Maybe My Best Experience in Tokyo Yet

Written on Sept. 10, 2010, midnight

I am, perhaps, one of those people whom parents do not want their kids to be influenced by, to look up to. Among other reasons, I like meeting strangers, eating and drinking with them, hanging out with them. The way I see it, we were all — at one time recent or long ago — strangers to one another. I am one of those people who does not believe in altruism, in true selflessness. I believe that giving coexists with receiving — while the so-called "reward" of "altruism" may not be monetarily or quantifiably equal, it is most certainly emotionally so. There is perhaps nothing more satisfying, more happiness-inducing, for me than to see others happy. I love helping people — you could probably even say I thrive on it and you wouldn't be too far off.

Yesterday I had dinner in Shibuya with two backpack-toting tourists I met at a gig last Sunday. Dinner started at 8 but the clock somehow read 10 p.m. when I looked up during a pause in conversation, and before I knew it, it was midnight and I found myself offering to accompany these two "random" tourists to Tsukiji, sitting in front of a conbini in Ginza, sharing life stories to pass the time until 3:30. Murakami had it right in After Dark: When the sun goes down, human relations become infinitely more intimate, people more closely connected.

As we squeezed our way through the stall-heavy, dark alleys that are Tsukiji's wholesale market — a place that I would later learn is forbidden to foreigners until 9 a.m. — on our way to the icy cold, goosebump-inducing auction hall where the tuna were being laid out by deft hands in impeccable rows, stomachs removed and defrosted with steaming garden hoses, the familiar smell of freshly caught fish, pungent yet aromatic, wafted up from under the old-fashioned wooden signs and it suddenly struck me that things probably haven't changed much since twenty years ago. Packed into the watery area between the ropes that defined the tourists' walking area and listening to the auctioneer's barked calls, I realized how out-of-touch I have been with my Asian roots, and the juxtaposition between old and new, a unique amalgamation that only exists in cultures with rich historical backgrounds, became blindingly clear when I remembered that we had been standing in one of the oldest and most well-to-do districts of Tokyo just moments before.

After pondering why the hell I had so willingly sacrificed the strangely comforting, humidly warm air to enter the cold auction hall, I became distracted after I found myself pelted with a barrage of questions, ranging from the typical personal inquiries one makes when they meet someone who speaks English in a non-English-speaking country — why did you move to Japan? where did you come from? where did you learn your Japanese?— to those fueled purely by curiosity: What are those red character marks on the fishy-thing? What are those numbers for? Why are they all gathered around that table? How much did that slimy yet delectable bastard sell for?

Booted out of the auction hall in order to make room for the next group of visitors 40 minutes later, I rejoined my friends and upon hearing their dropped hints of hunger, suggested what any sane person in Tsukiji would do at six a.m.: that we go for a sushi breakfast, it would be my treat, but they could pick the place. As soon as we entered their restaurant of choice, the sushi chef asked me whether we would need English menus and I responded by asking whether he spoke English, to which he admitted uncertainty. Not wanting to make things difficult, I told him that I would relay my friends' orders to him, a response that was met with a smile and, as I realized halfway through the meal, bigger and more colourful cuts of fish than the customers next to us — but they had noticed too, and my friendly smile was met with a wrinkled frown, the same expression that came over my face typing this sentence.

"Breakfast" consisted of fresh seaweed soup and various cuts of fish, all freshly prepared and some sold only in Japan, supplemented by small talk, shared laughs and the chef's hearty bellow that rose forth when I ordered sea urchin and he pulled it out of his case to ask whether my friends knew what I had ordered for them — hey, they had said they were adventurous (!) — and his surprised gasps when my friends managed to choke it down without making a face. After an hour and a half of eating our way through the seafood phyla of Japan, trying freshly grilled eel and live tiger prawns (and their fried heads), I had no qualms about paying 7000 yen for the three of us — that's a small price to pay for happiness, new experiences and full stomachs, not to mention that I'm of the firm belief that it is should be a legal travesty to leave Japan without having had sushi for at least one meal.

Boarding the subway to go home, I realised that for the first time in the five years that I have been working to improve my Japanese, I felt like it had finally paid off.

Join the Discussion