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Japan: Mecca for Sushi Lovers

Posted by on January 13, 2008

Sushi Convyer Belt - Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)
Mmmm, conveyor belt sushi

Sushi is far and away my favorite food. I’m not alone in that assessment. All around the world sushi restaurants have been springing up like weeds as sushi has gained in popularity. It is easily the biggest Japanese contribution to global culture (yes, bigger than Anime).

So I couldn’t really go to Japan and not indulge in sushi. There were several things I had to know: is sushi better in Japan? how do they eat sushi in Japan? (fingers or chopstick?)

So throughout my time in Japan was investigating sushi. I got one blowout meal at a sushi restaurant in Ginza, I ate at several low end conveyor belt restaurants, and I went to what is Mecca for sushi lovers: The Tsukiji Fish Market (pronounced Skee-gee, and the last syllable is pronounced like how the French say “Guy” not like the letter “G”)

How do the Japanese eat sushi?

I have had this discussion with several people back in the US and have even gone to web sites to get an answer. The big debate is between using chopsticks and using your hands. I’m talking about nigiri sushi (with rice), not raw sashimi.

All the knowledgeable people I’ve spoken to in the US said you are supposed to pick it up with your hands. This is confirmed by the internet, which is never wrong. So a few years ago, I began eating sushi with my hands. Honestly, it is much easier than using chopsticks, which I only use for sashimi.

Parking Lot - Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)
Tsukiji Fish Market is a very busy place. Note the very narrow carts which navigate the aisles in the market.

I get to Japan and everyone I see is eating with god damn chopsticks….

I’m not saying its right or its wrong, just that it was what I observed. I saw it at both the low end and high end sushi restaurants. That being said, no one ever looked funny at me or corrected me.

Is sushi better in Japan?

The short answer is, No. Sushi is not better in Japan. It isn’t worse, but I don’t think its is better. In fact, several Japanese I spoke with said they thought the best sushi restaurants were in New York. Personally, the best sushi I’ve ever had prior to Japan was in LA and Vegas, and the meal I had in Ginza was on a par with those.

The meal I had in Ginza was definitely different from sushi I’ve had elsewhere. As I’ve noticed with most food I’ve eaten on my trip, the difference with what you might find in an ethnic restaurant in foreign country vs what you’d find in a restaurant its native country is more a matter of what is missing from the menu. My meal in Ginza had many small dishes that I’ve never had before including some small fried fish and some non fish items like small strips of beef. There were also many more sauces used on some of the dishes than I assumed would be used. I had been under the impression that “keepin-it-real” sushi was just fish and rice. All the sauces and crap were American inventions. The California roll is definitely American, but there are many sauces and deviations from basic fish and sushi rice which were served. (I should have written this a lot earlier. I’m having some trouble remembering everything that I ate that night)

Sea Cucumber and Clams - Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)
The variety from just one vendor at the fish market

I also ate at a rather nice place in Kobe where the fish served on each piece of nigiri was the size of a filet. It was enormous.

When I had my big meal in Ginza, the chef (who was just working on serving me) and some ladies next to me (one was an elderly woman wearing a kimono) both were happy to offer me tips on what items should go in soy sauce and what shouldn’t. At no point with their tips did they ever correct me for eating with my hands, even though the ladies were using chopsticks.

While many restaurants in Japan really focus on freshness in their fish, many of the items have to be flown into Japan so they aren’t necessarily that much more fresh than what you’d find elsewhere. At all but the highest end places, you will probably be getting fish that has been in a deep freeze.

Vendors - Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)
Inside the fish market

Tsukiji Fish Market

The Mecca for sushi is Tsukiji. It is seafood ground zero. If you frequently eaten sushi, or even seafood, there is a very good chance you have eaten something which has passed through the Tsukiji Fish Market. While other regional fish markets have lessened the relative importance of Tsukiji globally, it is still the largest and most important fish market in the world.

Getting to Tsukiji isn’t difficult. It is only a few blocks from a subway station. However, you have to get up very early to view the fish market in action. Very early. Before sunrise early. I really don’t do early very well. You wont see any sunrise photos on my website. One night I was going to go with a group to Tsukiji by just staying up all night and leaving at 5am. That never happened. When you are near a vending machine that serves beer, you aren’t going to be able to stay up all night.

