Tsukiji Fish Market and never too early for sushi breakfast

A visit to Tsukiji Fish Market is a very, very early morning affair. If jetlag hits you, there is no excuse to not make a visit to the fish market, is there? After all, would you rather be tossing and turning in bed instead of missing all the action of the largest fish market in the world? Much of what goes on at Tsukiji Fish Market begins before dawn. While the rest of Tokyo is still asleep, there is a bustling and very important little world going on inside the fish market. What makes this world famous fish market so important? Every morning, sushi chefs from restaurants around the city go to Tsukiji Fish Market to participate in the tuna auction where they bid for the freshest and best fish in their eyes and then serve their prized fish at their restaurants on the same day. Note: For visitors who are interested in watching the tuna auction, only 120 visitors are allowed per day. Visitor registration begins at 5:00am and the tuna auction begins a little after that. The tuna auction is only one part that makes up the sum of the market. The rest of the market springs to life everyday at 5:00am or earlier.

We walk through the main gate of the Tsukiji Fish Market with the vegetable and fruit wholesale market on our right and stacked polystyrene boxes on our left. We carefully stay out of the way of busy employees scurrying around and driving the turret trucks. We make our way to the end of the busy strip and turn left into the area of narrow alleyways where restaurants and shops also come alive at 5:00am. We waste no time in joining the line of people waiting to have sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai. Judging from the number of people ahead of us when we join the line at 5:35am, clearly they must have arrived right at 5:00am (or earlier) which is when Sushi Dai opens. At this time the sun has not risen and the sky is still dark but the market area is wide awake. While sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market is a must-do or must-try on many people's list, there are several restaurants that are non-sushi spots such as this breakfast diner. These restaurants do have something in common-- they are typically counter seating with a tight space (then again, which restaurant in Tokyo isn't so?). The shops sell a range of items such as knives, sake, fresh wasabi root, bonito flakes, cake rolls, etc, though our favorite is the little store with Japanese ceramic plates, bowls, and cups lined on the storefront floor. Most of the busy action in the market becomes calmer after 8:00am; many shops close at about 10:00am or after while the restaurants stay open until noon or a little later though by not much.

This area of narrow alleyways at the Tsukiji Fish Market is wonderful for people-watching as shopkeepers go about their busy morning, market employees easing their way around on the signature turret trucks (be careful not to get in their way), and seeing how many of the restaurants become a very early morning hangout for locals before they continue on with the rest of the day elsewhere. If you are like us and are in line for sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai, take turns with your dining companion between keeping your spot in line while wandering around the alleyways. If you need some hot coffee while waiting in line, either you or your dining companion can go to one of the diners in the same area and get a cup to go. Just say, Hotto kohi onegaishimasu [hot-toh koh-hi o-ney-gai-shi-mas] which means hot coffee, please.

So what's the deal with Sushi Dai? It is said that a visit to Tsukiji Fish Market is not complete if you don't have sushi breakfast there (of course there are those who might disagree) and while Sushi Dai is not the only sushi house at the Fish Market, it clearly has the longest line of people waiting. It's reputation of serving the freshest daily sushi from Tsukiji Fish Market at a relatively affordable price are big draws. Tsukiji Fish Market in and of itself is such a pivotal aspect of the seafood industry in Tokyo and a visit there is already on our itinerary, so we decide on experiencing the ever popular Sushi Dai for ourselves while at the market. We anticipate if the general impression for this sushi restaurant holds true.

Joining the line for Sushi Dai at 5:30am (they open at 5:00am), we inch along in line and finally get closer to the entrance of Sushi Dai. During the wait we experience pre and post sunrise at Tsukiji Fish Market; before sunrise is when the market is at its busiest. A kind female employee brings out hot green tea in paper cups for the patient customers in line. At one point, a curious and not-in-the-know English-speaking tourist comes up to a couple behind us in line and asks, "Do you speak English? What so great about this place? How long have you been standing in line?" After waiting for 2 hours and 45 minutes (we have our jetlag to thank for being to able to go through this), we finally get seated inside.

Finally we enter Sushi Dai, get shown our seats, hang our coats on the wall, and get seated. The three sushi chefs couldn't be any friendlier with wide smiles on their faces while sincerely thanking us for waiting. Basic English is spoken here and we learn that Sushi Dai has been in business for 18 years. There are only 12 counter seats in here. Two options are offered: 2,500¥ (7 pieces nigiri + 1 maki roll) and 3,900¥ (10 pieces nigiri + 1 choice of nigiri). We decide on the first option.

Chu toro (semi fatty tuna)

Red clam

Our set includes 7 nigiri items of chu toro (semi fatty tuna), Japanese clam, yellow jack, golden eye snapper, red clam, gizzard shad, and sea eel and 1 maguro (tuna) maki roll. Every customer is served red miso soup with pieces of chopped bone-in fish in the bowl (perfect for those who love to suck on fish bones). A square slice of steaming hot tamago (egg) is also included.

Gizzard shad
Golden eye snapper

The fish are incredibly delightful and at their freshest. Each time a new piece of nigiri is placed in front of us, we pick it up, put it into our mouths, and could only nod and smile at each other while thinking "This is worth the wait". The rice deserves a mention as each moist grain is felt in our mouths though it's still the fish that shines. The fish is brushed with soy sauce before the nigiri is placed on the wooden platform in front of us and the chef says "No soy sauce" which really means we do not have to dip it in soy sauce ourselves. Excellent sushi at this price point? That is Sushi Dai.

Tamago (egg)

With bellies full of sushi, we are then ready to stroll and see more fish. We walk across the street to the seafood wholesale. It is perfect timing for us since the seafood wholesale is closed to the public before 9:00am. There we walk through narrow lanes where hundreds of stands display and sell a wide variety of seafood that make up the catch of the day. The amount of seafood and size of some fish are greater than we have seen. The seafood wholesale is used to getting visitors but be sure to be mindful and not get in the way when walking in the seafood wholesale area as business is going on here. We capture a shot or two at several stands and continue our way. The action starts winding down at 10:00am. It's a little big world at Tsukiji Fish Market and a very important one too.

Tsukiji Fish Market
5-2-1 Tsukiji
Chuo-ku, Tokyo

Sushi Dai
Tsukiji Market Part 6 Bldg
5-2-1 Tsukiji-shijo
Chuo-ku, Tokyo

To locate Sushi Dai:
Walk in from the main gate of Tsukiji Fish Market (the vegetable and fruit wholesale will be on your right) and when you reach the main road, turn left to the area of restaurants and shops. Walk 3 blocks and turn left again onto the alleyway. Sushi Dai is on the right with its green curtain above the entrance. It is difficult to miss with the line of people waiting.

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