Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tokyo tales: Searching for sushi

What, you thought because it's 2013 you had heard the last of my Tokyo trip?  Nope.  It's going to be a long while before I can get back to Tokyo, if I ever do, so I'm going to make the memories of this last trip last as long as possible.  I apologize in advance for any jealousy cravings, and hope that you may at least be comforted by the fact that I'm giving them to myself by writing this.

There were a few things on my list that I knew I wanted to do when Dad first proposed another trip to Tokyo.  And one of those things was sushi at the Tsukiji fish market. It's bustling, it's colorful, and it has the freshest sushi around.  For those who are truly dedicated, you can get up before the crack of dawn and be one of the hundred or so members of the public allowed into the inner sanctum of the market to witness the tuna auction.  But for the rest of us, you can make your way to the outer edge of the market in the late morning and find a great lunch while hitting up a highlight of being a tourist in Tokyo.

On our last visit, we had found this wonderful conveyor belt (or kaiten zushi) restaurant.  Basically, plates of wonderful sushi just travel around the room while hungry diners grab the ones they cannot resist.  At the end of the meal, your total is calculated by counting up the plates you've collected.  Different colors of plates add up to different values, so a particularly posh piece might be on a gold-trimmed plate while a more humble offering is presented on a plain blue plate.  This particular restaurant is called Sushi Zanmai, and it's a chain that recently made news when the owner made the winning bid on the most expensive tuna auction at Tsukiji ever.

There's obviously a fun factor, especially with the belt wrapping around the preparation area of the sushi, so you are watching the rice being rolled right in front of you as the finished pieces go by.  But it also means that you can pick and choose what you are most interested in trying without having to navigate a set menu with other options.  You can be as adventurous or as safe as you choose, selecting only what you recognize, or taking a chance on something mysterious yet delicious-looking.  And no language skills are required, you simply see, grab, and eat.

I'm not sure why Dad thought it would be so easy to find this place a second time.  The Tsukiji fish market is a packed few blocks of small little alleys filled with fish as well as produce and other offerings.  And particularly on the weekends around lunchtime, it's also filled to the brim with people playing tourist as well as choosing their counter of choice to park and eat.  We both knew we would recognize it when we saw it, but because we came to the market from a different direction than our first visit, remembering directions like 'it was down the third street, on the right' were not as helpful as they might have been.

After several loops around, we had almost given up hope.  But we took a chance and made our way down what we had thought was an alley we had already tried.  The tuna gods were smiling on us, because within a few feet we found ourselves in front of the sliding doors of our sushi destiny.  Behold!

Along with the satisfaction of finding something we were looking for, there was another reason I was glad to have stumbled back upon this place.  It had, both on our first visit and again this time, a particular piece of sushi that had become my own personal legend.  I even have a handmade magnet featuring a picture of it on my fridge.  It's in the center of my little sushi collage, and here is my best description of it: a piece of nigiri sushi (where it's just a little log of rice topped with a piece of fish) made with salmon, which is then roasted slightly using a kitchen torch (like the kind that finishes off a creme brûlée).  That makes it an aburi, for anyone who wants to expand their sushi vocabulary.  This particular piece is also topped with what I think is a squirt of mayonnaise and some chopped chives or green onions.

I have yet to encounter it anywhere else, though I am now one step closer in identifying it, so that should help if I ever seriously attempt to find it stateside.  The trouble is, knowing that I can never fully replicate the quality or the experience, part of me thinks that I'm better off confining my heavenly aburi sushi to Tokyo.


  1. I totally get wanting to reminisce. I still think about the trips I took to Germany and Brazil (2004 and 2007 respectively). Keep talking about because it sounds like a wonderful experience.

  2. What a lovely post and memory. The one and only time I ever visited Tokyo was way back when I was 8 years old but the memories are still incredibly vivid. As for your favorite sushi, I'd love to try it!