The Japanese love of food reveals itself in Tokyo food: with 80,000 restaurants, its reputation as the world’s gourmet capital is justified. In a city that is also the world’s largest metropolitan area by population, how and why do people find the time to pay so much attention to what they eat?
What is the secret of Tokyo food? It's a city of restaurants; some 80,000 of the 600,000 in Japan as a whole. But even more impressive is the quality. The Michelin Guide has recognized Japan’s capital as also being the world’s gourmet capital for the best part of a decade. And that was even before the French food bible started to list traditional Japanese “washoku” cuisine.
Unesco added washoku to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013, citing it as: “associated with an essential spirit of respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources”. With that in mind, I start my exploration of Tokyo food at the city's wholesale fish market, Tsukiji.
The market employs 65,000 people and turns over billions of dollars a year in sales of fish and seafood. That makes it more of a large town than anything but the first thing that strikes me is the quietness and discipline. Despite the rush to get orders out quickly through the anarchic crowd of camera-wielding tourists besieging the inner market, there are no raised voices. The freshness of the produce is attested to by the lack of any fishy smell either.
Tsukiji Fish Market is famous for its tuna auction which starts at 5am, meaning visitors have to be here for 4am. It is still so popular that spectator numbers are limited. “It is important to keep the fish cool,” says my friend Akiro Yamamoto, a retired history teacher and expert on Japanese cuisine. “However, the constant coming and going of visitors through the doors disturbed the refrigeration. Now you are admitted in a group, for only 20 minutes.”
Tuna are chopped and sliced
Despite having become a tourist attraction, Tsukiji is still all about buying and selling fish. Tuna are chopped and sliced efficiently and boxes of shellfish are carried past in an endless flow out the door to one of those 80,000 restaurants or beyond. Even so, the rituals of the market retain a great deal of reverence. Buddhists and Shinto beliefs acknowledge that killing fish in order to eat them is an act with consequences.
The Namiyoke Inari Shrine near Tsukiji has carvings dedicated to the spirits of fish, eels and even the eggs used in making the thick tamagoyaki, Japanese-style omelettes that the market also produces. The shrine was built in the 17th century, when this land was reclaimed from the sea, so its association with the market is relatively recent.
“The market moved here in 1937 from Nihonbashi,” says mechanic Hiroshi Sekine, who repairs the motorized trucks used by the market porters. “You could see Mount Fuji from here when I first opened my shop. You know why? Because it was 1945 and the air raids had flattened everything.”
Sekine-san was 16 years old when he joined up in June 1945, training as a Tokkōtai pilot [better known as Kamikaze]. “The war ended in August 1945 and I survived because there were no more planes.” He looks much younger than his many years, much of them spent as an award- winning salesman for Honda. “I never think about how old I am,” he says. “I am not smart enough to think about such things. I also listen to traditional Japanese comedians, eat simply and just enjoy life.”
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