Japan: Mecca for Sushi Lovers

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

I did decide 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 won’t soon forget.

14 thoughts on “Japan: Mecca for Sushi Lovers”

  1. Dear Gary!
    Robert-Gilles of Shizuoka, Japan!
    If you the chance, come to Shizuoka Prefecture which contributes a major share of fish at Tsukiji, notwithstanding nearly 100% OF ITS WASABI!
    Great Blog!
    Cheers, and all that!

  2. Enjoyed your post — I too have always wondered if the sushi was better in Japan just as you have/did. Thanks for answering that question for me. ;)

  3. Hey Gary, Thanks for the shoutout for Kabuki. I’ve been meaning to check them out for some time now and will totally go and eat there.

  4. Hi, I really enjoy reading you blog and am happy to be able to help contribute.

    I have lived in Japan for many years, and my wife is Japanese. One time, in a local sushi place, the chef decided he had to teach me all he could about eating sushi.

    He told me that both hands and chopsticks are ok, but what is preferable is to use hands for hand-formed sushi and chopsticks for sushi made by machine. These machines form the rice base and the “chef” only places the fish on top (they can be seen at most kaiten (revolving) sushi places). This was news to my wife but, when she thought about it, it was what she did naturally.

    As for using extra soy sauce or wasabi, there was a fashion about 10 years ago called “iki” (means chic or style) in which it was considered rural to do so and city people tended not to. Now it is only in very high end restaurants where that would be the rule.

  5. I’m following the Amazing Race on TV and last episode they went to the Tsukiji Fish Market as well. I’m considering this a calling from the great Suhi God to get my ass to Japan ans dine on sushi until I explode. Thanks for the post!

  6. I’m guessing that fingers and chopsticks are both acceptable ways of eating sushi. I just happened to see people using chopsticks.

  7. Thanks for this post! My parents went to Japan for 2 weeks and I couldn’t get a straight story out of them whether sushi was better in Japan or not!

    Also did you wonder why no one said anything about you eating w/ your hands?

  8. Yes. In Ginza I had some O-toro. High grade, fatty tuna. It literally melts in your mouth. If you hold it on your tongue for a few seconds it will fall apart.

  9. I too had heard the “hands” thing — and that you should not put extra wasabi/soy sauce on the pieces because it’s an insult to the chef.

    Did you have any crazy expensive Toro? In San Francisco you can tell the really serious sushi places because they have more than one grade of Toro around.

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