The guidebook weighed heavily in my hand as I attempted to navigate Tokyo streets. I couldn’t read a single sign, but thanks in part to my gumption but mostly to the overwhelming generosity of the people in my host country, I always found my way. Food destinations topped my itinerary. I planned to hit the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Ramen Museum, a Michelin star-rated sushi restaurant, and any Seven-Eleven I came across. (They have the most interesting snacks and sell cute socks too!) Sure there were temples, shrines, and architectural gems to pursue as well, but these were mere cultural diversions to fill my time between meals.
Turning off the main drag onto a crowded street, I found myself wandering through a maze of market stalls selling various aquatic creatures. The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest in the world. I had to stay on my toes, dodging speeding forklifts, flying fish guts, and rushing merchants. I had expected a pungent olfactory experience but every smell I encountered was fresh and salty like the ocean. The busy scene was all very “Where’s Waldo” and I fit into it all perfectly with the camera strapped around my neck and the big goggling grin on my face. The fish lay out on ice in all of their clear-eyed glory. Crabs were neatly tied together; salmon roe was bright popping orange. The tuna was the most remarkable though. Fetching the prettiest penny (well, yen) in these parts, tuna is sold in an early morning auction. But the steep price comes as no surprise. If you’ve ever had sushi, you know how special taro is. Melty, soft, yielding—there is hardly any better sensation in your mouth.
I had heard that this fish market was the best place to eat sushi, but as much as I wanted to rally, it was 9am. I just couldn’t bring myself to breakfast on slices of raw fish, no matter how fresh. Plus, the temperature hovered around 35. I needed something warm. I decided to ask one of the fish merchants wearing a full rubber jumpsuit where to go. “Ga,” I said—which means “where”—and then gave my best try at “eat” in a universal gesture (One hand cupped, the other going from hand to mouth with a chomping motion and a big smile.) Seeing his puzzled look, I squeaked out, “Ramen!?” This he understood. Laughing a little, he said something in Japanese. I looked at him earnestly (but probably a little blankly), desperate to get his recommendation. He repeated but I obviously had no clue what he was saying. Taking mercy on my poor hungry tourist soul, he motioned for me to follow and I trailed along behind him. He hopped in a forklift and motioned for me to get on back. Without hesitation, I jumped on and, heeding his safety advice, grabbed on to the back metal pole. It was ice cold but I held on tight as he sped off and we zipped around the market. I was laughing at the absurdity of the moment and somehow managed to snap a picture while riding. We zoomed over to an outdoor ally where he stopped abruptly and exclaimed, “Ramen!” I hopped off, patted him on the back and said “Arigato!” He nodded and off he went.
I stood at the mouth of a row of small eateries. A piece of fabric with Japanese characters flagged each short entrance. After passing several sushi places, my gaze caught on a steamy window bustling with activity. Inside I found a low diner counter and stools enough for ten. The customers, all men, sat in front of steaming bowls of ramen, quickly slurping up the noodles. I saw one stool open, so I went in. The waitress and all three cooks in the back welcomed me with a resounding, “Irrasshaimase” I took my seat in the quaint throwback of an eatery and when the waitress came over to ask what I wanted, I pointed to what the man next to me was eating. She said, “Oh, pork ramen?” I said, “Hi” (which means “yes”). It still was early in the morning, but I could handle soup.
When she brought out my breakfast, the intermingling of language, cultures, and eras seemed to coalesce into the giant bowl of ramen before me—like some sort of holy cultural moment had found me there and I partook by slurping up the sacrament.
The trip was far from affordable but when I find myself subsisting on ramen of the instant variety at home in the coming months, at least I’ll have plenty of fond culinary moments to look back on and savor.