When I awoke at 3:30, sans alarm clock, I was tempted to stay in bed on principle—but I fought the urge and headed into the dark. The streets were deserted, the subway uncharacteristically empty, and I was surprised when I walked out of the station into a stream of people sweeping me toward the cavernous market.
Unfortunately for my jet lag, Tsukiji operated at the speed of a stock exchange. Motorized carts barreled down its wet streets in unpredictable directions, forklifts hoisted pallets of sea creatures onto trucks, and no matter where I stood, I was in someone's way. Worried about meeting my doom under a box of soft-shelled crabs, I stuck close to a row of parked trucks and soon entered the main area of the market. Rows of stalls displayed Styrofoam containers of fresh seafood—eels, mackerel, tightly coiled tentacles of octopus—each booth presided over by vendors wearing overcoats to keep out the cold.
The sun had barely begun to rise, but at the back of the market, the daily fish auction was already under way. Dozens of enormous frozen tuna lay on the ground in a large warehouse, each with a round steak cut from its tail and attached to its body by a piece of colored plastic rope. Buyers in black galoshes moved methodically from tuna to tuna, jabbing the exposed flesh of the tail with hook-tipped wooden sticks to determine the fattiness of the meat. As I watched, a man climbed atop a small box and began frantically ringing a small bell. Then, in a torrent of Japanese and hand signals, he auctioned off the fish.
Despite the other tourists packed around me, I felt exhilarated, as if I'd stumbled onto something secret. The most likely reason for this sense of achievement—an emotion I felt repeatedly over the course of the trip—was that getting up before dawn to watch a tuna auction is not something I normally do. "At first glance, challenge and novelty may seem like things to avoid," explains Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, a neuroeconomist at Emory University, in his book Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment. "But they are the exact ingredients that make for a satisfying experience." This rang true. The downside of traveling with no plans was that everything took effort. But the upside was that each time I managed to, say, feed myself, I felt I'd accomplished something big.
I should pause here to explain my method. Figuring that most people's English would be as nonexistent as my Japanese, I'd had a fluent friend translate an introduction and several key questions, which I printed out on oversize cards and carried in my bag. If I wanted to ask people their favorite dish or sight to see, I would show them the card, have them write down the answer, and have someone else tell me what it said. (It was an excellent system overall, but beware Google Translate. Based on its software, my introductory card said: "Put fear! My name is Kasharin Price.... We are forced to travel to ask your opinion of the residents there, since the threshold and what to look funny or what should I do.")
"I am American, and I want to eat breakfast!"