This is one of my most memorable Japanese culture experiences in Tokyo so far. It's the story of how I ended up eating sushi at 5 AM at Sushi Dai.
Tsukiji fish market
I had never thought of eating sushi as a breakfast, especially not before sunrise, in Japan. On my second visit to Japan and my last morning in Tokyo, I only had two things scheduled: to fly back home and, before that, to visit the world-famous Tsukiji fish market.
The nice lady at the hotel informed me that the train would only start at 4:30 am since I didn't want to be late I took a taxi from the hotel to get there ASAP. 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 o'clock. I would have done exactly that if only I had known!! The thing is, the website that share information about the Tsukiji fish market mentioned that the registration starts at 5:00 am was 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 on my last day in Japan seemed like a sad option. That's when I noticed people sneak into 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 Tsukiji fish market tuna auction arena. Instead, they stopped and formed a line at the street near an alley.
Queuing at Sushi Dai
After some time I noticed the queue wasn't moving, so I went to the alley where the Sushi Dai, was located among many other Japanese restaurants on the same alley. Also, there was another line of people waiting in front of it. They were the first part of queues while we were the second part. Essentially, there were 30 people in front of me, at 6ish in the morning, to eat sushi.
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 was standing in front of me for the past hour, 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. 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 sushi. I did exactly that, even took some pictures of them eating sushi, 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 albeit famous Japanese restaurant and stare at people eating sushi. 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. It was the first Omakase, the next time I had Omakase, it was at the remarkable Jiro Sushi.
The cost to eat at Sushi Dai
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 in English. I asked her what's the difference between the two prices.. "6 pieces of sushi or 10 pieces sushi with one bonus sushi" she answered.
Other than the full course meal, they also have ala carte menu. Overall food in Sushi Dai is pretty reasonable.
Full Course of Sushi Omakase at Sushi Dai
Initially, I chose the 2,600 yen, after all, I had just wasted thousands of yen to come here for nothing. And, I wasn't sure I could even eat a single piece of sushi for breakfast. But, everyone else ordered the full course. At the very last minute, I decided not to half-ass my experience with Japanese food, especially since I had been queuing for hours. 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.
Fatty tuna sushi
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.
Lean tuna sushi
Miso soup and egg omelet
We were also served miso soup on the side, together with hot green tea, a small brick size serving of egg omelet 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 halfway through our meal.
Then came silver skinned horse mackerel with wasabi garnish. 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. Yummy!
There was another type of tuna sushi, a glistening red-colored meat lied on top of sushi rice. It tasted fresh and delicious. I have started to become deliriously happy about my sushi breakfast at this Japanese restaurant I found out about and qued at only a few hours ago.
The chef served the red clam sushi with a warning. "It's still alive", he said. And I thought, "Eh?!" It's one thing to slurp oysters, but eating a living seafood on top of rice felt unusual. But, it didn't stop me for long. I took one bite and of course, loved it as well.
There was 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 again.
We were also served maki, this time the sushi roll of tuna and cod roe. As we reached the end of the sushi journey, I started to feel full and 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 codfish. I asked for his recommendation and the chef suggested prawn, so Amaebi prawn it was. Juicy and a little sweet, it was the perfect ending to a perfect sushi experience.
The Itamae at Sushi Dai
Other than putting the finest sushi on my plate, 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 "namaste" to my new friend when we told him where we were from.
The main chef 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.
The whole meal took around 35 minutes. We thanked the chef and told them all we were "very oishii!" and stepped out.
How to go to Sushi Dai?
On the day take the train to Tsukiji station and get down at Tsukiji market exit. The restaurant is located inside the market ground. Actual address is at5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chūō, Tokyo 104-0045, Japan. Walk around, I am sure you won't miss the long que of hungry people.
Sushi Dai again?
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 which was the world famous tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market in the first place, 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 a few hours while others had set the record of 5 hours.
This also means I shall come again to watch the tuna auction at Tsukiji fish market. And 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. I will definitely come to sushi dai again then.
Travel 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 2 am and start queuing.
- Visit the world-famous live tuna auction.
- Queue in front of Sushi Dai for three hours.
- Make friends with strangers in the queue (come on! You are in it together).
- Order the full course of the Omakase menu at Sushi Dai
- Enjoy the fantastic sushi experience and be extremely happy before 9 am.
- Go back to your hotel to shower and catch up on your sleep.