I Didn’t See the Auction at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

A big giant fish head in a case of ice at Tsukiji Market

But you know what? That’s ok. I still saw plenty.

A thriving street and crowd in Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

This is the crowd at about 8 am on a Sunday in April at Tsukiji Fish Market. (Say “tskEE-jee.”)

I had arrived the day before and barely managed to make myself wander Akihabara before calling it a night. The thing to do, per every guide and every person who has been to Tokyo or maybe heard of it once, is to get up ass-early (that’s any time between 3 and 7 am, per my body’s clock), somehow get yourself to Tsukiji even though the trains aren’t running yet, and register for the tuna auction audience, for which only 3.5 seats are available*, and, and, and…

I set an alarm for 3:30 (sorry, hostel-roommates), just to see how I felt. I woke up, still fully dressed, underwires pressed into permanent grooves on my ribcage. (Woe to the person who thinks they’re just going to lie down for a quick nap at 7 pm after flying across an ocean, for thou art fooling thyself.) I squinted at the streetlight coming through my window, said a very quiet yeah no, Houdini’d my bra out from under my cozy wrap dress, and rolled back over.

I woke back up at 6:30, the first time that has ever been considered late for me. I took a shower in possibly the nicest hostel shower on earth – not fancy, but immaculately, reassuringly clean, and so needed after my 10-hour flight the day before. I shuffled out by 7:30 for a quick breakfast (ordered from a picture menu, of course) before I hit the train for my first proper Tokyo outing.

Octopus posters in a window at Tokyo's Tsukiji MarketMy first job was at a farmers’ market, when I was 14 and new and being paid under the table. (Soulard Market, I still adore you, never question.) I’ve had an affinity for open-air food markets ever since. Tsukiji is a mix of things in the way that happens when a market is both functional and a wildly successful tourist attraction: dizzying tables full of beautiful, intricately painted sushi dishes; tanks of beautiful, doomed fish; readymade food stands; and crowds and crowds and crowds. Still too shy and jet-lagged to make the most of things, I instead wandered through like a wraith, ducking down narrow alleys with counters with a scant five or six stools, peering into knife shops, and marveling at the mix of locals and tourists. (You can tell the latter from the former by their ability to maneuver a corridor or any other straight shot of pedestrian thoroughfare. This is a universal language; these days, I navigate Union Square in San Francisco five days a week, and my ability to tell a tourist at 50 paces has grown even sharper.)

This is my favorite near-miss picture:

Crabs and crabs at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Still getting used to my new camera, I knelt before these crabs and fiddled with settings for a moment before I was ready to take this one. In the moment before the shutter opened, an older man ducked down, knelt into frame, and gave me a quick peace sign and a giant, cheesy grin. He then leaped up and apologized profusely, even though I laughed and tried to ask him to do it again. It’s easy to get bitter at tourists when you just want to buy your damn fish and get home to make lunch; to see someone take the piss in such a good-humored way was a good way to start the trip.

I also didn’t go to the most famousest ramen place. I will let you figure out why.

Ramen line at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Not all of this is the line, but more of it is than you might think.

After I roamed the narrow hallways and alleys and streets, taking in my first bit of Japanese morning, I went to the more industrial area of the market. These pictures are fewer because I had to make sure to, well, stay alive.

Tsukiji Market don'ts and don'tsThis is all really good advice with not a bit of overstating present.

Once you emerge from the market aimed at individuals, you find yourself in a lively shipping yard, threaded by small, screaming trucks, one seat wide with a tiny flatbed behind, which zip around and by you in a somehow flawless ballet while emitting the most appropriately eerie high-pitched whine. No drunk indeed – you’d be street pizza.

I ended my trip with a few oysters, pulled from running saltwater by a man standing sentinel between two tanks, patiently weathering tourists taking picture after picture. I just gave him money and took these to the little eating area across the way. I couldn’t find chopsticks, so I just tipped them into my mouth, scandalizing someone, I am sure.