The fish market is a very busy place. The day I was there was the day after Japanese Thanksgiving, so the buyers were making up for the day it was closed. Most of the buyers are from Tokyo area sushi bars, restaurants and grocery stores who will be buying for that day. As a result, most of the inventory turns over very fast, as it sort of has to because fresh fish doesn’t stay fresh for long.

Fresh Tuna - Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)
The star of the fish market is tuna

When I was there, there were some other tourists walking around along with me. We were all just obstructions and served no purpose whatsoever. If I worked at the fish market, I’d get really pissed off at tourists. Unlike visiting a normal market that sells nick-nacks, most people don’t purchase fresh seafood as souvenirs. As such, we were nothing but walking obstacles. Me and my huge camera bag kept getting in the way of guys rushing back and forth with product. About every few minutes I had to jump out of the way of an on coming gas powered cart.

The turnover and freshness means there is very little fishy smell at the fish market. I was rather surprised. Everything is either on ice or in running water. Most of the workers at the fish market wear rubber boots because of the water. I knew how to get to the fish market from the subway station by just following the men in rubber boots. I also saw more styrofoam boxes there than I’ve seen in my life.

The sheer variety of seafood at the fish market is amazing. I saw octopus (several varieties), eels, squid, crabs, lobster, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, snapper, prawns, enormous mussels, pretty fish, ugly fish, live fish, dried fish, one fish, two fish, red fish, and blue fish.

Tuna Tail Section - Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)
Tuna tail section used to determine quality

The star of the fish market, however, is tuna. Both fresh and frozen tuna can be seen all over and every day there are auctions for tuna at the fish market. Every so often an exceptionally high quality tuna will come in that sets off a bidding frenzy in the auction. The record price for a single tuna is US$55,000. There is a very particular system used to judge quality of tuna. At each tuna stand, they slice a very thin section of the tail and put it on display. That slice is what is used by buyers to determine the quality of the tuna.

There are Japanese buyers at fish markets around the world. They buy tuna and other seafoods to bring to Tsukiji. From what I understand, Japanese buyers around the world all use the tail slice to determine tuna quality. Tuna purchased overseas is set to Tsukiji frozen. You can see men cutting up frozen tuna with band saws in many places in the fish market.

There is actually a sushi restaurant at the fish market. From what I’ve read it is supposed to be one of the best in the world. It isn’t fancy either. It looks like a cheap diner. I wasn’t able to eat there however because the line to get in went around the building. From what I was told, it is like that almost every day and the line starts at about 5am.

Sushi for Brekfast - Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan (by Everything Everywhere)
It was only 10am but I had been up for 5 hours and surrounded by fish most of the day. What a better way to cap off a visit to Tsukiji than sushi for breakfast!

I did decided to eat at a place that was only a few blocks away. I figure it was probably just as good, but without the long wait. As I walked to the restaurant, i found a sort of secondary market around the main fish market. Here you could find vendors of high quality sushi knives (they are expensive and good), ceramic place settings, vegetables, and anything else you’d ever need to run a restaurant.

I suppose my sushi breakfast was probably the freshest I’ve ever eaten. I can only assume the fish came from down the block at the fish market. It was a bit pricey for what I got, but it was an experience.

In summary, if you like seafood and are in Tokyo, make the effort to wake up early one morning to visit Tsukiji. It will be an experience you wont soon forget.

Shout out

If anyone reading this lives in the Twin Cities, I strongly recommend you go and pay a visit to Kabuki Sushi in Eden Prairie. They are hands down the best sushi restaurant in Upper Midwest. Hiroshi and Eric are the main chefs and at least one of them will be working most nights. I told them I’d give them a shout out before I left on my trip, so this is me keeping my end of the bargin.

The Shrines and Temples of Japan: Part 2, Horyuji and Nara

Posted by on December 19, 2007

Pagoda at Horyuji Temple

Pagoda at Horyuji Temple

If you’ve been following along for a while, or if you at least take a look at the left column of my website, you’ll notice that I have an affinity for UNESCO World Heritage sites. I’m not trying to visit every one of them, for that would be impossible. I passed up four in Japan and one in the Philippines. I use them as sort of a proxy for a guide book. (and I never use guidebooks). If you know nothing about a country and you wanted to know what “the” things to see while you were there, odds are most of them would be on the UNESCO list. Certainly if they are of historic, cultural, or natural significance.  This rule doesn’t hold all the time. Some really amazing things are not on the UNESCO list. Nan Modal in Micronesia and the rock islands of Palau come to mind. I also got a bit of a mini-education from the head of the World Heritage committee in Rennell in the Solomon islands about how the process works for getting on the list. Lets just say it isn’t an accident that rich countries have more than poor ones or that something as significant as Nan Modal is off the list while the Sydney Opera House (built in 1972) is on the list.

