This is the story about how I ended up eating sushi at 5AM at Sushi Dai
On my second visit to Japan and my last morning in Tokyo, I had two things scheduled; to fly back to Singapore and, before that, to visit the Tsukiji fish market. If you read this blog regularly, you might know that I am obsessed with fish markets, and there’s no way I was going to miss the biggest, busiest, most iconic fish market in the world.
I really wanted to watch the early morning live tuna auction, so I woke up, showered and rushed out before dawn. The nice lady at the hotel informed me that the train would only start at 4.30 am. I even decided to take a taxi to get there before 5:00 am. Unfortunately, when I reached the market, at 4.40 am and 3,700 yen poorer, the registration for the day had been closed. Apparently people started to queue from 3:00 am! Kinda like waiting in front of the Apple Store to open on the first day they launch a new product. And I would have done exactly that, if only I had known. The thing is, the top websites that share information about the Tsukiji fish market mentioned that the registration starts at 5:00 am WRONG!
Flabbergasted and sleep deprived, I just stood there for some time, watching other tourists experience the same frustration. I wasn’t sure what else to do at that hour, going back to the hotel to catch up with sleep seemed like a sad option. That’s when I noticed people sneak inside the market, with some kind of map in their hand. I followed them, half hoping that there might be a secret passage to get inside the tuna auction. Instead, they stopped and formed a line at the street near an alley.
After some time I noticed the queue wasn’t moving, so I went to the alley where the restaurant, Sushi Dai, was located to check what was happening. Apparently there was another line of people waiting in front of it. They were the first part of queuers while we were the second part. Essentially, there were 30 people in front of me, at 6ish in the morning.
Not long after, someone came and passed a small cup of drink to each of us in the line. At first I thought it was coffee – I needed it so badly. Nope, it was hot green tea. Oh well, I took what I could get.
Around this time I started a conversation with the red t-shirt guy, who had led an interesting life, and career. He was in Tokyo on a business trip and would be staying there for almost a week (lucky him). I was curious about Japanese work-life balance and sort of interrogating him about it. The chit-chat we had helped to make the time go faster and eventually we reached the final part of Sushi Dai queue. We stood so close to the entrance that we could take a peek inside the restaurant and watch people eat. I did exactly that, even took pictures of them eating, because I had no manners.
It was already 7.45 am and it didn’t take a genius to realize why we needed to queue for two hours just to stand in front of the restaurant and stare at people. Sushi Dai, which is the same size as my room back home, has only like 10 seats available and the chefs took their time to talk with customers. A quick Google session revealed that Sushi Dai practices a Japanese tradition called Omakase.
Omakase (pronounced oh-mah-kah-seh), simply put, means the chef’s choice, it’s a multi-course meal where we let the chef choose our food for us. Also, unlike most sushi places, the chefs take their time to have a conversation and to explain each dish that they choose for us.
I was doubtful about letting others pick my food; I am a picky eater, more so when it comes to sushi. When I was trying to decide what to do, the person who took the orders came. She showed me a sheet of paper with two lines of Japanese words, and 2,600 and 4,000 yen written on it. “Choose,” she instructed us. I asked her what’s the difference. “6 pieces or 10 pieces with one bonus,” she answered. Initially, I chose the 2,600 yen, after all I had just wasted thousands to come here for nothing. And, I wasn’t sure I could eat a single piece of sushi for breakfast. Meanwhile, everyone else ordered the full course. At the very last minute, I decided not to half-ass it, since I had been queuing for more than 2 hours now. I told her I wanted to change my choice from 6 to 10+1, while praying I could stomach raw fish before even taking my morning dose of coffee.
8.05 am and we were in, or to be exact, we squeezed ourselves inside Sushi Dai, took our seats, and we were ready to be served.
The first serving was fatty tuna. Oh man, my mouth is watering now looking at the picture. It was absolutely delicious! There and then, I knew I had made a good decision to order the full course.
We were also served miso soup on the side, together with hot green tea, a small brick size serving of egg omelette and ginger. The purpose of the ginger is to cleanse your palate before you eat the next sushi – I only found out about this when we were half way through our meal.
