Tokyo. You realize early on your first morning why so many tourists make their way here, to the fish market.
The place is impressive in itself, and the size of several football fields, with every flank in motion.
But it is the time difference that sends so many pale faces in this direction.
At 2am you snap awake and stare at the ceiling from a hard pillow and tatami mats. Back home it is the previous day, and closer to noon. The sleep won't come back.
And there is really only one place to go.
Welcome to Tsukiji.
At 45 minutes after 5am, the long line for Sushi Dai has already formed. Many people, first time visitors, will ask you what you are waiting for. Because the lines snakes around the corner, they can't tell that you are waiting your turn at a restaurant, and for some of the best sushi in the area.
By the time you are standing in front of the front banner a half hour has passed, or maybe an hour.
The lady in the center of the picture controls the line, and takes no prisoners. She may speak to 50 different nationalities before noon, and she does not hesitate to take you by both shoulders and move you to where you should be if you don't understand her at first. But she also doesn't hesitate to lend you an umbrella as you wait in the rain, either. And she takes the menu orders. Sushi Dai is a small place. Better to know which menu a guest will want before they enter. It helps the chefs prepare.
I leave the group waiting in line to look in on the nearby shops a bit.
The merchants here sell all manner of everything.
And they travel on anything with wheels.
In the back alley, a cook does prep for Sushi Dai near the used bottle racks. I may be eating this soon.
I headed back to the line. Maybe soon was about to come.
By the time you see this door, you may well have waited for 2 hours. Sushi Dai opens right at 5am, but that is also when the Tokyo trains start to run, so most people do as we did when they arrive, and wait.
Inside, the place is full. There are maybe 15 seats, and everyone knows what a deal they are getting. An omakase menu here costs only about 50 dollars, including tip.
And the chefs are happy to see you.
They've been here for years. This gentleman, who was also our chef on our last visit, has worked at Dai for two decades. While we were there a twenty something came in with a picture taken at this place, with this same chef, 13 years ago.
He likes to joke around, and to have a bit a fun.
And he always keeps an eye out for any Yankees fans that might be coming in the door. He loves the Yankees.
The junior chefs like to laugh too.
And in general they have a good time.
This isn't one of those silent summits of perfection. This is essentially in the confines of a diner, but a diner with some of the best fish in the world. And a reminder that sushi was originally a kind of street food, a snack, and altogether casual.
Each day before dawn they select the fish from the market, serve it to non-stop crowds all morning, and close as the afternoon settles in.
As usual, the fish looks great.
The tea is a warm remedy for the morning chill. Of course some of the hedonists and those finishing work order a beer.
And the pieces start to arrive.
You can scroll down and see how they are formed. It is often a no look technique.
There is the soy sauce, but you don't really need it.
At least not until the rolls arrive.
This roe was fresh, and only for the season. The rest of the year these eggs would have to have been defrosted.
And you can pick one more piece.
Which I do.
Then we stumble off into the market.
The workers speed along, standing up, on what look like overgrown vacuum cleaners.
Everywhere there is ice.
And water. Water which spills on to the floor. Definitely you don't want to be wearing your good shoes.
The workers keep their drinks cold.
These are fugu.
But it is not just fish here.
The vegetable and fruit vendors line long hallways.
While in the offices they plan their calls.
The grapes are much larger here, and are generally skinned before eaten so that the thick skins do not make the taste too bitter.
There is the emphasis on the perfect piece of fruit. Something you might give as a gift.
Maybe a nice round melon. Or a square one.
The coffee shop is where the workers go to talk.
The taped up stools apparently don't hold much allure for the tourists.
But the stall workers like to be left alone, anyways.
And they know they won't be bothered here, in a shop that has been in the same family for three generations.
Nothing much has changed here in a long while, except for maybe the soundtrack, and that is the charm.
Today the speakers are tuned to a Japanese cover of Irene Cara's What a Feeling.
The setup is simple behind the counter. And the coffee is extra roasted and hot.
And if you'd like your brew a little sweeter, you know where to find the sugar.
This man works in a nearby stall. He comes here to read the paper most days.
Need to make a call? Sure, use the house phone.
I asked her how long this shop had been in this location, and she told me 100 years. I was reminded that in Japan they do not feel the need to hide their old people.
When we did leave, we were already planning on coming back.