At 4am on Thursday morning, the alarm clock goes off. And The Belated Birthday Girl and I spend the next 90 minutes utterly terrified that we didn’t get out of bed early enough.
Because today’s the day we’re visiting the tuna auction at Tsukiji fish market, one of the hottest tourist attractions in the whole of Tokyo. It’s not really intended as such, of course: Tsukiji is a proper working market, the largest one of its kind in the world, and the daily sale of several tons of imported frozen tuna is a serious business. But over the years, any tourists who can drag themselves to Tsukiji in time for a 5am kick-off have been allowed to watch the proceedings.
You’ve seen sitcoms: you know the risk of having people on an auction floor who don’t really understand what’s going on. And over the years, the market traders have become more and more irritated with the pesky gaijin getting in the way of their livelihood. On several occasions, tourists have been completely banned from attending the auction. By coincidence, the week we’re in Tokyo, they’re only just starting to let visitors back in again after a month-long lockout. The new procedures aren’t particularly well documented, but we understand that a maximum of 140 people will be allowed entry to the auction on a first-come first-served basis after the 5am opening.
At 5am on Thursday morning, we’re still on the approach road leading up to the market. Will we be able to get there in time? (Okay, I realize the picture of a tuna auction up there kills the suspense a little, but work with me here.)
Just after 5am, we reach the main entrance to Tsukiji market, and realise we have no real idea where we’re meant to be going from there: straight through the main entrance, or off to the left or right? We stand staring at the market for a minute or two, slowly coming to the conclusion that a right turn might be the best bet, when fate intervenes: a bus pulls up in front of us, and a huge crowd of market staff gets out and heads straight for the main entrance. We follow them in, and witness the most hyperactive thing I think I’ve ever seen at five in the morning: an array of busy market stalls making their preparations for the day, while dozens of small dangerous motorized vehicles weave in and out between them, never quite running over anyone but coming bloody close.
It’s a breathtaking sight: and, it transpires, it’s not one we’re supposed to be looking at, because this particular bit of the market doesn’t open to the public till 9am. Fortunately, a security guard takes pity on us and points us in the direction of the visitors’ office (which we would have hit if we’d taken the left turning on our arrival). He also hands us a two page leaflet which reveals how the new entry procedures work: there are two shifts for tourist entry into the tuna auction, with 70 people allowed in between 5.00 and 5.40, and another 70 between 5.40 and 6.15. We make it there just in time to join the second shift, and are herded into a room with 68 other foreigners, all of us wearing colour-coded hi-vis vests and being closely watched over by security like we’re in some sort of piscine Guantanamo.
After all that palaver, it’s good to report that the auction is as wild an experience as you’d expect: although part of the attraction comes from it proceeding at such a lick that you’ve no real idea what’s going on. Sure, you can see mountains of tuna laid out in front of you, and prospective buyers inspecting it minutes before it goes on sale. But once the auction kicks off, you’re left gasping as an auctioneer standing on a podium acknowledges a flurry of bids delivered in almost imperceptible hand signals. (Happily, the tourists are kept safely to one side, so the risk of you accidentally buying a couple of tons of fish is minimized. No flash photography allowed, though, for obvious reasons.) We're currently working on a video which should give you a better feel of what it's like: look out for a link to it in the comments section below once it's ready.
The rest of our day (after a short post-auction nap) is similarly structured around a combination of food and shopping. For The BBG, that involves a trip to the Ginza branch of Talbots, purveyors of quality clothing to the discerning shortarse. Since their UK operation closed down a couple of years ago, she’s had difficulty finding anyone else who sells clothes in her size, so a visit to one of their remaining Japanese branches is an obvious source of delight. As for me, it’s off to the three big record stores in Shibuya - Tsutaya, HMV and Tower – for my usual bi-annual binge of J-Pop CDs. Sadly, given the strength of the yen, and the feebleness of the pound, I really can’t afford to buy too much. To give you an indication of how bad things are, we were tasked by The BBG’s brother to buy him £100 worth of Japanese pop records, and that amount of money will currently get you three albums and three singles. (If you want to try playing this at home, you'll find Amazon links for the six records in question at the bottom of this page.)
If you’re looking to compare those three record stores, then local chain Tsutaya easily comes out on top. Their listening post facilities are second to none, allowing you to hear any track on any CD available in the store. Additionally, there are lots of staff recommendations and video displays almost tailor-made for the casual browser like me. Tower’s main strength, as was the case when they had a presence in the UK, is in the sheer breadth of their stock: the racks in Tsutaya and HMV look rather similar, but Tower seem to have lots of rarer and quirkier material in between the hits. HMV comes off the worst, I’m afraid: their listening posts are all knackered, and their video floor is rendered utterly uninhabitable by their decision to have the trailer for Inglourious Basterds playing on an infinite loop. I mean, I like the film, but it gets a bit wearing after the fifteenth repeat.
