Tokyo: The Magic of Tsukiji

Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market has always held mythical status for me and has sat high on my must-see list, mostly thanks to lots of sea-loving men who strongly influenced my life. As the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market, handling over 2,000 tons of fish a day, my morning visit well exceeded my expectations and left me wondering how our seas were supporting this kind of consumption on a daily basis anyway. Are there still that many fish swimming around our oceans? And this was just one of Tokyo’s fish markets.

If you’re suffering from jet-lag or thrive on pre-dawn excursions, head on over to the market around 3 or 4 am to secure your place as an observer in the tuna action. Only 120 lucky tourists get a spot each day during two showings (5:25-5:50 and 5:50-6:15), so get your green tea to-go and wipe the sleep out of your eyes to guarantee a spot in this astonishing tuna slinging.

I strolled in at 9am (I was too busy watching the dozing diners at Jonathan’s) when the wholesale market floor officially opens to the public and spent hours wandering through the maze of tight isles, a gazillion beady fish eyes glaring up at me, trying hard not to eat it on the slippery floor or get hit by one of the hundreds of zippy “turret trucks” whizzing down the many corridors.

When your belly starts rumbling, find a spot at one of the numerous small sushi bars and counters on the outskirts of the sales floor. The problem, of course, is deciding which one to try. I settled on a locale with no English posted outside with a moderate line of non-touristy faces. The toro and hamachi were melt-in-my-mouth exquisite, as it was easily the very best sushi I’ve ever had.

I’m officially spoiled for life. Sushi at my fave cheap sushi counter in Berkeley will never quite taste the same.

Plans are underway for a brand new market in Toyosu due for completion in the spring of 2016. You still have a little under two years to get there and witness the real deal. Go on, hurry up.

It’s worth it. I promise.

THE PRODUCTS (AKA THE FISH)

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THE PEOPLE

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Tokyo: Sleeping While Present in Multicolor.

I came to Tokyo thinking I would be lost in a sea of people, stuffed into bulging subway cars only to be groped by wandering hands, a nameless gaijin crossing the street with thousands of other pedestrians. With close to 13.3 million people in the world’s largest capital city, Tokyo is surprisingly quiet. At least that was my first impression from the airport to my hotel the evening of my arrival. Compared to Oakland, this city is on mute.

This quiet theme played out my first morning in Tokyo, when I was certain I stumbled into one of those prank TV shows with undercover cameras. My hotel provides breakfast at the adjoining diner, Jonathan’s, (imagine Denny’s only with green tea and bowing servers), and all the patrons were asleep. Well, almost all of them. A couple of the other confused hotel guests were milling about half-dead with jet-lag trying to decipher the 100+ beverage options at the highly mechanized drink bar, but sleeping teenagers and middle-aged business men sporting untucked button-down shirts with crumpled suit jackets occupied the rest of the booths. It’s common for the Japanese to sleep in public. There’s even a word for it, inemuri, which roughly translates to ‘sleeping while present,’ which is both culturally acceptable, necessary for an over-worked population and perfectly safe in such a crime-free society. As I was gulping down my green-tea latte and watching the drooling diners around me, I was liking this city more with each gentle snore.

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For those diners awake enough to appreciate it and/or chew, breakfast was a tasty and perfectly un-American combo of pork soup, rice, pickled radish, seaweed and Natto, an ooey-gooey mess of fermented soybeans coated in their own slime. Natto is best described as somewhat rotten tasting soy-beans rolled in uber sticky snot. Forgive me for not painting a very pretty picture, but really, it’s quite dericious and nutritious. Really.

Since I wasn’t in the mood to deal with more forms of transportation, exploring the city on foot seemed like a good first day plan, and according to my guidebook, there were all sorts of notable things to do in my neighborhood. A quick ten minute stroll from my abode, and I was in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden where I admired some grandiose gingko trees and enjoyed a chrysanthemum exhibit.

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Just in case you were curious about what types of ferocious insects and bugs live in the parks in Tokyo...

Just in case you were curious about what types of ferocious insects and bugs live in the parks in Tokyo…

I traveled from the tranquil park to the bustling shopping district near Shinjuku station, then through the sleepy, neighboring red-light district and on to Korea-town where I sampled the most divine stuffed grilled pastries with sweetened red beans, walnuts and other yummy things I couldn’t decipher.

