tokyo

Saturday, May 31st , 2008

 Shrine at Nikko 1 -crop-v3.JPG

I have just returned from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. It was an early start as the tuna auction begins at 05:30. It is hard to get across the sheer scale of this market, which spreads out in a vast covered building that feels like an aircraft hanger. 14,000 people work here, with 35,000 coming to buy fish each day. Up to USD 20 million of fish changes hands each day,. The northern bluefin tuna is the most prized, caught in the waters north of Japan but also these days from around the world. The specimens we saw were mostly around 40kg, but there some much larger specimens of well over 100 kg. The record price paid was for a 276 kg tuna earlier in 2008, which went for USD 55,700 or USD 202 per kilogram. 

Apart from the tuna, there are 700 different species of fish sold at the market.  The workers whizz around on motorized trolleys which shift at fair pace, so a modicum of self preservation is required to duck out of the way.  There are many images I will recall: the frozen tuna being carved up with a bandsaw, seeing the live puffer fish used in fugu swimming around, and stroking a live squid and watching its skin pigment change in response to my touch.

It will take me a few days to sort out all my notes and photos next week when I return, so in his blog I will restrict myself to some personal observations about life in Tokyo. The restaurants notes will follow in a few days. There are numerous local restaurant guides, many just for specific areas of the city. For example a respected one is that of Mr. Masuhiro Yamamoto; these seem to bear little relationship to the Michelin Guide. Speaking to a friend who has lived in Tokyo for six years, the Michelin has caused great interest but also considerable bemusement at some of the places elevated to high status, and also for some of the omissions. There is also now a Zagat Guide, but only in Japanese. I have been through it and found that that none of its high scores bear any relationship to Michelin. Looking at the eight three Michelin star places, the first that pops up is at 26/30, yet there are plenty of places at 27/30, more than half a dozen at 28/30 and, rather oddly, a Korean barbecue place at 29/30. I mention this just to give an idea of the sheer scale of the Tokyo restaurant scene, which Michelin themselves admitted in interviews was something that they found a great challenge. I suspect there is a real opportunity out for there for someone to translate one of the more respected local guides into English, now that Michelin has created some foodie waves in the west about Tokyo restaurants.  

This was my third visit to Japan. If you have not visited Tokyo then the scale of the place in itself can seem daunting. It has around 13 million people, though the greater Tokyo area is around 35 million. Fortunately there is a superb public transport system, which is cheap and easy to use even as a foreigner, as all the signs are helpfully spelled out in Romaji i.e. English lettering e.g. “Ginza” is the central shopping district and that is how it appears on the signs. Bizarrely, there are few street names in Tokyo. Instead an address is narrowed down through district (“ku”) such as Minato ku, and then three numbers, indicating the area, the block and finally the building number within the block. This system causes even locals to have trouble tracing down specific locations. Luckily, GPS has revolutionized things since my last visit, and every taxi has GPS, some looking extremely sophisticated compared to those we have in the west (some even have remote control). Generally people are unfailingly courteous and helpful, and Tokyo is a much easier to deal with than its reputation. 

One exception are the toilets, which these days are mostly western in style, but way more advanced. Just in case you thought a toilet was a simple thing with one function: a flush, you will be surprised by the toilets here, Seats are warmed (though I could never figure out how to adjust the temperature), while assorted features tell you the time, on occasion talk to you in Japanese and have control panels resembling a cockpit in an airliner, but of course entirely in Kanji charcters.  A misplaced button can cause you to be sprayed with water of varying temperatures, or (the oddest) producing the sound of flushing water without actually flushing, separate to the actual flush function.  I found this all rather fun.

 Here are a few things that I have noticed.   
          people leave bicycles on a busy street without locking them
          there are detailed instructions in Braille at train stations
-          there are real wasabi roots at the market (pictured)
-          instead of “mind the gap” announcements at train stations, little ramps appear over the gaps
          the exact position where the train doors will appear are painted on the platforms
          the taxis are plentiful and form orderly queues at busy locations
-        taxi drivers wear white gloves 
        I am usually the tallest person in any given room.
Normal restaurant note service will resume next week.