女子旅 (Joshi Tabi)
Girls' travel: A whirlwind of shopping and eating, with occasional moments of relaxation and sightseeing thrown in. Usually involves locations and meals that induce travellers to exclaim "How wonderful!" or "So delicious!". And exactly as said on the tin, there are no men around to moan about how long the shopping is taking.
It's the kind of experience M and I always wanted to have in Japan. So when Follow Me Japan sent us an email about their latest shopping-heavy itinerary, we leapt at the chance to leave the boys at home and have a proper trip.
Anyone who's been on a tour with FMJ will attest to how well they feed their guests, and this trip was no different. After an overnight flight (On which M and I got to see Mt Fuji from the air, lit up by the morning sun), our first port of call was to the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market for a truly decadent breakfast. We'd never visited the world's largest wholesale fish and seafood market before this trip, and it was good to finally correct that.
Tokyo is gearing up for the 2020 Olympics, and while most tourists (Like us!) are really pleased with how the city's getting spruced up and kitted out with signs in English, some iconic locations are being sacrificed on the altar of progress. Tsukiji Fish Market, which has existed in one iteration or another in and around its present site since the 17th century, will be moving 4 km away to Toyosu in late 2016.
Those who've visited the market in the dead of night to watch the seafood auctions unfold at a frenetic pace swear it's the best part, but since our flight arrived well into the morning, we instead caught quieter glimpses of the work that continues to happen later in the day.
Visiting Tsukiji Market on a Sunday as we did, has its pros and cons.
The Downside: Only about 30% of the stalls operate on Sundays
The Upside: Only 30% of the usual tourist volume makes an appearance on Sundays
We had an hour to explore the market before our 10 am breakfast reservation, and we took to it with gusto. I had a completely different mental picture of Tsukiji compared to the reality of it, so the sight of rows and rows of stalls lining the numerous alleyways took me by surprise. The fact that not everything was fish or seafood-based was something I hadn't expected either. One of the specialty street snacks we encountered was Tamagoyaki, a sweet-savoury thick omelette made fresh in unique rectangular pans, and served on a stick. Not long after we glided away, the staff of Follow Me Japan began handing us plates of piping hot omelette, done up with grated white radish and a light soy sauce.
Just a little snack to tide us over till breakfast, we were told. They really are wonderfully considerate.
Temptations abound as you walk through the market. Omelette in hand and with the promise of a full sushi breakfast just round the corner, it was still difficult to walk away from some of the displays.
Food I was strong enough to say no to (You have no idea how hard this was): A dozen oysters, ice cream, red bean stuffed rice cakes topped with strawberries, sea-urchin stuffed squid ink buns, a tub of Ikura bigger than my face, rice crackers, fried fish cakes, Oden, milky shaved ice, amen.
One purchase I did make was a white peach from Okayama, Japan's Fruit Kingdom. Peach season was in full swing, according to a 25 Ans article we read on the plane, and I was determined to make the most of it. When we went to Okayama last winter, we didn't have the time to try their famous fruit buffet, so I got this peach to make up for it. Japanese peaches cost upwards of $10 each here in Singapore, and those from Okayama command a premium, so 500 yen for one was an amazing deal. It was a glorious peach. M & I devoured it in our hotel room later that evening, and it was so ridiculously juicy we needed a bath towel to mop up the bits that dribbled everywhere. We tried different kinds of peaches every day we were in Tokyo, but none were as good as this.
For all that Singapore is hot all year round, we positively wilt while summering in temperate countries. The sun just feels more extreme. We collectively ducked into Maruyama Tea Store after drinking cold samples of their Meicha 80 brew, made with leaves from Shizuoka, famed for the quality of their tea. We were absolutely shameless in going for seconds.
Fresh seafood and interesting snacking aside, Tsukiji market boasts a rather large array of dried provisions as well. M bought a few bags of dried scallops to boil soup with, while I contemplated the likely possibility of cracking my teeth if I gnawed on any one of the large strips of cured fish on display.
The inner and outer markets are labyrinthine. Whole other worlds lay down each alleyway. I didn't venture in, because winding up in Narnia would have been fairly inconvenient.
As we meandered around, sudden jostling and an alarming number of selfie-sticks emerging out of thin air alerted us to some action happening around the corner. We followed the growing circus, and found a group of men carefully handling a hefty Hon Maguro (Real Bluefin Tuna). Laid out on a slab and carefully positioned for butchering, was a fish that could single-handedly (finnedly?) fuel the dreams of a thousand sushi dinners.
It was exciting to be sure, and certainly whetted our appetites for the breakfast ahead. Some rather more avant garde sushi chefs are pushing out fish that has been deliberately aged for a few days, but I'm of the opinion that freshness has a lot going for it. And where better than in the heart of the mecca of fresh seafood itself?
FMJ had booked us seats at one of the better sushi bars located in the outer market, and judging by the long queues that formed outside both branches of Tsukiji Sushi Say (築地寿司清), they had the right idea. Being able to swan past the rest of the line when they called for our reservation was rather satisfying.
As we took our seats along a counter on the third floor, we found out that some poor girl on our trip was tasting sushi for the first time here at Tsukiji. We warned her that it was all going to go downhill once she got back to Singapore.
