WHAT is the secret of Japanese food? Tokyo is a city of restaurants, some 80,000 of the 600,000 in Japan as a whole. But even more impressive is the quality. The Michelin Guide has recognized Japan’s capital as also being the world’s gourmet capital for the best part of a decade. And that was even before the French food bible started to list traditional Japanese “washoku” cuisine.
Unesco added washoku to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013, citing it as: “associated with an essential spirit of respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources”. With that in mind, I start my exploration of food at Tokyo’s wholesale fish market, Tsukiji.
The market employs 65,000 people and turns over billions of dollars a year in sales of fish and seafood. That makes it more of a large town than anything but the first thing that strikes me is the quietness and discipline. Despite the rush to get orders out quickly through the anarchic crowd of camera-wielding tourists besieging the inner market, there are no raised voices. The freshness of the produce is attested to by the lack of any fishy smell either.
Tsukiji is famous for its tuna auction which starts at 5am, meaning visitors have to be here for 4am. It is still so popular that spectator numbers are limited. “It is important to keep the fish cool,” says my friend Akiro Yamamoto, a retired history teacher and expert on Japanese cuisine. “However, the constant coming and going of visitors through the doors disturbed the refrigeration. Now you are admitted in a group, for only 20 minutes.”
Despite having become a tourist attraction, Tsukiji is still all about buying and selling fish. Tuna are chopped and sliced efficiently and boxes of shellfish are carried past in an endless flow out the door to one of those 80,000 restaurants or beyond. Even so, the rituals of the market retain a great deal of reverence. Buddhists and Shinto beliefs acknowledge that killing fish in order to eat them is an act with consequences.
The Namiyoke Inari Shrine near Tsukiji has carvings dedicated to the spirits of fish, eels and even the eggs used in making the thick tamagoyaki, Japanese-style omelettes that the market also produces. The shrine was built in the 17th century, when this land was reclaimed from the sea, so its association with the market is relatively recent.
“The market moved here in 1937 from Nihonbashi,” says mechanic Hiroshi Sekine, who repairs the motorized trucks used by the market porters. “You could see Mount Fuji from here when I first opened my shop. You know why? Because it was 1945 and the air raids had flattened everything.”
Sekine-san was 16 years old when he joined up in June 1945, training as a Tokkōtai pilot [better known as Kamikaze]. “The war ended in August 1945 and I survived because there were no more planes.” He looks much younger than his many years, much of them spent as an award-winning salesman for Honda. “I never think about how old I am,” he says. “I am not smart enough to think about such things. I also listen to traditional Japanese comedians, eat simply and just enjoy life.”
Japan’s aging population has become one of its biggest problems. Coupled with a low birth rate and low immigration, it is putting real pressure on the social security system. “Average life expectancy here has climbed steeply since the end of World War II and is now the world’s highest,” says Yamamoto-san. “In 2013, the life expectancy for men topped 80 years for the first time, while the average for Japanese women is now 87. Part of the reason may be a diet rich in vegetables, fish and soybean products and low in animal fat. A strong sense of community may be another factor.”
After many delays, still ongoing, the fish market is due to move again in late 2017 to Toyosu, about 2.5 kilometers away. I ask Sekine-san how this will affect his work. “The inner market, which is run by the city government, will move but the outer market, which is private companies, will stay,” he says. “So will I.”
“The new site will offer better facilities and free up land for development before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” says Yamamoto-san. “It is also a recognition that supermarkets are increasingly the major buyers and they need a better, Japan-wide distribution network.”
The local government has plans to open a new fish market on the original site because of its importance to the ward’s tourism economy. It will no doubt remain a must-see for any visitor, in a way that similar markets in Paris or London are not. The Japanese relationship with fish, a protein source that has been vital to their over-crowded islands, is one reason.
