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No fish left in the sea

I spent last weekend in Tokyo and I loved it! Its posh department stores and restaurants in Ginza, its trendy cafes and shops in Shibuya and Harajuku (this even though I am an old timer), and its traditional Japanese restaurants in Asakusa, to name a few of the key sources of my love for the capital of Japan.

However, by far the most striking experience I had in Tokyo was the Tsukiji fish market.

Some of you might view going to a fish market a bit like going to the butchers or an abattoir, and you are right – that’s what it is, kind of. But if you are prepared to eat octopus sushi, tuna sashimi, raw sea urchin, salmon soup, oyster tempura, grilled mackerel, deep fried white bait, eel on a skewer, pan fried perch, prawn cocktail, or to open a tin of Whiskas for your feline friend, I think one should be prepared to understand (and ideally see) where that food comes from and accept the responsibility that your (or your cat’s) diet will mean that marine creatures will be caught and killed for your benefit.

To try to get a better understanding of this, I had an early start and met my Japanese friend in the foyer of my hotel at 4.40am. He had kindly offered to come to the fish market with me before heading to work straight from the fish market. Since the tube wasn’t running that early in the morning, we walked for 20 minutes to the fish market and got there at 5am when the ticket office for the tuna and sea urchin auction was due to open. They only let 150 visitors observe the auction, which starts at 5.25am.

When we got to the ticket booth, we learned that the booth had opened already at 2.30am and that by 4am all the tickets were sold out, and that we were thus not going to witness the extremely expensive black tuna or sea urchin changing hands by way of some elaborate hand movements indicating bids and prices.

Disappointed, we walked around aimlessly trying to avoid being run over by very busy men on battery powered turret trucks which looked like a cross between a forklift and a petrol barrel (see short video below).

 

By coincidence we came across one not–so-busy man, sitting on a crate of fish and my friend asked him if there was anything interesting to see at 5am instead of the auction that we had missed. Apparently we were welcome to go and have a look inside a huge, intimidating looking warehouse full of men, boxes of fish and turret trucks.

 

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So we walk into the warehouse, again trying not to get run over by the guys on their trucks or clog up the narrow walkways. I’m taking photos of fish, squid, octopus, turtles, and shell fish in boxes and fish tanks, and on tables and trolleys, and of sellers and buyers negotiating (see photos).

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There were piles and boxes of fish everywhere in this gigantic warehouse whose extremities were unknown to us. I had never seen so many fish.  I started to have an unnerving thought. Tsukiji fish market is just one of several fish markets in Tokyo, and there are many more fish markets in Japan, and Japan is just one country in Asia, and Asia is just one continent. These types of fish markets take place in thousands of places in the world. And they take place every day! I could but think that there must be no fish left in the sea! It’s all on tables and boxes in fish markets like this! Or revolving around sushi restaurant counters or being covered in batter in fish and chip shops.

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When the tuna auction had finished and the tuna was brought to the market

 

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After having had a look around the market, we decided that we had seen enough and wanted to head back to the hotel, but the warehouse was so big that we couldn’t find our way out. Eventually, my friend asked directions from an elderly man loading his turret truck. We were gobsmacked when the guy glanced at us from underneath his eyebrows and then offered to give us a lift to the closest tube station in his truck. At 6am these workers are super busy. I don’t think they would generally be willing to operate a taxi service for lost visitors. So, we were extremely grateful (and very excited!) when we hopped on the back of the truck and off we went.

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When we cruised out of the warehouse, I noticed many tourists (none of whom were using a similar taxi service as us!), and said to my friend that it is weird that none of the other tourists came into the actual fish warehouse to have a look. That, funnily enough, we seemed to be the only tourists there.

He then admits that the guy who had instructed us to go in had done so because my friend was wearing a suit (as he was going straight to work from the fish market) and the guy had said that even though strictly speaking we were not supposed to go in, the staff would think we were there on business! Never have I felt more like a gatecrasher! But at the same time I was grateful to my friend and his suit for having experienced something I’ll never forget – the content of the entire sea on tables of a fish market and the ride at the back of a barrel on four wheels.

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I have mixed emotions after seeing the fish market.  Part of me is happy to have seen first hand where our food comes from. However, it does make me think seriously about how much I actually enjoy eating fish. Do I love it so much that I am prepared to support the fish industry in their capture and killing of fish? Aside from the suffering that the fish endure, I am also concerned about the hazards for humans of eating fish (e.g. due to levels of mercury) and the environmental impact of fishing. One to ponder I think.

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Is that Finnish that I am seeing in Japan?!

In many countries, it is common to use foreign words or phrases in advertising, to create an interesting, quirky or trendy image for your product. Japan is no different. Over here, a Westerner can recognise familiar Western words that are used as shop/restaurant names. This is the case especially in trendy parts of the city, and the language predominantly used is of course English.

However, as a native to Finland, I’ve been over the moon to notice that several shops/restaurants in Osaka also have Finnish names! This, as silly as it might sound to a native English speaker, makes a Finn exclaim with delight. After all, Finnish is by no definition a world language spoken by the masses as a native language or taught as a popular choice as a second language. In fact, it is only spoken by about 5 million people native to Finland and is taught as a second language only in its neighbouring countries (if even there), and thus, we practically never see Finnish words used outside Finland (other than maybe in places like Rhodes or Fuengirola i.e. particularly popular destinations amongst Finnish holiday makers).