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I know, I know. I flew all the way to Japan to eat Japanese food, but since I was in Korea-town during lunchtime, I decided on a make-your-own-Bibimbap-bar for lunch, primarily because the place was packed with people and they had bright-colored chairs outside. I even got a token piece of classy looking gum when I paid my bill!

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I don’t consider myself a rookie traveler, but I made the mistake of taking a nap in the afternoon because the voices in my head were strongly persuading me to close my eyes. The natto slime from breakfast must have had something to do with my eyes being glued shut, because I couldn’t get them open. Finally by belly won over the drowsy war, and I realized I had bigger, better things to do in Tokyo.

Like eat.

A tiny ramen shop on a deserted side street was home for dinner. I tried my darndest to duplicate the slurping sounds of the pudgy diner to my left, but gave up after splattering my shirt with too much flying broth. Table manners in Japan encourage zealous slurping as a sign of true enjoyment.

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What’s struck me most about Japan in these first 24 hours are all the colors and incredible design. Here are a couple more favorite images from the day.

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These clever machines serve hot drinks if you see a red line underneath, blue lines mean cold.

These clever machines serve hot drinks if you see a red line underneath, blue lines mean cold.

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I’ll catch y’all tomorrow over a cup of green tea.

Sheep’s Cheese & Lambies!

Our new cooking and walking tour in Provence starts with a visit to a quaint sheep’s cheese farm run by the ultra hard-working husband/wife team of Brigitte and Philippe Cordier just outside of Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban. In July, our visit corresponded with the arrival of a handful of brand new, teeny tiny lambs! Brigitte let us hold one that was just three days old for picture ops and warm fuzzies!

[Ok, ok, I know. If you know me well, you’re going to call me out at this very moment for being a total hypocrite.]

Yes, it’s true, I can devour grilled lamb stuffed with roasted garlic cloves with all the finesse and marrow-sucking precision of a professional sumo wrestler. But hey, I also adore coddling these super soft, lanolin-smelling babies. Who wouldn’t? Just to set the record straight; I love lambs, over hot charcoal or jumping through spring meadows, just the same.

At least, I’m honest.

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Cherry Picking in July

Each year, seasonal produce and blooming flowers gently mark the passing of time for me in Provence. Persistent, crimson poppies celebrate my arrival. Plump strawberries and crème fraîche fill my market basket when the nights are still cool and the fields vibrant green from spring rains. Ripe, juicy cantaloupe appear on roadside stands around the same time the fields wash aglow with fragrant lavender under an unrelenting summer sun. Apples, crisp and perfectly paired with 12-month aged Comté, bid my farewell as fall winds hint at quiet evenings around a fireplace with red wine.

And somewhere, gracefully balanced between the poppies and apples is the cherry. There’s really something quiet magical about plucking red globes of juicy sweetness off of a tree. When they’re ripe, I find every excuse possible to get off my bike and duck into the orchard, especially along the road from Saint Didier to Venasque. Luckily, I didn’t have to sneak them on this wonderful evening in July.

Our gracious British hosts, Dan and Lucy, threw a mid-summer pool party and barbecue, complete with an impromptu cherry-picking extravaganza. I might have been the only participant who ate as many cherries as I picked, but that really didn’t matter. I was among lovely friends, and we were all taking in the perfect evening, the setting sun, the sweetness that only summer in Provence can bring.

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Tortellini Freschi

To all you Italian craftswomen and men out there who spend hours a day meticulously stuffing and folding tortellini; grazie mille. Your work does not go unappreciated. Really. Look at these things! Sensual lines. Warm amber color. Flawlessly stuffed with subtly sweet pumpkin and creamy ricotta. Delicately packed and dusted with flour for transport home. Why can’t all food be this fussed-over and celebrated?

I regret not asking the name of the charming, middle-aged woman who made these stunning fresh tortellini, or at least taking note of the name of the small pasta shop, so you could support her efforts next time you find yourself in Bologna. (I do remember that it was on Via Sant’Isaia somewhere between Via Pietralata and Via di Marchi).

After a three minute bath in boiling water, a bit of fresh butter melted atop, I sat down with a fellow Italian student /Scottish friend over a good bottle of Sangiovese and honored them as best I could with all my “Ooh’s and Aah’s” of culinary gratitude. Yum. Grazie mille.

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