I will leave my UNESCO rant to a later day…

I bring this up as sort of a prelude to why I bothered to visit Horyuji and Nara in the first place. Unlike Kyoto, I had never heard of either of these places before I visited Japan. Most of the other travelers I spoke with in Japan were not planning on visiting either Nara or Horyuji (especially Horyuji). It just wasn’t on the list of “the” places you had to see in Japan. Too bad for them, because what I saw there were some of the coolest things I’ve seen in Japan.

After Kyoto, I went to Osaka for a few days. Honestly, I probably would have been better off staying in Kyoto given the hassle I had of finding a room.  Both Horyuji and Nara are as easy of day trips from Kyoto as from Osaka. It is just a matter of getting on the right JR train. I managed to see both Horyuji and Nara in one day without difficulty. If anyone in the future should stumble across this while doing a Google search, I’d definitely do both if you are going to do either one. It is a very short train ride from Nara to Horyuji.

Horyuji Temple World Heritage Site

Horyuji Temple World Heritage Site

Horyuji

Horyu is a very small town and the temple is by far its biggest attraction. The Horyuji Temple is actually the first site in Japan to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site, which should give you an indication of its importance. (as a general rule, the earlier a site is declared a heritage site, the bigger of a deal it is. The first were listed in 1993). In nothing else, the Temple of Horyuji has a claim to fame for being the site of the oldest wooden buildings in the world.

Built in the seventh century, the pagoda is the only wooden buildings from that time period on Earth still standing. The log used as the center post of the pagoda was cut in the year 594. Many of the wooden buildings you see in Asia are really reconstructions of earlier buildings which were destroyed by fire or war. Hiroshima Castle? Destroyed in WWII. The golden palace in the Forbidden City in Bejing? Rebuilt several times after fire destroyed earlier buildings. Almost everything I saw in Korea has similar a similar story. The temple of Horyuji, through sheer luck, has managed to survive wars and fire for 1,400 years.

If you look closely at the photo of the pagoda, you will notice a wire running down the lenght of structure. Every wooden building you find in Japan will have a wire like this. It sort of takes away from the photo, but it is vital that they are there because they are the grounding wires for the lightening rods. The number one killer of wooden structures over the years has been lightening. Strangely enough, the odds of the building surviving are probably better now than they were hundreds of years ago. No wars between factional warlords, lightening rods, and no open fires for heat. Oh, and firetrucks.

(Actually, it is believed that the temple isn’t the original building either. The first was built in 607 and burned down in 670. The current temple was finished in 711…a very apt number for Japan.)

The temple is still an active, working Buddhist temple and draws a large number of tourists from Japan. Outside of the pagoda and main temple building, the entire temple compound has a museuma and other structures in addition to a garden.

Todaji Temple, World's Largest Wooden Building

Todaji Temple, World's Largest Wooden Building

Nara

The biggest surprise was in Nara. Most of the historic things of note are all within one large area centered by a park. Like Miyajima outside of Hiroshima, Nara is full of tame deer roaming around. You can buy stacks of small crackers to feed the deer in the park. Nara was the capital of Japan before Kyoto from 710 to 784.

As I was doing the circuit of the temples in Nara, I wasn’t really impressed by anything, until I noticed a very large gate in the distance. In fact, the size of the gate was sort of deceptive. As I got closer, the gate became huge. It was far larger than any other ornamental gate I’ve seen in Asia. It was the gate to Todaiji Temple. I saw the word Todaiji on the map, but I really knew nothing about it. I thought to myself “This gate must be the big calling card for the temple.” How wrong I was….

Like most of the temples I visited in Japan, they usually chage a small fee. I went to the ticket window, paid my 500 yen and went around the wall go to the main temple building. As buildings go, it isn’t big. You can see bigger in almost any city. It took me a bit to realize that this totally made of wood. This is a freaking huge wooden building. (I later found out that a pervious temple stood on the same spot and was destroyed several hundred years ago. The previous temple was actually 1/3 bigger than the current one.)

