Tokyo’s neon-lit alleys are packed with food carts and hole-in-the-wall haunts, there are passageways and intricate hidden spots where queues of in-the-know locals and visitors seek ramen, soba, yakitori and tako-yaki. This is a city where knowing someone, doing research, reading up, will make all the difference. But there are also those places that every guide book points you to. First on the list in every Tokyo guide, every blog and local's to-do list, are Tokyo's Tsukiji fish markets. It's the food orientated person's must-see. And so must you.
Walk through the undercover wholesale market, held in a cavernous low-lit collection of warehouses. Men in black rubber boots slice fish with sword-like knives, they rush wheelbarrows and forklifts through the aisles and passageways - watch where you're going. There are live fish in tubs, eels being gutted, massive tuna being sliced and delivered in large fillets to a tuna-obsessed city. This is a messy place, wear your mucky shoes, gumboots if you have them.
I went on my birthday. And so, with the power of birthday wishes behind me, I persuaded my generous gentleman traveller to queue for a breakfast of champions at 7am, a sushi bar inside the markets. After just three hours of queuing - chatting to Americans who had read the same The Wall Street Journal story I had - we were inside. A still-writhing mollusk on rice was placed before me, and we were told to eat it whole, one bite. This was a birthday shock even topping the thirty-something age I was already grappling with. The rest was melting tuna belly and salmon and its roe, all perfect morsels on rice that allowed each grain to stand its ground, make known its presence. It was worth the wait.
For something to eat, without the three-hour wait, outside Tsukiji fish market, open-air nooks dish out something fried, or sauce-splashed bowls of noodles, meaty rich stews slopped next to pickle-flecked rice. From early morning and most of the afternoon, locals perch on stools for some of the best fast food in town. Fabric emblazoned with Japanese characters are less explanatory for travellers than the sight of huge vats of Japanese curry or soup being ladled out road side.
All photographs by Kate Gibbs.