by Lenny Karpman
The warmth of urban Japan rises before dawn.


Jet lag had sent me to bed early. I awakened at 4:30 a.m., about the time my tour companions staggered in from the bar. As they fell into bed, I tiptoed out, heading into the night with Tsukiji Market written in Japanese on the backside of a card and the name and address of the hotel on the front. Confident that the little Japanese I had learned would carry me through, I greeted the cabby with a polite honorific salutation and he grunted and rasped a totally unintelligible guttural response. I asked where we were, and he grunted “Niu Otani Hoteru”—the name of the hotel. I asked the direction we were heading, and he grunted “Tsukiji Sakana-ya,” the name of the fish market—no more conversation—no more information.
There was little traffic on the black streets of Tokyo at four thirty a.m. until the taxi neared the Tsukiji Fish Market, the world’s largest, selling five million pounds of seafood a day. As we neared the market, we passed battalions of small trucks and divisions of motorized carts. He grunted one last time and deposited me in front of a maze of buildings that looked like airport hangers. There were fires in metal trashcans marking the route and warming hands. I joined the processional and marched in. I was out of uniform without pants legs tucked into knee high rubber boots and with a camera hung from the neck of my bright pumpkin-colored flannel shirt.

The shadowy figures became illuminated as they entered the vast halls, but the colors of the fishmonger army hardly changed in the soft light. They wore only shades of gray, dark blue or black jackets, pants, sweatshirts or sweaters. They sloshed in boots that were all black. It was colder inside than out from tons of block ice. Narrow wet aisles separated small stalls, each selling one or two items. Wooden boxes and stainless steel trays full of glistening, slippery harvest from the sea sat edge-to-edge on tables illuminated by blue-white neon that made it all even more surreal.

Some of the fish were smaller than a thumbnail, some had razor-sharp predator’s teeth and some wore faces befitting a “Star Wars” bar scene. There were at least three different kinds of eel, all squirming in glistening tangles and more colors and sizes of shrimp than I had ever imagined. There were sea cucumbers, cockles, jellyfish, yellow and green groupers, red snappers, yellowtail and barracuda, small squid and huge squid, flanked by cuttlefish and octopus, raw and cooked. Those that were cooked were white-fleshed inside and dark red outside if they had been pickled, or golden if they had been cooked in soy. The variety of fish roe, too, was incredible; silver gray, pale yellow, iridescent orange, golden and crimson. These delicacies were displayed mounded unadorned, clinging like barnacles to strips of seaweed or encased like sausages in semi-transparent tubes. Seaweed came in all shades of green, from lime to dark forest, and in black, brown and dark purple. The clams, oysters, scallops and crabs went from teaspoon-tiny to platter-large. There were miniature periwinkles and giant conch.

The vendors were generally friendly and much more communicative than the cabby had been. A few did produce a deep throated growl on occasion, as if to accentuate a word or phrase. They seeded amused by my exuberance and curiosity and answered my questions as slowly and as simply as they would if they were responding to an inquisitive toddler. Closer to dockside I saw dozens of large tables with electric band saws. Workers in surgical gloves and rubber aprons operated on 200-pound headless and tailless frozen tuna bodies. They would cut the tuna lengthwise along their backbones, then load them onto carts for delivery to the buyers’ mini-trucks waiting outside. The place sounded like a sawmill.

One vendor, who had been patient with me and had struggled to welcome me in English two hours before, smiled at me and bowed slightly as I tried to find my way out. He had exhausted his English with his greeting, but was adept at charades. I returned his smile and his bow, carefully bending my head a little more than he had, as a sign of respect.

“Sumimasen”—excuse me—“New Otani Hotel, doko desu ka “—where is it? “Yukuri, kudasai”—Slowly, please. I handed him the card with the hotel’s name, and we both tried our best. The hotel was not nearby, however. He tried to draw me a little map but seemed unwilling to give it to me because it was rough and not to scale. He was a stern self-critic and kept apologizing. He frowned and tucked his chin under the neck of his black windbreaker. I apologized for disturbing him and thanked him as profusely as my limited language skills allowed. I was going to take my leave when we both said, “Gomen nasai” —I a.m. sorry—in unison, as if we had been rehearsing.