Then came horse mackerel. I didn’t know how it got the name but I was so glad that it was on my table, and later in my mouth, because OMG, yummy!
This was another type of tuna sushi. Look at how fresh it was. Words are not needed to describe the taste of it.
Other than putting the finest sushi into my mouth, I really liked the way the chefs interacted with us. There were three chefs and each of them served 3 to 4 customers. The one who served me was a young and friendly chef. He greeted me with “apa kabar?” and “namastee” to my friend when we told him where we were from.
The guy in the picture above was the main chef. He was full of smiles and looked like he really enjoyed working as a sushi chef. I asked the chef how long it takes to become an Itamae (sushi chef), and he answered, “20.” 20? Like 20 years?! WOW! What dedication. I felt more appreciation towards the whole experience. Also, even if it is such a small place and we needed to wait for hours to get it, the vibe inside was excellent. It made me happy and all giggly, or maybe I was high on sushi!?
“It’s still alive,” the chef said. And I thought, “Eh?!” It’s one thing to slurp oysters, but eating a living thing with rice felt very unusual. But, it didn’t stop me. I took one bite and of course loved it as well.
There were a few more sushi served, but I am not going to post them here because it would be a repetition of yummy, so good, delicious, and amazing. The strangest one I tried was the sea urchin. It looked unappealing to me, but I ate it anyway. Taste wise, it was okay, wouldn’t order it from a menu.
We were also served maki, which is like sushi of tuna and cod roe. As we reached the end of the sushi journey, I started to feel full and very, VERY satisfied.
Finally, for our bonus round, the chef let us pick any type of sushi we wanted. We could go for abalone, octopus, even sperm sacs of the cod fish. I asked for his recommendation and the chef suggested bonito prawn, so bonito prawn it was. Juicy and a little sweet, it was the perfect ending to a perfect sushi experience.
The whole meal took around 35 minutes. We thanked the chef and told them all we were “very oishii!” and stepped out.
On the way back, I stopped at a small coffee shop at the market itself. With 3 hours of sleep and stomach full of sushi before 9 am, I needed my fix, and I needed it strong. Sipping the black coffee, I reminded myself that even though I hadn’t seen what I really wanted to see in the first place, which was the tuna auction, I should consider myself extremely lucky that I had eaten at one of the best sushi restaurants in Japan, and I had only waited for two hours while others had set the record of 5 hours. If this means I should come again to Tsukiji, I will, and hopefully before they relocate due to the preparations for the 2020 Olympics, because I kinda dig the historic part of where they are currently located.
My tips to successfully visit the Tsukiji fish market and Sushi Dai:
- Check the Tsukiji fish market calendar because there are days that are closed to the public.
- Grab a to-go coffee, power bank for your phone and light reads, or friends to keep you entertained.
- Be there by 3 am (I am not joking!).
- Visit the live tuna auction and make me jealous.
- Queue in front of Sushi Dai for an hour.
- Queue in front of Sushi Dai for two hours.
- Make friends with strangers in the queue. Come on! You are in it together.
- Queue in front of Sushi Dai for three hours.
- Order the full course at Sushi Dai, enjoy the fantastic sushi experience and be extremely happy before 9 am.
- Go back to your hotel* by train to shower and catch up on your sleep.
- Enjoy the rest of your time in Tokyo.
How about you, where did you have the best sushi experience so far?
Ps. Build your appetite by watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi or maybe try it yourself for 30,000 yen of 20 courses in half hour. If you can’t get a reservation because, well you are not the president, try one of the highly recommended Tokyo sushi restaurants instead. Also, do you know that the best way to eat sushi is by using your hand? Enjoy and don’t forget to bow down and say, “domo-arigato” for one of the best meals in your life.
Pps. If it’s your last day in Tokyo and you are flying somewhere later, get your bus ticket to the airport before going back to the hotel. The bus goes to the airport once every twenty minutes and the tickets get sold out very quickly. If that is the case, you might have to run to the airport check-in counter while dragging heavy luggage or worse, like miss the flight; like we almost did last time we were in Tokyo. More on that next time. Thanks for reading.