Oysters from Tsukiji Market

So: Tsukiji Fish Market. I shaped my plan with Lonely Planet and a featureless amalgam of “So you’re going to Tokyo” to-do lists on various travel blogs – I found them remarkably consistent. Maybe you’re more patient than I am and are game to wait in a long-ass ramen line, or maybe you’re willing to get up at ass-early and take a wildly expensive cab across town. But the way I did it was just fine too – wading through crowds, gawping at fish, dodging certain doom via people just trying to do their job ok thanks. A fine welcome to Tokyo, and a good introduction to the very particular kind of keeping on my toes that I found crucial while I was there. Plus oysters.

Lanterns at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

*Ok, it’s like 40 or 60, but every recommendation drips with doom at the LIMITED SEATS and YOU ARE GOING TO MISS IT no really GET THERE AT FOUR, GET THERE THE NIGHT BEFORE AND CAMP OUT LIKE YOUR SAD BUDDY DID FOR THE PHANTOM MENACE, oh god you’re already blowing it, it’s too late.

Entering Ueno Park in Tokyo

Ginger at at Ueno Park in Tokyo
Here’s a thing about traveling a good amount in a shortish period of time: wherever you go, there you are. And you get to find out exactly what that means.

I have a cat tendency. I spot them, I study them, I follow them, and when I come across them, I feel I’ve intersected with the actual life of the place. (Other repeated things I enjoy: coffee, outdoor food, pastries, popular city parks, walking tours, and cemeteries. These constants give me some easy, interesting comparisons between the places I go. Coffee in Japan is much different than coffee in Paris, for instance. I love them both.)

In Ueno Park (which I will get into more soon), this was the second cat I saw. The first was grey and soft and gently misted over by the day. An older lady was kneeling next to him, opening a carton of milk and then pouring some into a bowl. The cat dug right into it. I considered taking a picture, but I decided to observe and leave it be, imagining she was doing a daily or weekly ritual of giving this cat a little treat.*

Real estate is tough in Tokyo, and I understand that pet-friendly housing is exceptionally hard to come by, hence the explosion of cat cafes. So to see a woman doing a bit of gentle caretaking for this furry friend in the city’s most popular park felt like getting a glimpse into how people stay sane and balanced in a place of such extremes. Furthermore, there was a particular beauty to  a private moment taking place within sight of what I immediately named the Selfie Tree, a red bud tree so profusely blooming that 1. it was a solid, searing tree-shaped field of magenta, and 2. it was perpetually surrounded on all sides by singles and groups selfieing in front of it. Behold:

Selfie-ridden red bud tree in Tokyo's Ueno Park

If I hadn’t also spent a morning at Shinjuku Gyoen, I might declare this the most-selfied flowering tree in Tokyo. I grabbed a snack from one of the nearby tents so I could munch while watching people take pictures in front of this tree, over and over again, delicately keeping the shoulder-to-shoulder hordes out of frame. I wonder where the pictures go, whether they’re only for social media or if they get printed and added to some more permanent archive. I wondered this while biting off Hello Kitty’s waffle head.

A paper bag full of Hello Kitty-shaped waffles

Twenty of these for ¥500 (about US$5 that day). A bargain at any price, though, to be honest.

Ueno Park was my first day setting out alone in Tokyo. This trip happened when cherry blossom season was about 60 percent past, which meant that while I was scouting cherry blossoms, so was most of Tokyo. We didn’t plan the timing this way, but I recommend it, and not just for seeing blossoms. The flowering trees there are lusher and bigger than the ones in Seattle, so I found them worth seeing for that reason. But to visit a country at the same time that the locals are marveling and flocking to see the area’s natural beauty with the same fervor as someone who crossed an ocean to do it – that’s a special thing. While I never felt of Tokyo (hard to do when you’re a 5’8″ white lady with some pink hair), in that moment, I felt brought along for something special that Japan has been rejoicing at for centuries. I do love some flowering trees, to the point that they’re among my favorite things in Seattle. But to see locals picnicking on tarps, feasting and sitting and watching and taking picture after picture, all of us thrilled to be there, all of us so glad at that moment? That’s worth crossing an ocean for.

*Once, years ago, when my small cat was sick and had trouble taking in calories, I tried giving her cream, hoping the nutrition in it would outweigh any lactose-intolerant effects. Later, cleaning diarrhea off the side of the litterbox, I apologized profusely. She was unimpressed. But then she is always unimpressed.