Apart from a run round Tokyu Hands buying strange Japanese stuff for the relatives – and if you see my brother-in-law, don’t tell him that I’ve bought him toilet slippers – the rest of the day is marked by our fortuitous choice of meal locations throughout. Time to hand over to The Belated Birthday Girl for a few paragraphs…
After an early morning trip around Tsukiji fish market, the thing to do is to find some fresh fish to eat for breakfast. A wander around the outer market led us to Sushi Donburi no Don. There we had some very tasty, very fresh raw fish on top of a bowl of rice, washed down with green tea. Spank chose the salmon, but I felt I had to go for the tuna, having seen so many of the creatures being auctioned off. I liked to imagine I was eating one we’d just seen being sold, although really I knew that those were being bought by intermediaries, and they wouldn’t get to the outer shops for a while yet – although we did see the little trucks popping out to the shops delivering the proceeds of the day’s business. Anyway, the fish was as fresh and as good as you’d expect, and made a perfect finish to the morning.
For lunch in Shibuya, we ended up at Wired Cafe in the Q-Front building, on the 6th floor with the Tsutaya bookshop. We’d been there once before, a few years’ back, looking for internet access, with the lunch as an afterthought, but it had served us well that time. This time we didn’t need web access, so the food was the only thing. From a short but interesting lunch menu, Spank had the Gapao Basil Chicken, and I had the terrific pasta dish, which had tobiko fish eggs and tiny dried niboshi fish. Both were very tasty indeed. We shared a chocolate brownie for dessert and that finished the lunch very nicely.
For our evening meal in Shibuya, we had considered the Space Shower TV Diner, but it wasn’t clear what options the Viking buffet would have for me as a non-meat eater, and we weren’t willing to take the chance. Shibuya does have a lot of options, but we decided to see what the guide books suggested, and Time Out mentioned a fusion place called Legato which sounded worth a look. One of the things which appealed about Legato was its location, up on the 15th floor of the “Space Tower” building, with stunning views over Tokyo. We checked out that the menu had something for both of us and was reasonably priced, and then headed up in the lift to see if they had room. The journey up in the lift is great, as the views start right there, and you can see yourself rising up above the lights of Tokyo at night. The one mistake we initially made – although we rectified it after – was not going into the bar for a drink before dinner, as the views over Tokyo are best seen from the bar. But the views inside the restaurant itself are great, too, as the restaurant has stunning design, and a lively open kitchen. And the food and the wine were terrific.
As this was more based on a Western restaurant, it served courses of starters, mains and desserts. Both Spank and I went for the same starter, a fritter of courgette in parmesan crust, and it was excellent. For the mains, Spank chose the truffly carbonara, and I went for the black cod on a Chinese risotto. Again, both were extremely good. We decided each to have a glass of wine from the excellent list, Spank choosing the pinot grigio, while I had the gruner veltliner, which not only suits my taste better, but also complemented the Chinese risotto. Both wines were excellent. To finish a wonderful meal, we shared the vanilla creme brulee with green apple sherbet, which Spank, as a connoisseur of the crème brulees, praised as highly as possible (“this could be up with Megu”). Certainly it was a wonderful example. And to complete the evening, we retired to that bar with another glass each of the wines, to enjoy the view.By comparison, the next day's food is a bit of a letdown, which is why I'm writing about it. The disappointment starts early with breakfast. You may remember our time in Sapporo two years ago, when our daily ritual kicked off with savouries and coffee at the local branch of the Tully’s coffee chain. As we’d managed to avoid them for the entire holiday so far, we decide to visit Tully’s for breakfast, only to find that their hot food range is a) virtually sold out and b) never appears to have had any non-meat options anyway. When did Tully’s change their policy towards vegetarians? The BBG suggests grumpily that, based on our investigations in Tokyu Hands yesterday, it was around the same time that a law was apparently passed which says that all wallets sold in Japan have to be made of dead cow. Still, it all works out in the end: café Benisica, by the side of the Yamanote line, does a fascinating morning set in which scrambled egg is hammered down to a 2mm layer on top of a slice of toast, and then heat-blasted and garnished with mayonnaise. It’s actually really, really nice. Trust me.
