Tuna Turmoil In Tokyo

Since moving to Alberta, I have a new found love for skiing. Yes, I’m well aware that snowboarding is way cooler and that most people would assume that’s what I’d do but that isn’t the case. There’s just something about sending it down a pitch with two planks strapped to your feet surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world that really does it for me. Although my friends probably couldn’t tell, I had actually skied before I arrived out here.

Only once, at a ski hill called Gala Yuzawa just outside of Tokyo, Japan. I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Tokyo with Staz (my mother, for the uninitiated) for my 21st birthday in April 2016. Of course, having never seen snow before, I made it a priority to go to the closest snow available so late in the season. I was overwhelmed when we arrived at Gala Yuzawa – since then I have seen enough snow to last me a lifetime, but you never forget your first sighting. I moved faster than the bullet train we caught to get there as I rushed to take the gondola up to the ski runs. We rented our skis and gear and set off to feel the wind in our hair and marvel at the mountain range surrounding us.

Staz had been skiing before on some of her trips to New Zealand so she gave me some pointers on the way up our first chairlift. We both fell on our first ride down, it hurt much less than I expected it to which I thought was great! I skied straight on through to the lift line for my second run, the excitement building as I thought about what I’d done wrong and how I could improve. I made it down without falling, honestly I thought after that I could ski – that was it, I’d made it down without without injuring myself or anyone else, easy done. Unfortunately, Staz didn’t have as much success on her subsequent attempts.

As I came down to the lodge after attempting (and failing) the intermediate run, I found that Staz had already returned her skis to the rental shop. She told me that she’d fallen quite badly on her last run down and something didn’t feel quite right in her knees so she was going to call it a day. Admittedly, the snow was basically just ice this late in the season and staying upright wasn’t exactly the easiest task even on the green runs. I gave the intermediate run one more (successful) attempt before also returning my skis and heading back to our apartment in Tokyo.

Once we got back, Staz expressed that her knees were still quite sore but hoped that a good night’s rest would help. *Spoiler Alert* The good night’s rest did not help and her condition had become significantly worse overnight. Upon attempting to get out of bed, Staz realised that without some serious pain medication it was unlikely she would be leaving the apartment that day.

Staz became mostly bedridden due to her injuries from that point onwards. She insisted that I continue to go out and enjoy myself. This was hard to do, but I still managed to have a great time despite feeling terrible for her every time I came back to our apartment. There wasn’t much she could do except walk to the store nearby for supplies, looking back I’m not really sure how she maintained her sanity in that room all day. There was however one particular attraction that Staz refused to miss out on, the morning tuna auctions at Tsukiji fish market.

If you haven’t heard of the tuna auctions at Tsukiji, they are exactly what they sound like. Each morning, fishermen bring in their catch and the chefs, hotel owners and restauranteurs of Tokyo come to place their bids on the prized tuna fillets. The sights and sounds of the auctions along with the immense size of the tuna make Tsukiji one of the most highly recommended tourist destinations in the country. The trouble with attending the tuna auctions (which is free), is that everybody wants to do it whilst they are there. This means that the market itself has to limit the number of attendees on any given morning. To do this, they allow people to line up any time before the ungodly hour of 3am to secure a place at the auctions. We read all of the reviews online, the step-by-step instructions of how to get there, when to go and what to do upon arrival.

We set our alarms for 1am that morning, deciding that even a short rest would be better than none. Once our alarms went off, Staz loaded up on painkillers and we began our journey to the world famous Tsukiji fish market. The trouble began once we finally hailed a taxi on the streets of Shibuya, we were the only people on the street at that time. Once we hopped in, the Japanese driver politely asked us in his best English where we would like to go? “Tsukiji!” I told him, only to be met by a confused gaze in the rearview mirror. I repeated myself a few times, each time adding more of my surely racist Japanese accent in the hope he would understand. I tried changing the pronunciation, I tried playing charades and Staz even had a few goes too. I eventually found the Wikipedia for Tsukiji in the hope that he would at least recognise a photo of the place. As soon as I showed him my phone screen his face lit up, he had seen the Japanese kanji 築地市場 and exclaimed “ohhhh Tsukiji!”, pronounced exactly the same as we had been saying it to him the whole time. We had wasted valuable lineup time at this point so told him we needed to get there as quickly as possible as he began to navigate the quiet early-morning streets.

He dropped us at the end of a short road, much to Staz’ disappointment, and told us the market was just down there. He showed us the fare and in her zombie-like state, Staz tried to pay him roughly 15x his asking price, placing a wad of cash equal to around $400 AUD on the centre console; we are very lucky that the Japanese are an honest people. Once the polite driver worked out the correct payment, we began our slow march down the market road. Staz had hoped that getting some movement into her knees might help alleviate some of the pain and stiffness but this did not prove to be the case. She told me to go on ahead to secure us a place, we had arrived just before 2am and weren’t sure what the line would be like.

As I turned the corner to arrive at the market entrance, I saw a single guard stand with no line at it. I couldn’t believe our luck, we were the first ones here and would definitely get to see the famous tuna auctions! As I hurriedly approached the guard’s office, still worried somebody would beat us to it, I noticed a sign in the window printed in English. The sign read “Tsukiji tuna auctions entry closed” or something along those lines, I took this to mean that they hadn’t opened the line to this morning’s visitors yet. I was wrong, they had opened the line, filled the line and closed the line a whole hour before we even got there. I please my case with the guard, not even sure that he understood English, but he assured me there was nothing that could be done. Staz was still hobbling along the road towards the markets, I was almost too scared to tell her. A young American couple arrived to the guard at the same time as Staz, only to be met with the same disappointment. We all tried to convince the guard to let us in, there is no doubt in my mind that they could have made us fit.

Unfortunately, there was nothing that could be done. We made our way back to the main street, hailed another cab and returned to our apartment around 3:30am. We did actually decide to return to the market during opening hours later that day. It was somewhat underwhelming, perhaps amplified by the disappointment earlier in the morning. Staz continued to struggle for the rest of our trip but did manage to walk the palace gardens and have herself a really nice day exploring one of the greatest cities on Earth.

As always, every failure is a lesson. We learnt that you need to pull an all-nighter if you want to see the tuna auctions, that skiing at the end of the season isn’t ideal, that being able to move without major discomfort is a huge key to travelling and that sometimes things just don’t go your way. One day I’ll take Staz back to Tokyo and you better believe we will see those damn tuna auctions, hell I might even throw in a bid. Until then, I’ll stay content with my memories of a great trip – a trip that taught me how quickly plans can change and how difficult it can be to adapt in certain situations. I can’t wait for the day that we can laugh about this as we conquer another city together.

 

Mitch Dale

 

 

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