The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple

The Daibutsu in Todaiji Temple

So now I’m pretty excited. I like big things. I like old things. I like big, old things. (Imagine how excited I’ll get when I’m at the pyramids..) I’m taking my photos not even thinking about what might be inside a building that large or why you would need to make a building that large to begin with.

I enter the building and there it is. The same thing that is in every Buddhist temple: a statue of the Buddha. This one however is the giant, economy, family sized Buddha. It is called the Daibutsu, or large Buddha in Japanese. It is 15m (49ft) high. The original Buddha was built in 754. Since then, temples have been destroyed and rebuilt. The current bronze Buddha was repaired in parts over the last several hundred years. The current building dates back to 1701. (Amazingly enough, there used to be two pagodas here that were estimated to be 100m tall. They would have been the tallest structures in the world outside of the Great Pyramid.)

Inside the temple are several giant guardian statues. Each one is about 30ft (10m) tall. There is also a hole carved into one of the pillars in the temple. It is said that if you crawl through the hole, it will give you long life. As children are the only ones who can realistically fit through it, it is probably true.

In addition to Todaiji, there were other things on interest in Nara (Nigatsu-do Hall and Kasuga Shrine), but everything was sort of dwarfed (excuse the pun) by Todaiji. The one other thing that was interesting were the students practicing Ogasawara-ryu, or horseback archery.

If you visit Japan, make it a point to visit Nara and Horyuji. The pagoda at Horyuji and the Todaiji Temple were two of the high points of my trip.

The Temples and Shrines of Japan: Part 1, Kyoto

Posted by on December 17, 2007

Read part 2 and part 3

The Kyoto Tower is the single most noticable landmark in Kyoto and was bult to lead Kyoto into a future of flying cars and jive talking robot butlers.

The Kyoto Tower is the single most noticable landmark in Kyoto and was bult to lead Kyoto into a future of flying cars and jive talking robot butlers.

Travelers to Europe often complain of church fatigue. Everywhere you go, you see old churches and castles and after awhile they all sort of just blur into each other. In Asia, the equivalent would be Shrine and Temple fatigue. No place I’ve visited so far suffers more from this than the greater Kyoto area.

Kyoto is packed full of history. It is like going to Rome or London. This is the where the former capitol of Japan was located and it was intentionally spared from bombing during WWII because of the historic structures there. There is so much stuff in Kyoto that after several days, I still felt as if I didn’t see everything. Throw in the sites of nearby Nara and Horyuji, and it was a lot to digest in a short period of time.

I’m going to break up the discussion of the historical shrines and temples of Japan in to three different posts. The first will deal with Kyoto, the second with Horyuji and Nara, and the last with Nikko. This will easier to digest for you and easier to write for me.

I’m also only going to touch on what I found interesting. Two of the big attractions in Kyoto for example are Nijo Castle and the Imperal grounds. I didn’t really find Nijo that interesting and tours in the Imperal household had to be scheduled in advance, so I didn’t bother. I do have photos of both places, however. If you’ve been to Kyoto and think I missed something special, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Kyoto

Kyoto was the capital of Japan from 794 to 1868. The Imperial grounds in Kyoto are in fact still owned and controlled by the Japan’s Royal Family. Having been the capital for over 1,000 years is what makes it the epicenter of Japanese history.

Unlike Hiroshima which was destroyed in the war and totally rebuilt, Kyoto was spared from bombing during the WWII. Since WWII however, most of the older houses and structures in the city have been razed and replaced with modern buildings. At first glance, Kyoto doesn’t look any different than any other Japanese city. (and they really all do sort of look the same, but that is another post). When you arrive in Kyoto by Shinkansen, there is only one building of historical note that you can see: the five story pagoda at Toji temple.

