San Sebastian – What Would You Say ?

Photo By (CC) on Flickr

What would you say if I told you there was a cozy, little city tucked away in a crevice of Spain where you could find sparkling, pristine waters only yards from gourmet eateries and trendy clothing shops? A city with modern luxuries but a secluded atmosphere, a place where you can be snorkeling in the ocean in the morning and dancing on the bar by evening; this is San Sebastian.

Water Fun

San Sebastian is a beach city. In fact, it is said by many to have the best in-city beaches in all of Europe. The waters are clear and sparkling blue. The powdery sand beaches beckon sunbathers. There are several beaches in San Sebastian, three in the city itself and several in outlaying areas. Each offers an amazing experience in swimming and surfing are big attractions.

San Sebastian harbour
Photo By Oneras (CC) on Flickr

Zurriola Beach is especially popular with surfers because of its unpredictable and sometimes violent waves, Hendaia Beach is also a popular surf spot. Other beaches, like the Getaria Beach, are located near a fishing village and suitable for all ages. There are even lifeguards, restrooms, showers and restaurants nearby.

San Sebastian Attractions

The city has an amazing aquarium, El Aquarium-Palacio del Mar de Donostia-San Sebastián that boasts sharks and other marine life native to the area. It is an amazing feeling to look through the hazy glass and come eye to eye with a being from all the way across the world. There are many exhibits featuring modern marine life as well as artifacts and fossils of beings past. The aquarium offers educational lectures and courses to learn about the marine life of Spain and San Sebastian. Don’t leave without a walk along the transparent, underwater walkway.

When you leave the aquarium, travel along the Paseo Nuevo. The Paseo Nuevo is a wide walkway that goes almost completely around one of the two mountains that the city is nestled between. The Bay of Biscay provides a stunning panoramic view to this breathtaking ride.

There are several museums to visit as well. Each offers its own historic exhibits and educational portals to learn about the culture and traditions of Spain and San Sebastian. The San Telmo Municipal Museum tells the heritage of the Basque Country in multi-disciplinary centre’s set in an old 16th century convent. The three sections of the museum, Fine Art, History and Archaeology, are explored through exhibits in drawings, painting, sculptures, ceramics, music, metalwork and so much more.

San Sebastian Shopping

This city may be small but it’s mighty in the shopping arena. The culture of the Basque civilization is rich and colorful. Many of the stores and shops reflect that culture and its many traditions in the wares they stock. Much of the clothing sold in the city is traditional and meaningful to the culture.

Designer boutiques with major labels also dot the area and satisfy the discerning shopper. Louis Vuitton and Ferragamo share shelf space with local designers and handcrafted jewelry. No vacation is really complete without taking home a special souvenir.The busy Parte Vieja district is where you’ll find many boutiques and shops but don’t count out the smaller districts. Calle Narrica and Calle Puerto also have lots of great little locally owned shops along the streets.

San Sebastian Dining

The Basque culture of San Sebastian, Spain has its own very unique taste and flavors. This city on the sea offers seafood that goes far beyond expectations. It has often been said that San Sebastian has the best food you’ve never heard of. This is so because of the distinctive flavors of the Basque culture. It’s unlike anything from anywhere else in the world.

Statistics show the Basque community spends more than twice what Americans do on food and meals. Common sense tells us they also spend a lot of time preparing food and eating. With so much money and time being spent on food it is no wonder that so many amazing tastes are born here.

There are gourmet restaurants, and little sidewalk cafes. There are bars and taverns and locally owned pubs. There are breakfast, lunch and dinner places. There are places for coffee and places for cocktails. You won’t go hungry in San Sebastian.

This little ocean front city may seem like a dream but its real. Best of all, it is attainable. It has all the bells and whistles of the luxury hotspots but not of the pretention and arrogance of other beach destinations. The seclusion of the mountains on both sides of the city and the miles of clear water beaches gives the city a feeling of uniqueness.

The Basque culture and the exceptional landscape of San Sebastian make it a one in a million vacation spot. It’s surprisingly affordable but gives plenty of options for over the top luxury.