Intriguingly, I don’t think there is any obvious Finnish connection when Japanese shops choose their Finnish name. I mean, the reason why they have Finnish names is not because the owner or their spouse is Finnish or because the bulk of their customers are Finnish (given that the Finnish community in Osaka is miniscule and only a handful of Finnish tourists visit Osaka). I think these shops have Finnish names just because it is trendy to use Finnish!

Here are some names that I’ve come across in Osaka:

 

A bakery/clothes shop: Pesä (‘Den/Nest/Burrow’)

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A café that specialises in pancakes: Pöllö (‘Owl’)

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A restaurant: Keitto Ruokala (‘Soup Canteen’), It might be worth pointing out that even though the name might suggest otherwise, this restaurant didn’t serve soup, nor did it look like a canteen.

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Hairdressers: Alkaa Täältä (‘Begins from here’)

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Clothes shop: Olohuone (‘Living room’)

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Before I finish this Finnish post, I might just need to add that even though it is wonderful to see Finnish in Japan, the Japanese do not always get their use of Finnish right. Here’s an example of something on the wall of a stationery and life-style shop in Shinjuku in Tokyo. A cardinal mistake in my opinion!

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To lie or not to lie

Girl with a choice near the forked road

I’ve noticed that my husband, who is British, and I, a native to Finland, have somewhat different ideas about saying how things are, talking about things with their real names, or lying in the name of politeness.

To give you an example:

My husband and I were having a date night and headed to a newly opened restaurant in Brighton in which we hadn’t been before. We walked in, sat down and the waitress brought us a jug of water and the menus. We looked through the menu which (a) listed items that were more expensive that we expected and (b) listed nothing that we wanted to eat (it was all bit too trendy in a bad way for us, for example ‘cod cheeks’ and ‘blood and egg’). My husband and I were discussing our options when the waitress returned to take our order. After a few seconds of silence, I plucked up some courage and while visibly squirming in my seat said in an extremely apologetic tone: Erm…I’m so sorry but we are not impressed with your menu. And we stood up and walked out.

Once outside, my husband turns to me and expressed his embarrassment in relation to the extreme level of rudeness that I had displayed in the restaurant. I was gobsmacked. To me, my approach had been polite, we didn’t want to eat in that place and we had to get out of there. What should we have done?

His view was that it was impolite to say that we didn’t like the choice in their menu. He thought our options were (a) just to order something and spend our evening there (regardless of the fact that that cheeky and/or bloody experience would have set us back by about £100) or if we absolutely could not force down the gory-sounding food (b) under no circumstances should I have said anything about the appeal of the food but lied along the lines of:

Hmm, you know we’ve just remembered that we’re actually meeting some people somewhere else. So, sorry, but we have to leave.

To him, the latter of these would have been the polite way to get out of the situation, but to me this feels extremely impolite because it is an obvious lie. A lie that we know and the waitress knows and we know that the waitress knows and the waitress knows that we know that she knows. Thus, that statement in my opinion would imply that the waitress is stupid enough to think that a (sober) adult couple had forgotten a prior engagement whose existence they recall the minute they’ve read through the menu. When I questioned the politeness of this practice, my husband told me that he thinks that that is how the world works. But I think that is just how England works.

I think it is interesting to think that different cultures might view this in such different ways. What do you think? What would you have done? Would you have (a) given honest feedback in a polite or impolite way, (b) given dishonest feedback (friends waiting in a different restaurant), (c) done something else or (d) you don’t give a shit about cultural differences maybe because you voted for Brexit and/or Trump.

Hanging out with my younger self

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If you are lucky you might be able to live to 100. Thus, one could think about life a bit like a 100 metre race (that most of us want to get through in Usain Bolt-style but in slow motion). Worryingly, instead of slow motion, I have started approaching the halfway mark of the track in Benny Hill show-style (in fast forward). Worse still, pretty much at every birthday for the past 10 years I have been able to visualise my young self around the 30 metre mark blow me a kiss goodbye.

But, this last month has been different, even though it saw me move another metre further down that 100m track. For the first time in nearly 9 years (since my son was born), I’ve had a chance to remind myself what it was like to be spontaneous and carefree. The reason being that while I have been in Japan for work for a month, my children and husband have been back home, in England.

So, four weeks ago I walked back to that 30 metre mark, embraced my young-adult self and went wild. Well, maybe wild is not an accurate word here, given that wild in my 20s meant something quite different than it means to me today. I will not go into explaining what wild meant to me in my youth, but for the past four weeks it’s meant:

  • not cooking a single lunch or dinner
  • checking my alarm clock at 6.45 am on Saturdays and Sundays, and going back to sleep for another 3 hours
  • indulging on culture (visiting temples, shrines, cemeteries and bamboo forests)
  • my social calendar having been so full with BBQs and dinners with friends, colleagues, school mums and even with some new acquaintances, takoyaki (octopus dumplings) gatherings and birthday parties that my young self would have been proud of me. (If I wanted to show off my busy social calendar I could mention that I’ve had 18 social events in the past 30 days!)

Even though I’ve loved my freedom, seeing new places and meeting new people, in a moment I will start making my way back to the 42 metre mark on the track of life. And I will do that with unprecedented enthusiasm. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I am today. You see, I am at Kansai Airport on my way back to England where I will be reunited with my children and my husband.