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Travels With An Airhead

Greetings from Tsukiji Fish Market

— by Notch Miyake

Margaret and I came to Japan to visit our daughter and to eat sushi. No, we came just to eat sushi. Luckily, our daughter also happens to live here so we were able to spend some quality time with her at the sushi bars.

Which also explains why we were at the Tsukiji Fish Market at 6:00 am. This is the largest fish market in the world. More fish goes through here every day than anywhere else in the world put together. They sell everything from live uni (sea urchin) to classic maguro (tuna).

The fish here is fresh, only a few minutes off of the boat. And the sushi bars are the best in the world. It takes dedication to eat sushi as the sun rises over Tokyo Bay. But think of it this way: if you wait to eat it in Ginza for dinner, the fish has been sitting around all day. I usually don't let that bother me, but if I can get it fresh, I'll eat at 6:00 am.

The market is at least a couple of square kilometers of shops and open market stalls. Every morning the narrow aisles are jammed with people buying and selling fish. Since most of the shoppers are wholesalers and restaurant owners, they buy large quantities that they have to move quickly.

Some people use pedal bicycles and tricycles. But the majority of people use a curious kind of motorcycle. It is actually a tricycle, with two rear wheels and a single front wheel. A cargo platform large enough to carry a 200-kilo giant tuna sits over the rear wheels. Ahead of that is a step-thru platform, like a Vespa scooter, where the driver stands. There is no seat.

The trike is front-wheel drive. The engine is inside what looks like a small oil drum mounted over the front wheel. A steering wheel sits on top of the oil drum. The throttle is like one of those horn rings they had on cars in the fifties. Just push to go.

Because the front wheel can be rotated 360 degrees, the trike can turn within its own wheelbase. To reverse, simply rotate the wheel 180 degrees.

The engine sounds like a lawnmower but is capable of moving the trike at speeds over 100 kph. I estimate zero-to-sixty times under five seconds. Brakes are pedal-operated rear-wheel drums. I didn't see anyone use the brakes so I cannot estimate stopping distances.

Now imagine walking through aisles full of these trikes operating at full speed, bicycles darting between them, your occasional small pickup truck with about a millimeter of side-clearance, conventional motorcycles with gigantic insulated top cases, and a few tourists pointing at a bucket of live unagi (fresh-water eels). The trick is not to hesitate. If you pause, even momentarily, to admire the tai (red snapper), you are also sushi.

Like I said, it takes dedication. But good sushi is worth getting up at 5:00 am.

— Copyright © 2002 by Notch Miyake.

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