We began our extravagant meal with a piece of Ootoro (Fatty Tuna Belly), which was a rather surprising choice - our chef certainly didn't believe in saving the best for later in the meal. When we asked why he planned the menu out this way, he initially told us "It's a secret!". After much wheedling though, he gave up the mystery and told us this much: With 12 pieces of sushi involved in the Omakase (Chef's Choice) menu, he wanted us to truly appreciate the taste of the tuna belly while our palates were still fresh. We might not enjoy it as much if he had served it later, given the inevitability of taste fatigue.
Next on our menu was a light and crunchy pieces of Suzuki (Seabass) sushi. As you can see, we were going all out on the decadence front, and having sake for breakfast alongside the sushi.
Because the seafood served at Tsukiji is so fresh, you can taste the rice much more clearly. Each sticky, puffy grain felt like the perfect complement to the slice of Chutoro (Medium Fatty Tuna Belly) we received, tender yet quite bloody in my mouth.
The finely sliced scallop that came after was a touch of sweetness and light.
The delicate shrimp likewise.
We had a bit of fun with the next piece of sushi. Our slice of Tako (Octopus) tentacle was served to us already topped with salt and a hint of lemon, and our chef told us very firmly that we weren't to dip this into our little bowls of soy sauce. I'm not usually one for octopus, but this was chewy-firm without venturing into the territory of rubbery toughness, and quite a pleasure to eat.
The same no soy sauce! warning came again for the slice of sardine that appeared in quick succession. This one had been hollowed out in the middle, and stuffed with a pinch of ginger and chives. A lot fishier than everything else we tasted, it was nevertheless sinfully oily and with a good bite to it.
One of the other chefs at the counter sent his group into raucous peals of laughter at regular intervals. Our chef tried his best to ham it up and make our meal an interesting experience, and we had quite a bit of fun even with the language barrier. Shame we can't understand Japanese, these chefs must be great wits.
The battleship (Gunkanmaki "軍艦巻") rolls came next, rather dainty little morsels in spite of their name. Since M doesn't like Uni (Sea Urchin), I was able to have an extra bite of pure bliss.
We washed all that richness of flavour down with Kani (Crab) leg sushi, served with the next joint still on.
The penultimate course was of Anago (Sea Eel), lightly grilled and dressed with a sprinkle of salt and some yuzu shavings. We could hear the "sha sha sha" sounds of the peel being swept atop the fish. A seemingly simple dish, but so sweet, so fatty, so good.
The chef caught us eyeing the display of seafood in front of us, and with what little Japanese I could comprehend, the smattering of English words he knew, and a whole lot of enthusiasm, we ran through their names. Octopus! Sardine! Shrimp! Scallops! Ishigaki Gai! He even prodded the Ishigaki Giant Clam in the display case as he named it, causing it to writhe rather dramatically after being disturbed, and us to recoil in a mixture of wild horror and quiet amazement that the clam was still alive.
Another piece of Anago, skin on and traditionally done with a thin glazing of savoury-sweet sauce, made for a good end to the meal.
Bellies thus satisfied, we made for Ginza and the shops. Since we were staying at the Hotel Gracery Ginza, just moments away from the bustle of the main shopping area, we were able to shop as much as we wanted without worrying about how far we were going to have to cart our shopping bags. Here I am, getting fitted for a Yukata I ultimately bought, and now have no idea when or where I'm going to wear it to.
After almost two hours of carting our ever-growing bags of shopping hither and yon, M and I decided it was time for tea, and made our way over to Rose Bakery at Dover Street Market. Originally set up in Paris by a French-English couple, it recently made its way to Tokyo. It's a cheery looking space, and we were soon drawn to the selection of pastries on display at the counter. I eventually set my heart on a Pavlova.
The nice thing about Pavolvas is this: They're so crumbly and airy that they have a quality of being almost insubstantial on the tongue. So you can enjoy all the sweetness and flavour of a good dessert, while also retaining some sense of plausible deniability on having just scoffed one. If you're like me and not the sort to watch what you eat, this means space for second dessert.
We absolutely made the most of our first day in Tokyo. After the eating and shopping was done and our bags stashed away in our rooms, we were whisked off to visit the towering Tokyo Sky Tree, which opened in 2012. The city was blanketed by a thick fog while we were up top, which was a shame. Still, the elevator rides were a marvel. Some people get excited about the engineering that goes into making them ultra fast, I'm all about the artwork. Each elevator has a piece based on one of the four seasons, and we took Autumn up and Spring down, catching a glimpse of Summer in the queue. Winter was out of commission for the day.
The rest of the group had dinner around the Skytree, but M, ever resourceful, had sussed out the location of an all-you-can-eat Shabu Shabu place called Shabu Zen (しゃぶ禅 You can check out the English language page they have for their Roppongi branch here), and made a reservation for the both of us. Other tables focused on hoovering down platter after platter of Japanese beef, while we were the only ones who asked for extra vegetables. It was glorious.
Our family travels to Japan with some frequency, but we always bypassed Tokyo in favour of all the other parts of the country. All we saw of it was fleetingly glimpsed in passing, in transit to elsewhere. Spending a whole day back in Tokyo made me realize how much I do like this city, and now I wonder why I'd taken so long to notice.