I am not a morning person. But by the time the clock reads 6:45 a.m. – daybreak in Tokyo – my body's internal version, 11 hours out-of-whack, is craving a big, savoury meal.
Fortunately, Japan's traditional morning cuisine could easily pass for dinner most other places in the world, so I leave my wife sleeping peacefully in our hotel room overlooking Shinjuku, and set out on a breakfast adventure.
My leap-of-faith order at a nearby Yoshinoya – a diner-like franchise founded in 1899 – arrives on a simple-yet-elegant black lacquered tray, looking exactly like the picture I'd pointed to on the menu: adorable tiny dishes of poached salmon, electric-purple tsukemono pickles, cabbage slaw, miso soup, dried nori seaweed, soy sauce and steaming rice (yoshinoya.com). Only two of the nine items confound me, which I figure is a good batting average for my first day in Japan.
Noticing my uncertainty in the face of a plain raw egg in a bowl, the counter man gestures to indicate that the egg is to be poured over my rice. Then, pointing to a sticky clump of fermented soybeans, he hesitates. "Natto. Japanese people like to mix into the rice. But for you, maybe not good?"
That's what he thinks. When it comes to expanding my breakfast horizons, I am up for anything and everything. Whether it's beans and blood sausage in Dublin, curry in Delhi, or goat-milk yogurt in Dubai, I find "routine" local breakfasts the quickest way to the true heart of a culture's culinary ethos.
With natto checked off my breakfast bingo card (verdict: pungent and sticky and not my cup of tea), I turn the next day to my network of hungry sources. An old college roommate currently on assignment at a bank in Tokyo informs me of another surprising trend: 7-Eleven – yes, that 7-Eleven – is a classic breakfast stop for fast moving "salarymen." But the Japanese iteration is home to an innovative fresh-food supply chain, so instead of hot dogs on a rotisserie, here my wife and I find commuters in black suits raiding racks of onigiri "rice sandwiches" wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with everything from tuna to sour plum. The onigiri epitomize the Japanese word for breakfast, asagohan, which literally means "morning rice."
Next day, in the southern district of Mita, we experience the polar opposite of these dainty snacks. At Ramen Jiro, founding chef Yamada Takumi cooks morning noodles for the restaurant's cultish fan base at his 13-seater bar, which opens at 10 a.m (2-16-4 Mita, Minato-ku). We arrive at 9:45 a.m. and, scanning the line, realize quickly that we're not going to be in the first seating.
No matter – the extra time gives us a chance to decipher the vending machine upon which you place your order. The "small" bowl finally arrives heaped with chewy yellow noodles, fatty slices of pork, chopped cabbage, raw garlic. We mimic the men alongside us, hunched over their steaming bowls as if bowing, and loudly slurp our respect to the chef. When I tell Yamada-san in mangled Japanese that the ramen is truly delicious – oishii – he cracks up laughing.
By the end of the week our sleep clocks are adjusting well, so we embark on a blowout evening that ends with us wandering the deserted neon-lit streets of Ginza at 4 a.m. The true objective of this all-nighter is the 5:25 a.m. tour of the Tsukiji fish market's famous tuna auction. Wearing orange safety vests and dodging forklifts, we end up in a refrigerated warehouse watching buyers inspect massive tunas, buying and selling according to an unintelligible rhythm.
We stumble, bleary eyed, into the Daiwa sushi bar (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku). Claiming a pair of seats at the counter, my wife and I greedily accept two steaming mugs of green tea and watch chefs carve slabs of just-purchased fish. This is, most likely, the freshest sushi in all of Japan. The clock behind the bar reads 6:12 a.m.
Chef Suzuki prepares a simple medley: five pieces of sushi. The pièce de résistance is toro, cut from the prized extra-fatty section of a tuna belly. We pop the juicy slices of fish, draped over small nuggets of rice, into our mouths. On our alert morning palates, the toro is quite simply the most luscious thing that either of us has eaten in Tokyo, and perhaps anywhere in the world.
With fish, rice, soup and pickled ginger swimming in our bellies, my wife and I are ready to begin the day. We hop a metro back to our hotel in Shinjuku … and fall immediately asleep.