As for what's technically our final meal of the holiday... It’s been a running joke since our first visit to Japan in 2002 that for all the lovely restaurants we eat at, we tend to avoid the places at the opposite end of the Japanese food chain. Places like MOS Burger, the country’s most notorious fast-food joint. I’ve always enjoyed winding up The BBG by suggesting we should go to one, most recently when we were peeking through the window of L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Roppongi Hills. Anyway, we have a requirement for a quick and dirty pre-gig meal this evening, so we decide to finally go for it – only to find that there isn’t a branch of MOS Burger on our proposed route, and we have to settle for their slightly classier rivals Freshness Burger.
Apart from their name being contradicted by the lift between the smoking and non-smoking floors smelling like a cancer research lab, it has to be said that the Freshness experience is a bit disappointing, mainly because it’s not all that different from what you’d get at any other burger chain in the West. There are a couple of interesting touches in the trimmings – smoothies with real fruit chunks rather than milkshakes, fries cooked with the skins still on – but the burgers themselves are rather standard, with The BBG particularly bummed out by her mushroom burger just being a big mushroom on a bun. MOS appear to do slightly more peculiar things with their menu, such as rice-based buns and more Japanese-style fillings: maybe we’ll keep them on the list of things to do on our next visit.
Happily, the non-food activities on our final day are a lot more successful. After breakfast, as we’re just down the road from Ginza, we swing by one of its most exciting destinations, the Sony Building. The electrical goods shops of Akihabara could be considered as full-on gadget porn: by comparison, Sony are offering tastefully presented erotica, but that doesn’t mean the technology is any the less exciting. The big thing at the moment is 3D TV: as with the introduction of HD in the UK four years ago, the strategy appears to be to use the World Cup as a means of luring in the punters. Based on the demos on display, 3D footy works best with close-up shots, giving you a real feeling of depth of field: for the wide shots, it’s nowhere near as impressive. But there’s plenty of other stuff to be impressed by: a booth simulating the sound of jet engines to demonstrate noise-cancelling headphones, a large display of their digital still and video cameras, and a home cinema setup that possibly would require a second home just to store all the hardware.
The TV demonstration comes back to haunt us in an unexpected way in the afternoon, when we travel to Asakusa Shrine for the opening parade of their weekend-long shrine festival. Rather like the one we attended in Sapporo two years ago, the festival is two days of sideshows, stalls, and people carrying around huge floats while yelling at the tops of their voices. The parade is merely the introduction to all that, held the day before: we get there just in time to tail along behind the last of the floats. It’s a peculiar experience to find yourself staring at a series of traditional paper lanterns outside one shrine, and suddenly realising that they have the words 3D TV clearly painted on them. It turns out that the main festival itself is going to be filmed for a 3D test transmission: shame that we’ll be on the plane back when it happens.
In the meantime, you’ll notice I used the phrase ‘pre-gig meal’ a few paragraphs back. When our plans to see Tokyo Jihen fell through, we got ourselves a list of music venues from the Time Out guide, and looked up their websites to see who else was playing while we were in town. This led us to Astro Hall in Harajuku, and from there to the discovery that a girl duo called Vanilla Beans were playing there as part of the venue's tenth anniversary celebrations, and from there to the video for their lovely second single, Nicola. By the end of that, we were convinced, and with the help of Miki we booked tickets through one of those handy machines they have in Lawson convenience stores. But as with Tokyo Jihen, we didn’t really know what to expect. Would we be the only middle-aged Westerners in an audience full of teenage girls?
Well, we’re partly right. Sure, we’re the only Westerners: we’re nearly the only middle-aged people: but it turns out that the Vanilla Beans demographic is predominantly young men, with the few women in the audience being the girlfriends of those young men. Which is a relief to The BBG and me, as it means we pretty much fit right in. The only other middle-aged people in the room are, we suspect, the parents of support act Nanba Shiho. We’re basing that suspicion entirely on the continuous beam of pride on what looks like her mum: the shouts of encouragement from what looks like her dad: and the terrifying moment when she reveals that when Astro Hall first opened a decade ago, she was just six years old.
Nanba’s upbeat pop tunes, backed by a three-piece band, are surprisingly the most authentically ‘live’ element of the evening, if you care about that sort of thing. The other support comes from DJ crew Twee Grrrls Club, a four-girl tag team playing an excellent selection of Western post-punk rarities. As for Vanilla Beans themselves, they’re singing over a pre-recorded backing track, but this isn’t a problem in the slightest. It’s obvious from their videos on YouTube that a large part of their appeal comes from their low-energy, highly choreographed dance routines: the rest comes from their entertaining banter in between the songs, which sounds funny even if you can’t actually decipher the words.
