Friday, March 23, 2007

Camel-san Diaries 2: In which she tries to buy cooked fish

The Tsukiji Central Fish Market is a sprawling complex on the banks of the Sumida River. I arrive at 8:30am and almost get run over by a gnarly worker driving a small forklift-looking contraption. No Japanese politeness here, he just zooms past me with nary a backward glance, while I jump right back into a puddle. Eep, looking like an adventure already.

I don’t linger for long in the actual fish market - most of the action happens here around 5am - so I make my way to the Tsukiji Outer Market.

There's so much here I don't really know where to start. I pause for a while at a store selling knives - the storekeeper uses a duster to remove miniscule traces of dust from the already spotless implements. Then a nearby pottery store grabs my attention - I imagine thin slices of the freshest fish only caught this morning presented immaculately on these dishes, each a little work of art, soon to line the tummies of those who can afford it.

It's only been two days, but the Japanese attitude to food and dining is seeping into my consciousness. I find myself paying more attention to what I eat, the way it is presented, the freshness of each morsel I ingest. With this thought in mind, I follow advice from the Lonely Planet and go in search for the requisite sushi breakfast and according to them, "the freshest available probably anywhere in the world". With my ongoing cold still addling me, I decide to try my luck at finding some hot (cooked) food on the side as well.

I fail. Miserably.

After wandering up and down the many lanes of the Outer Market, I find a little cafe with only one spare seat. I take that as serendipity (it's as good a sign as any other) and it helps that there is a photo menu. So I order what to me looks like a plate of fresh sushi, with a side of smoked mackerel, with miso soup and pickles.

What I get looks like this:

I'm sure there's a much nicer name for the pink stuff at the top of the photo, but it was essentially chopped up raw tuna mince. The smoked mackerel occupied the tiny (but lovely) little blue receptacle on the far right. So, desperately channeling the best of Japanese dining sensibilities, I think about the presentation (well, this was a hole-in-the-wall eatery so not much to contemplate there), then about the sensation of the food in my mouth (bad choice: don't go there), then about the freshness of the produce (erk! even worse). I give up, turn Singaporean, eat up (my mum's voice from my childhood ringing in my ear "don't waste food! there are starving people in Africa!"), pay, and walk out with relief.

Hokay... so maybe I could've done better there. I suddenly feel a sharp pang of missing for my old friend J, who normally lives in Kyoto but who is on her way to Hawaii right now. (J if you are reading this, I truly wish you were here with me - I so need a Japanese-speaking friendly guide!)

So after walking around like a sotong (pun fully-intended), I make my way to Asakusa, home to Senso-Ji, Japan's oldest Buddhist temple (built in 628AD). It's bordered by a tremendous gate, Kaminarimon, which looks like a really popular meeting place for all and sundry. Beyond the gate lies Nakamise-dori, a lovely shopping street leading to the temple. Tradition and kitsch abound here. I am tempted but decide not to get a Hello Kitty lip balm (what irony! Lip balm from a silent cultural icon that has NO MOUTH! How's that for an anti-feminist statement?), but do fall prey to a lovely shop selling bags made from the unlikely pairing of army-green canvas and delicate kimono fabric.

I spend some time wandering the grounds of Senso-Ji and neighbouring shinto shrine Asakusa-Jinja. I love how two shrines dedicated to different religions can co-exist so comfortably side by side, each attracting its own pilgrims. I read in the Japan Hotel Association's Japan Guide that most Japanese have a tolerant attitude toward other religions as long as they are not too extreme. If only the rest of the world could adopt this attitude.

I spend the greater part of the afternoon here. Before entering the temples, I clean myself at a chozuya (a trough of water) using a long-stemmed ladle. The water is bitingly cold but leaves a refreshing tingle. I return to the hotel in the late afternoon for a nap (the cold has now turned into a cough, darnit).

Then at night, I head for the neon headiness of Shinjuku (while D is feted at what sounded like this amazing Japanese traditional club with groomed gardens in an old stone building). Apart from discovering the subterranean delights of the Isetan food hall (where bento boxes are so miraculously presented I scarcely dare to touch them), I chance upon the Muji store. Hello there!

It's morning in Tokyo now. I can't sleep 'cos the cough has now turned into wheezing. But I'm not complaining. If anywhere has the power and spirit to cure, I think it's right here.


christine said...

The thing I love about Japanese temples, or more specifically, the asakusa shrine, is how it's so redolent of what laces of worship used to be - places of community and exchange as well. You get a litle glimpse of how it must have been like - in Jesus' day in the temples, definitely in Hindu, Sikh bla blah blah temples - even's always a gathering what lives are centred around. What better way to put religion at the centre of your life than by surrounding your religion with your life eh?

There were many MANY lovely things in those stalls down the little alleys. Beautiful tasting food - I ate globule upon globule of nameless globular things with subtly varying tastes as only the Japanese can do. And there was a corner of the temple where you basically got your pasar malam-like tents with hot food galore and tons of knick knacks.

But definite highlight was the procession of what would be the equivalent of your sandwich board man shouting out the day's special offers in New York. The traditionally-clad procession, clacking away wityh those wooden instruments (like maracas but not?), carrying painted signs and sing-songing the day's news/message/offer as they went along the narrow streets. The town-crier. The chinese men who sang out the news in tearooms all over the China of old. The great oral tradition of passing on information we hardly see anymore.

Love Japan.

sabre hound said...

dora-chan! drink warm sake will cure your cough and wheezing... trust me on this.
oh well, if you're at it, get choya! yummm...

uncle dick said...

Mum and I were there at that very same temple and its surroundings last Dec. The main temple was undergoing some major renovation work and we could not go in. But there was so much to do and see outside that most of us got separated. Later, we too trooped over to Shinjuku station area and really enjoyed all the beautiful malls, eateries and cafes.
It was Japan as we know it...and it tends to get better when u bravely go into a place that is full of local ano-nes and somehow settle in. It was fun when we entered a cafe, relaxed, had coffee and chatted with them!
U will feel very much a part of that place once u are brave enough to start a conversation knowing full well that the lingo is not with u....some of them can speak a smattering of Jap/English.

onehandwaving said...

Well, come to Kyoto and I'll see if I can scrounge up some cooked fish.

Happy belated birthday -