One of the books I read in Japan was “Dogs and Demons” by Alex Kerr, who is an expat who lives in Kyoto. He really had nothing good to say about the development of modern Kyoto. Unlike many major historic cities like Paris, Kyoto destroyed and rebuilt most of the old housing and in the process destroyed the feel which the city had. While many of the historic buildings were preserved, they were preserved in neighborhoods which are indistinguishable from what you would find in Tokyo or Osaka. This isn’t to say Kyoto didn’t need to modernize, but really lacks any unique vibe. You walk away from the train station and the first thing you are hit with are gaudy pachinko parlors. That is the reality of modern Kyoto. (I should also note that Kyoto is the home of Nintendo)

The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion


The Golden Pavilion

The one thing in Kyoto I just had to see was the Golden Pavilion. One of my favorite movies is Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters by Paul Schrader, about the life of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. One of the four chapters featured snippets of his 1956 book, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. In the movie, a young Buddhist acolyte with a stutter and a limp develops a hatred for everything beautiful and burns down the Golden Pavilion. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made and probably the most over looked.

Anyway….I really wanted to see the Golden Pavilion. The Golden Pavilion is sort of the poster child for Kyoto. The photos of the Golden Pavilion are one of the iconic images in Japan. What I was completely unaware of until I got there was that the story of a young monk burning down the pavilion….was true! In 1950. a Buddhist acolyte burned down the Golden Pavilion. It was a huge scandal at the time in Japan. The building which currently sits was a replica of the original building and was constructed in 1955. (Actually, like most historic buildings in Japan, the pavilion had burned down several times previously)

The Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji in Japanese) was built to house relics of the Buddha on the grounds of a former Shogun. The building is literally covered in gold leaf.

If you ever come across other photos of the Golden Pavilion, you will notice that almost every one is taken from the exact same angle. You can’t enter the pavilion. There is a pond in front and across the pond there is a place for taking photos. Looking at the structure from across the pond is about the totality of the Golden Pavilion experience. There is a nice Japanese garden nearby, but there are no tours of the building.

Five story pagoda and garden at Toji Temple

Five story pagoda and garden at Toji Temple


Toji Temple

From the outside, the most stunning and prominent feature of Toji Temple is the five story pagoda. Not only is it the tallest wooden structure in Japan (57m) but it is also the largest structure of any sort in the immediate area. No matter where you go in Japan you will see a sea of two and three story buildings (this is because of earthquakes. Until recently, the engineering to build tall, earthquake proof buildings didn’t exist.) It is really odds to see a wooden building stick out as the tallest structure in the area. As I said earlier, it is the only historic structure I was able to see from the Shinkansen as it entered Kyoto from Osaka.

The temple however is more than just the pagoda. There are two large wooden structures on the grounds in addition to a Japanese garden. The other building serve to house large statues of the Buddha. It was in these buildings that for the first time on my trip I got the real feel for something being old. The wood inside was ancient. You could feel it and you could smell it. Prior to this point, the oldest man made structures I’ve seen were either made from stone (Easter Island and Nan Modal) or were masonry buildings no more than 400 years old (Vigan and Intramuros, Philippines). Toji was in a different league of old, at least as far as the senses were concerned.

The temple is of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, a subject which I feel not in the least bit qualified to discuss further. In many of the temples I’ve been to Asia have belonged to different sects and I can’t say I really know enough to describe the differences between them. I think that will be something I will have to research for a post in 2008 from China or Thailand.

The Shinto shrine to Inari in Fushimi

The Shinto shrine to Inari in Fushimi


Fushimi Inari-taisha

If this looks familiar it is because I used it as a daily photo a few weeks ago. It is a Shinto shrine to the fox deity Inari. The mountain which it is located (also called Inari) is significant because its paths are lined with thousands of wooden gates (torii). The wooden gates are sponsored by individual and are continuously being built. Walking up the mountain surrounded by gates is sort of surreal experience. Every so often you’d run across a guy who works for the shrine installing or painting a new gate. At several spots on the mountain you would find small shrines with miniature gates. There is a small gate industry in the area as you can purchase gates and put them on the shrines.

There is a secen from the recent movie Memoirs of a Geisha which takes place here.

If you manage to make it up the mountain, you have a beautiful view of Kyoto all its sprawling, gray glory. Along the way they have small stores and places for pilgrims to buy things. I really had no idea that Fishimi Inara existed before I arrived to Kyoto, but it was probably the highlight of my time there. The fact that I walked for over an hour from my hotel to get there made it all the better when I finally arrived. (Finding a train station just a few blocks away from the entrance which I could have used for free with my JR rail pass made me sad on the way back however).

In my next installment, I’ll be talking about the oldest and largest wooden buildings in the world in Horyuji and Nara.