“Japan is among the world’s leading consumers of fish,” says Yamamoto-san. “I believe only Portugal and Iceland eat more fish per capita. But we have been eating more meat than fish since 2006, something that worries the government as we have to import most of our meat. We are the world’s leading net importer of agricultural products and self-sufficient only in rice. So there is now an education campaign to encourage young people to eat seafood.”
“Most of my customers are older ladies,” says fishmonger Kenji Yokoyama. “People like fish but they do not buy from a fishmonger now. They buy from a supermarket and do not know how to cut fish, handle it or cook it. It’s a hard business right now as chefs are dealing direct with the fishing ports, cutting out Tsukiji. The port to auction to wholesaler is a lot of steps with profit taken each time.”
Yokoyama-san has a small, wooden shop in a century-old building on the eastern side of Tokyo. It displays a wide range of seafood, much of it unfamiliar to me. As we talk, he has to keep breaking off to deal with several of those elder customers as they ponder their choices.
“I have real pride in the east side here, as it is the real Tokyo,” he says. “Suginami is still the countryside to me.” This area, rich in traditional shops and homes such as his, is still known as Edo, the city that first grew up around 15th-century Edo Castle. It was only renamed Tokyo when it became the imperial capital in 1868. Tokyo Bay has limited expansion to the southeast, taking a big bite out of any neat radial plan and causing some of the congestion problems it still has.
The only practical way to move around the capital is its subway system, which is clean, efficient and fast – not to mention quiet. I can hear the birdsong being played over the public address system, and announcements on trains are kept to a minimum by bright LED screens that show the next station and even indicate which direction I need to turn for my proper exit.
How would Tokyo function without its metro? New York, with its wide streets and countless yellow cabs, and even London, with its buses and bicycles, could perhaps manage, but Tokyo gives me the impression of running at peak capacity. Only efficiency allows it to survive. From everyone walking on the left, to lines forming exactly where the subway car doors open, I see people cooperating to make the best use of time and space. Even the quiet shows the consideration for other people in not talking on cellphones – the reason for the popularity of texting in Japan – or listening to loud music.
The result is a city that can pack a lot of people into small spaces, both horizontal and vertical, although it still covers an area of more than 2,000 square kilometers. That everyone seems to agree with the rules enough to follow them is remarkable for foreigners used to more anarchic societies.
“I lived in Vancouver for a year and I missed the punctuality,” says chef Munesuke Kamiya. “I’d have to wait 15 or 20 minutes for people or trains. So you can never plan properly. You waste time every day.” Kamiya-san has an upmarket restaurant, Gyotei Kamiya, near Akebonobashi in the eastern part of Shinjuku, famous for the world’s busiest train station and pedestrian crossing.
“I love Tokyo and could never live in the country because I hate bugs,” he says. “I would miss the efficiency as well as the food. The worst thing is the way old buildings are always being torn down to build new. We are destroying our history to build high rises that we do not need as we have a declining population.”
His restaurant is in a modern building itself, its entrance looking like the doorway to an office or apartment in the discreet way of so many Japanese businesses. It is confusing for a visitor, especially one who does not read Kanji script, to decipher the visual cues to what lies inside a Tokyo doorway.
“I have been running my restaurant for nearly 30 years and so many of my customers are getting too old to come regularly,” says Kamiya-San. “Young people are not so interested in eating good food. And businessmen are not entertaining like they used too – they do deals on the computer without even meeting. Once, when you did a deal, you went out with your customers to celebrate. Now you stay in your hotel to write a report.”
He was invited to Switzerland to open a Japanese restaurant in the five-star Bellevue Palace Hotel, Bern, when he was 24. “The hardest thing was getting good suppliers. I’d order some nice fish but when it arrived at the restaurant, I’d have to throw it away. There was not the same attention to detail at every stage in the supply chain as there is in Japan. Food has become debased. In many restaurants, all the seasoning is on the tables: salt, pepper, ketchup. The chef does not season the food, only serves it.