Musically, it would appear that they’re moving from the classic pop pastiches of songs like Nicola to more contemporary dancefloor material: a prime example of this is new single D&D, simultaneously a Pet Shop Boys-style melancholic stomper and a commercial for underarm deodorant. The Beans themselves are charming, nice to look at, and (based on the evidence of their pre- and post-gig signing sessions) terribly friendly girls. The sight of their adoring male audience joining in on the dance moves to Nicola – and The BBG following along with them – feels like a beautifully perfect climax to these two weeks. After all, there’s not likely to be any more excitement on the journey back to London.
The plan appears to be simple. Leave the hotel just before 7.30am, walk to Tokyo station. Get the 8am Narita Express train to the airport, or the 8.30 if we somehow screw that one up. We’ll be at the airport by 9.30 at the latest. We checked in online the day before, despite Virgin Atlantic attempting to screw that up by shutting off their check-in service between 1am and 7am UK time, i.e. during the first six hours of the Japanese working day. All we need to do is have our bags at the drop area no later than 10.30am, and we’re all sorted for our 11.30am flight back home. And because this whole plan is based around a Japanese train, it’s all going to work perfectly.
We get there a fraction too late to comfortably make the 8am train, so we reserve seats on the 8.30 instead. Which makes it a little irritating when we get down to the platform and find that the 8.00 hasn’t actually left the station yet. When it gets to 8.15 and the train still hasn’t left the station, we start having to consider the impossible: something’s gone wrong with the service. In what would be an entertaining paradox if it wasn’t based around people missing planes, the Japanese passengers on the train – who are the only ones getting decent updates telling them what the problem is – are the most baffled by the concept of a train fault, while the Westerners – who are being told very little – seem more accepting of it.
Eventually, word gets through that there’s a points failure somewhere down the line, and they’re not quite sure exactly when it’s going to be fixed. Some people are cutting their losses and heading off to Ueno to get the slower train to the airport: others (including us) are waiting to see if we can stay on this train and avoid the hassle of getting our Express tickets refunded. The JR staff at least tell us that reservations will not apply to specific trains for the near future, so we grab a couple of spare seats on the 8.00 and wait for it to leave.
It eventually goes at around 8.50am. With a couple of delays as they negotiate the wonky points, we’re at the airport for ten, dropping off our bags a quarter of an hour before the deadline. So no harm done, really. But it’s interesting seeing the apparently infallible JR system in one of its rare moments of fallibility: it’s the sort of incident that happens so infrequently that when it does, it makes the national news. (But this one didn’t, I’m afraid.)
As for the flight back to London, it’s fine. I’m not sure if it’s a direct result of The BBG’s grumblings on the way out, but her Asian Vegetarian meal options are an improvement on the way back, even though they pull the usual trick of taking away the tasty muffin that everyone else gets and replacing it with a wholemeal salad bap. The entertainment system hasn’t been updated much in the last two weeks, though, and appears to be on the verge of collapse: most passengers’ video screens go into core dump mode at least once during the flight. The BBG gets annoyed when I keep trying to report this to stewardesses with sentences like “excuse me, I think I’ve got a CRASH over here” or “my seat’s got a blue screen of DEATH on it”.
Once the screens have been rebooted, they seem to behave themselves. (If anyone from Virgin tech support is reading, they seem to go wonky whenever you access the Sky News pages, so you may want to investigate that.) We watch a Japanese movie called Kaiji, a fun romp with a subversive core to it, following a young aimless man as he’s cajoled into an evil scheme involving a life-or-death stakes rock-paper-scissors tournament. It could almost be taken as a metaphor for the entire capitalist system, if you stared at it hard enough: but it’s actually a more valid metaphor for Japanese gameshows. That becomes apparent when we watch an episode of National Family Challenge, in which families play games of hide-and-seek for a one million yen cash prize. The stakes are so high, the families rebuild their houses to create secret compartments their children can hide inside, and create Home Alone-style booby traps to potentially maim the seekers. You know, I’m going to miss Japanese telly.
We’ve been home in London for two weeks now, and we're just about back to normal again. The BBG and I have both posted our holiday photos on our respective Picasa galleries: you'll now find direct links to them at the end of each city section in Rising Monkey 2010. We've also got a couple of short videos we're still working on, so look out for links to those appearing in the comments some time soon. All in all, it's been another enjoyable visit to Japan, and I hope you've enjoyed following us on our journey. Meanwhile, The BBG is already drawing up lists of places she wants to visit in 2012. How could I possibly argue with that? Being a monkey, and all.
The BBG's Tokyo Photos (plus the flight back home)