A friend once declared that sushi is “the food of the gods.” If that’s the case (and I certainly wouldn’t argue), then Tokyo is Mount Olympus and Tsukiji Fish Market is Zeus’s pantry.
Tsukiji is a remarkable place. There’s an atmosphere of controlled, purposeful chaos when you visit the inner wholesale market in the morning, as buyers and sellers do business over the day’s catch and you dodge the motorized carts that scurry around delivering precious delicacies. Even if you are unable to check out the famous early morning tuna auction (only 120 visitors per day are allowed into event, which starts at about 5:20am), there is still a lot of cool stuff to see in the inner market and the retail-oriented outer market. You will find just about every kind of seafood imaginable and perhaps even some stuff you never could have imagined. You will probably even run into some of the tuna from that morning’s auction, although in a significantly altered state.
And of course, there are a ton of sushi restaurants in Tsukiji; it’s actually kind of hard to avoid running into one, especially in the more tourist-friendly outer market. But when two other dads and I wandered over several weeks ago for some breakfast sushi, we set our sights on two very well-known sushi bars located in the inner market right next to the wholesale area. The most popular one is Sushi Dai (寿司大), but when we arrived at about 8:45 in the morning there was already at least an hour wait to get a seat (there is space for only about a dozen customers at a time). So we opted to go a few store fronts down to the second place, Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司), which had a shorter wait … of about 40 minutes.
Daiwa is known for its tuna, which specifically come from Aomori Prefecture in northeastern Japan. So the first thing the three of us ordered was the toro, or fatty tuna. Moments later it was right in front of us, lightly brushed with soy sauce.
It was nirvana expressed as fish and seasoned rice. The toro tasted as though it just came right off the boat and made its way directly to the restaurant. Thick, tender, buttery … but there’s a lot more to it than that. When you take a bite, your mouth lights up. Your mind enters an instant state of zen. You have eaten the food of the gods and now, in this brief moment, you are one with them. We ate other things off the menu – mackerel, giant scallops, other cuts of tuna – all of which were excellent and wonderfully fresh. But it was the toro we were still talking about hours later.
Breakfast sushi at Daiwa was an awesome experience and something I would recommend if you have the time, want to do something “uniquely Japan,” and are looking for a nice dose of foodie spiritualism. However, the Disneyland-type lines aren’t something I would want to endure on a frequent basis. The sushi isn’t cheap either – an order of toro alone is 800 yen and the only featured sushi set starts at 3500 yen (about USD $35), though it gives a good sampling of the overall menu. You could also go the a la carte route.
More recently, a friend of mine who works with the food industry recommended a place called Iwasa Sushi (岩佐寿し), located a short walk away from Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai. There is less pedestrian traffic on its side of the inner market, so you don’t have to wait in a long line. And the sushi, he said, was comparable to those two more popular institutions.
I checked out Iwasa a couple of mornings ago. I got a seat immediately when I arrived and the atmosphere was more relaxed compared with the more celebrated and crowded establishments not too far away. I also noticed that all of the customers were Japanese except for me and a couple of guys who walked in as I was finishing. The clientele at Daiwa and Sushi Dai seems to be quite heavy on foreign tourists.
The sushi at Iwasa was very delicious. The toro was not quite as mind blowing as the stuff at Daiwa, but it was still great and sushi zen inducing. Prices for Iwasa’s sushi sets range from 2100 yen for the basic to 3600 for the super fancy one. You can also get cuts of fish served on top of rice in a bowl for 1400 to 2100 yen.
Food Sake Tokyo has a list of other sushi places in the inner market. I’ll have to check them out myself at some point.
Of course, you don’t need to go to Tsukiji to commune with the sushi gods. My favorite neighborhood sushi place is Umegaoka Sushi no Midori (梅丘寿司の美登利), but everyone I know calls it Midori Sushi. There are several branches of the restaurant throughout the Tokyo area, including Akasaka, Ginza, and Shibuya. It was first recommended to me by a local and I’ve subsequently heard other Japanese mention it as well.
Everything I’ve had at Midori has been fabulous. The fish on the nigiri is often sliced quite long and it looks more like a wave smoothly washing over the rice rather than just sitting on top of it. Very popular during lunch time is their chirashi sushi, an assortment of sliced fish, other seafood, rolled egg omelet, and some pickles served over seasoned sushi rice. Their special sushi rolls look and taste spectacular.
Midori also does some interesting and creative specials. Recently they featured salmon sushi topped with some kind of citrus sauce (possibly yuzu-based). Addictively amazing.
In addition to the great fish, there’s something else that makes Midori’s sushi stand out compared to some of the other standard sushi restaurants I’ve been to. I’m not sure what it is, but I suspect it has to do with the sushi rice, which is normally seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt. I sense that Midori’s rice is a little sweeter and there might be something different with the vinegar, too.
I also find Midori’s miso soup to be particularly good. The last couple of times I went to Midori, they cooked it with tuna. They used crab several months before that, with crab legs sticking right out of the soup. As you can imagine, the flavor in both instances was outstanding and the ingredients enhanced what is normally simple but delicious soup.
Midori’s prices are very reasonable, with sushi sets starting from about 1000 yen ($10) to about 3200 yen and up for the bigger, fancier sets. You can also order a la carte.
These are three examples of great places to have sushi in Tokyo. Yet there are countless more throughout the city, some exalted and others much less so. Like the many shrines and temples that are scattered across Tokyo, often hiding in plain sight, there are many places to connect with the sushi gods. And they are all waiting for worshipers to stumble upon them and experience the divine and the delicious.Daiwa Sushi Building #6 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo Tsukiji Chuo, Tokyo 104-0045
—Iwasa Sushi Building #1 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo
Google Maps does not map the location of Iwasa Sushi correctly. If you stand in the parking area next to the building where Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai are located (Building #6), you will see the entrance to a small Shinto shrine a short walk away. If you look to the right of the Shrine, there is another building housing small restaurants (Building #1). Iwasa Sushi is located here. Look for the orange banner with purple Japanese characters. There is an English menu displayed outside.
—Umegaoka Sushi no Midori Various locations throughout Tokyo