“What makes Japanese food so good is that it is always seasonal. Even the fish is seasonal. There are currents like two rivers than run down each side of Japan, from the Russian sea to the Pacific. So the fish are always different and varied during the year. We have special dishes for every season and every celebration, from New Year to the Cherry Blossom season. And every region also has its own specialties.”
Japan’s most famous specialty is probably sushi and the place to eat it is near Tsukiji. Sushi is at its best when the fish is fresh, and it doesn’t come any fresher than around here. I choose a sushiya, a specialized sushi restaurant, by finding the one with the longest line out the door. They are intimate places where the chef, or itamae, will chat to you about what is good that day while his hands move in the fluid poetry of long practise.
Itamae Akira Kaneko, now in his late 50s, tells me he has been a sushi chef since the age of 18. We are talking in a quiet period after the morning rush but he stops to serve two other customers who come in. “The hardest thing is to serve many guests with lots of different orders,” he says afterwards. “They must not see the panic. I cannot show any stress. The performance is important, and movements must be beautiful. I need to know exactly where everything is to be efficient.”
As I eat my sea urchin and yellowtail sushi, I ask Kaneko-san which is his preferred fish. “My favorite is different every season,” he says. “In autumn, I like flatfish, for example. But winter is the best time for sushi because the fish are fatter.
“Tuna is not what I call genuine sushi. Even salmon is new to us. When I was a kid there was no salmon. It started about 15 years ago when the kaiten [conveyor belt] restaurants were looking for cheaper fish. Even now, the very best sushi restaurants do not serve salmon.
“I never get tired of eating sushi, and I have to eat it every day because I have to test it for the guests. I cannot serve anything I am not proud of.”
Kaneko-san’s knife skills are hypnotic and make me determined not to leave Tokyo without a good sushi knife of my own. The best place to find one, or any other piece of kitchen equipment, is Kappabashi-dori – “Kitchen town”. This street is lined with 170 shops selling everything you could possibly need to set up a restaurant and cook in it. Shops specialize in equipment to make soba noodles, or in uniforms, or more general crockery for every course, from exquisite bowls to delicate glassware. Several display colorful arrays of the plastic food found outside many Japanese restaurants (see mini-feature).
Seiichi Kamata, a third generation shop owner, takes me through some options for knives. His shop, Kamata Hakensha, has 800 types for sale, ranging from factory-made to the very best, eye-wateringly expensive hand-made ones. “This has 63 layers of cobalt steel so it stays sharp longer,” he says, showing me one with a magnolia wood handle that uses buffalo horn to hold the blade. “This is the same technique used for a samurai sword.”
Once sold, he carefully hones it to a sharpness that would put a razor to shame. He tells me he is the third generation of his family to sharpen knives.
On the face of it, there could not be a greater contrast in the work of Maiko Kato, who I find at Takahiro Yoshihara’s Amezaiku shop in the Sendagi district, which is filled with narrow alleys and traditional shops. Amezaiku is the art of making delicious creations from rice-candy, in the shape of animals or flowers on a stick.
“It is hard to get used to handling the heat,” says Kato-san. “You have to work the candy in hot air to make it softer and easier to shape. You only have three minutes before it hardens.”
She makes a flying horse for me, shaping a hot ball of candy with her hands and sharp scissors to make ears, then a muzzle, legs, tail and wings, adding eyes with dots of food coloring.
“When I was a child in elementary school, I heated candy and made my own,” she says. “I did glass art when I graduated. It is a similar process, very fragile. Glass art keeps forever and that reflected my mind at that time. I prefer candy art now because I do not need to keep that moment. Enjoy it now. When someone eats it, the memory keeps forever.
“When something disappears, we appreciate the loss. The memory is better than the thing itself. Travel is a better gift than toys for children.
“We say ‘Ichi-go, ichi-e’ – one chance, one moment. Appreciate the moment.”
Her words echo with me for the rest of the day. I realize that the one thing uniting everyone I have met in Tokyo, from fishmonger and knife-maker to sushi chef and candy-maker, is complete dedication to the moment. That may be the real secret of Japanese food.