Both of our faces erupted into ear-to-ear smiles. I extended my hand. He took it in his and accepted the bond of a handshake. He became resolute; he raised his chin high, puffed out his chest and chuckled deep in his throat. He obviously had hatched a plan. He asked me if I knew Japanese numbers. I nodded yes. He asked me to count and I counted to twenty, then by tens to 100. He smiled and bowed slightly. He then opened his cash box, gave me a large bill and directed me to change places with him. He pointed to the golden, soy-cooked octopus pieces in the metal tray, and slowly articulated an order: “Tako, ichi kiro han, kudasai.” I got the message. I lifted a plastic bag onto the scale, pretended to fill it and pressed my index finger down to move the needle on the dial to1.5 kilograms. I calculated the cost, took the bill, gave him change and presented him the empty bag with a bow and a thank you very much.

Mr. Yamamoto introduced himself and so did I, repeating each other’s names aloud and exchanging salutations. He then rather abruptly hurried away and left me behind the counter to tend his money and tentacled wares. I surmised that he had gone off to find an English speaker to give me directions.

A small gray-haired woman in a long dark raincoat walked by three times. The first time she stole a glance out of the corner of her eye as she stepped by in her plastic rain shoes. The second time, she paused ever so slightly, then quickened her pace and turned away after a closer look.

Finally, she stopped and whispered in a high falsetto that she wanted half a kilo of the octopus. Her eyes darted back and forth from the octopus to her purse to the scale, but she avoided my eyes. She extracted exact change and handed it to me from the greatest distance possible. She watched the scale as I put successive pieces into the plastic bag with metal pincers. When I reached the half-kilo mark, she inhaled barely audibly, and bowed her head almost imperceptibly. I handed her the package with a bow, a thank you, and a smile. Her eyes were trapped and she smiled back. She placed her package into a crocheted shopping bag. She seemed very pleased with herself for her courageous purchase from the bearded gaijin in the loud shirt. Me too! I noted the sale on a small pad next to the plastic bags. I would have affixed a gold star had there been one.

Mr. Yamamoto returned with a little boy who was barely visible in a down jacket and a knitted ski cap and gloves. The boy could have been 6 or 7. He hopped up on the wooden stool and took my place. Before I could figure out how to brag about my sale without destroying my veneer of humility, Yamamoto-san was steering me down the aisle. We walked briskly through two cavernous buildings and out a door into an alley.

We negotiated the maze to and over the bridge and onto a commercial street with open-fronted shops selling shaved bonita flakes, sushi, noodles, pottery, and kitchen utensils. He walked quickly and silently. I had to press to keep abreast. At each turn he smiled at me and angled his head a few degrees in our new direction. We descended into the subway. He bought two tickets from a vending machine and we were off.

He seemed less willing to play charades with me in this public place than he had in the partial privacy of his fish-stand. He used hand signals to beckon me in and out of the spanking clean subway cars. With his hand opened, palm facing downward, he flexed his four fingers toward his palm two or three times rapidly, signaling me to follow. I tracked very closely behind him and marveled at his agile figure, walking rapidly but never touching another human, even with the brush of a sleeve or elbow.

We exited onto a busy street in an upscale neighborhood. I resumed my position at his side, a quarter of a pace behind, like an obedient dog who had been instructed to heel. A boy on a bicycle with a 4-foot-tall bundle of magazines on the back beat us through the crosswalk. A few blocks later, we arrived at the door of the hotel.

He refused payment for even the subway tickets. I offered him a drink inside but he politely declined. We repeated our bows and handshakes. He gave me his business card, which I could not read, and I gave him my business card, which he could not read. “Sayonara, dewa mata”—goodbye, until next time, he said. Then he hurried away down the drive toward the street without a backward glance. Inside the lobby, the clock read 10:45. My tour mates were heading into a breakfast buffet.

“Where did you go?”

“To the fish market.”

“Why would anyone want to go to a fish market? Didn’t it stink?”

I donned the requisite smile and nodded my head, not to affirm, but to leave them, politely. “Sayonara,” I said softly, but from a deeper, raspier part of my throat. That is how we, the working men of Tokyo, speak.

Lenny Karpman is a writer who divides his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Costa Rica.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.