Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tokyo Fish Market

A fishmonger stalks the cobblestone interior of the fish market.
The hotel desk clerk gave me some pointers about where to go in the morning. He thought that the fish market might be a bit far to walk, but I was keen for the exercise and the sightseeing. It took a while to get there, but only because I was gawking at the buildings and poking my nose in the various shops along the way. The entrance to the enormous Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (Tsukiji Market) is a bit deceiving; it is, essentially a big parking lot and drive way. Trucks of all shapes and sizes were going in every which direction. The building itself was an industrial looking thing, that actually consists of s series of building. Most of the vehicles were belching forth from the various entrances around the paved area.

Inside was organized mayhem. People and vehicles were moving in every direction and at every speed. Motor carts honked, men yelled, boxes crashed to the floor. There were large boulevards through which small vehicles moved. Branching from those were smaller "streets" separating the various fish stalls. These passageways were crowded with buyers, sellers and a few tourists. I've been in plenty of crowded markets and figured I'd seen it all when I stopped in amazement at the sight of this thing. 

One of the many motor carts hauling fish through the market.
Inspecting a fine piece of tuna.
This unusual cart hauls fish between the large roads and the smaller stalls inside. The bed is standard enough, as far as motorized carts go, I suppose, but the drive mechanism is ingenious. The barrel shape at the front houses both the engine and the drive wheel. To drive, the operator pushes down a large ring at the top. A sturdy outer ring serves as the wheel. It can turn 360 degrees, enabling it to navigate the narrow passageways between the stalls. I did my best to find a driver willing to let me try it out, but I was unsuccessful. 

I arrived at the market much too late to see the fish auction. The tuna is laid out around 4AM and everything is over within a few hours. I later learned that the auction has been closed to tourists. I did get a chance to see the tuna being processed, however.

A fishmonger uses a sword-length knife to slice the tuna.
It was still mid-morning, but the shops were actively closing down. The fish had been prepared and packed and the buyers were few and far between. The merchants were cleaning up and settling their accounts. 

A vendor completes his bookwork for the morning's sales.
Outside the market, Styrofoam boxes were being collected in a large pile. These were fed into a hopper where they were melted into blocks for recycling.

There were still seafood delights to enjoy nearby. Only a couple of blocks from the Tsukji market is a consumer market, complete with fish stalls, restaurants and shops. I wandered through the alleyways of the market, on the look out for delicious things to eat and potential souvenirs.
Horrifying in appearance, but surprisingly delicious.
I was determined to have some fresh, authentic sushi. The little shops in the market were really small, sometimes seating only a dozen people. I found one shop that looked promising and squeezed in at the counter. I ordered three pieces of sashimi and a small saki. The bill came to over twenty bucks! Yes, Tokyo is certainly expensive.

While a lot of Western tourists go for traditional Samurai swords as a high-end souvenir, being more practical, I was interested in picking up a sushi knife. There were a few shops selling them, and even making them. I took the time to inspect the various types of knives on offer. The prices were staggering, so I consoled myself with an organic brush instead. 

I enjoyed sampling the various teas from the friendly vendors. They had a staggering assortment of green teas ... all of which tasted, well green.

Like most markets, the vendors are more than happy to let you sample their goods. Some make elaborate displays to do so. What I most enjoyed, was listening to this woman invite passersby to sample the shop's seaweed paper.

See more photos of the fish market, and Tokyo, here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Visiting Hoi An, Vietnam

Train workers take a break
Getting to Vietnam was more difficult than I had expected. Their visa policy required a specific start date and had to be purchased in advance. This is great for a tour group, but rather inconvenient for the Bohemian tourist. This provided few opportunities for creative adventuring.

I arrived in Ho Chi Min City in the early evening. The plan was to take the train to Hanoi. Years earlier, a traveling companion raved about the wonderful train ride, complete with real linen in the sleeper cars. I was all about sleeper cars so I booked a ticket the moment I arrived. The train departed two hours later so I saw little of city.

I settled back in my bunk, turned on the little light provided and read my pocket book. The train pulled out around 11pm and I was ready for a good sleep. The train stopped a few times during the night, but I was content to wait for sunrise before exploring the rest of the train.

In the morning, I wandered up through the train to see the other cars. The coach section looked quite comfortable, but the restaurant car was rather utilitarian.

The dining car.
The view out the window was interesting, but didn't change much; mile after mile of rich green rice farms. When we stopped later that morning, I gathered my belongings and made my way through the station. The train is some distance from Hoi An. Having no clue about local buses, I negotiated a taxi ride. We drove through the town then past beautiful China Beach before turning in to Hoi An.

Tranquil streets with ancient trees.
The town is a glorious throwback to a bygone age. The somewhat rundown colonial buildings have the traditional South East Asian pastel colors. I decided to go with the first appealing hotel I saw, the Huy Hoang Hotel.
One of the many lovely little hotels.

Silk lanterns in the market.
The town has numerous restaurants and little shops. Most of those commercial establishments cater to tourists, both foreign and domestic. There were many tempting options for eating, including one shop that served frothy draft beer. The shops carried the usual touristic kitsch, but there are also much more interesting options like artist galleries. I was most interested in the silk lamps. As tempting as they were, I could not risk damaging them during the rest of my trip and had to satisfy myself with a few photos.

The town is fascinating with it’s oil painting worthy views, its narrow streets and tiny building. In the middle of the day, the high overhead sun was too harsh for really good light. However, I found the river harbor had some very interesting from a photographic perspective. Numerous wooden boats were tied up or anchored. Only a few fishermen were at work and I took full advantage of the photo opportunities.

A fisherman attends to his nets.
Come evening, the lights come on in the town. There is little traffic, so walking in the street is usually an option. 
The streets are aglow with fairy lights from the many shops.
I paid another visit to the lantern shop to admire their colors as they lit up the street.

Beautiful lanterns light up a shop stall.
The next morning, I woke well before dawn. The streets were already busy with people going to work and preparing the market. My interest was seeing the beach. I had never seen the sun rise over the Pacific, so I hoped on my motor bike and headed east. I was not surprised at the amount of traffic on the road, but I was quite surprised to see so many people on the beach at that early hour.

When I parked the bike and walked through the trees to the water, I could see dozens of people walking and exercising on the shore. There were a few sitting down, waiting for the sun to rise. In the water, I could see a few people swimming! Understand that the sun had yet to rise at this point. The locals were certainly taking advantage of the beach.

Sunrise on Vietnam.
I had only a few hours remaining in Hoi An. I returned to the hotel and explored breakfast options. There were a few places catering to western tastes, so I made the most of them (food on the train is limited to rice, noodles and snacks). On the street, I met a guy on a motorcycle who offered to take me on a tour. I declined, but agreed to him taking me to the train station. 

It was a bit tricky getting the two of us on his motorbike with all my gear, but he balanced my backpack on the front and held on precariously in the back. We made a stop at the local marble quarry and another stop at China Beach.

I arrived at the station too early to board, so I wandered around the neighborhood. I bunch of locals offered me a beer as they relaxed on the sidewalk. The beer was as warm as the welcome I received. I did my best to converse with my new pals, but none of them understood English. As the train departure time drew near, I bid goodbye to my pals and got back to the train.

See more images here.