The Skinny on Shiitake

Shiitake mushrooms seem a mundane option within the salad bar and grocery store, but people who select this fungus eat wisely. They aren’t only enjoying great chow- they’re enjoying one of nature’s most nutritious offerings.

See, shiitake mushrooms are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and chemicals that boost the immune system, fight cancer, and improve organs. Not only that, shiitake do one other thing- keep you ripped. That’s a whole lotta benefits packed into an edible, most particularly one that grows on rot.

Shii-watza? (Background)

Shiitake were first cultivated in the Far East upwards of 3 millennia ago. Believed to facilitate vital energy, medicinal experts throughout China, Korea, and elsewhere prescribed dried or powdered shiitake for many ailments, including fatigue, respiratory problems, and cancer. Already a food common from Thailand to Japan, plenty of ailing patients readily upped shiitake intake during meals, not to mention used the dried and powdered forms.

The ‘shroom is quite easy to grow. So long as a fallen tree is near a log with shiitake mushrooms or spores, there’s a good chance the fungus will spread. Traditional Japanese shiitake farming consists of merely downing shii trees and placing these close to vegetation already facilitating shiitake.

shiitake mushrooms

Currently, shiitake farming is a big business. Many farms grow the mushrooms from sawdust and other organic compounds. Those that want to avoid such origins grow their own, usually with the aid of ready-made kits. Be warned though- the growth process can take upwards of two years.

Shiitaki: Lean, Mean, and Eritadenine (Muscle Benefits)

Shiitake don’t exactly replace the whey protein shake. While filling thanks to its fiber, this fungus is primarily good for cutting fat. In fact, shitake is very effective at cutting fat- just check out this recent study conducted at University of Wollongong, Australia. The research group fed four groups of rats a high fat diet along with a certain amount of shiitake supplements. Those rats that received the highest amount of shiitake also had the lowest weight gain, around 1/3 less than rats fed the fatty diet without shiitake. That’s both visceral and adipose fat, folks. The study hypothesized three reasons why shiitake might be such an effective weight suppressor:

Lentinan – Shiitake is rich in beta glucans. In fact, the mushroom is practically 30% of the stuff. This fiber is widely known for being tough to digest, if digestible at all. The end result is the stomach being less effective at absorbing fats.

Enzymes– Rich in lipoprotein enzymes, shiitake may reduce nonesterified fatty acid- a chemical widely known for contributing to fat gain within adipose tissue.

Eritadenine– This chemical that potentially prevents the liver’s release of triacylglycerol, a chemical used to break down fats. Shiitake has plenty of eritadenine. If the body can’t break down the given food then it’s discarded as refuse and ends in the toilet.

Regardless of why shiitake works to prevent weight gain, one thing is certain- the fungus is good for something. Looking to maximize lifting capability? Don’t go shiitake. Looking to show off sinew? Go shiitake- and after one serving go ahead and eat some more. The best part? Based on the study, people can moderately indulge. Shiitake doesn’t exactly provide an excuse for clocking through a pint of ice-cream, but nothing really does. Seriously, don’t be gross. That voiced, the mushroom apparently does prevent the worse of adipose weight gain.

Shiitake & Your Health (Other Benefits)

Shiitake has been long revered in East Asian culture for good reason. As mentioned, shiitaki is an excellent source for nutrition and lots of benefits:

Cholesterol- Looking to live longer but not willing to sacrifice hamburger? Consume shiitake en mass. Eritadenine not only prevents weight gain, but also fights bad cholesterol. Those dealing with the likes of thrombosis should definitely make this mushroom part of their daily diet, as it also helps against blood clots and the like. While no excuse to indulge in saturated fats, shiitake lowers cholesterol like no other.

Immunity– That same lentinan which potentially stunts weight gain provides a major boost for the immune system. Those who eat shiitake can feel assured their nutritional staple is suspected to be more effective than most antibiotics at dealing with everything from HIV to influenza.

Iron– A mighty mineral, iron is necessary for our blood and energy. Those dealing with iron deficiency anemia would do well to include shiitake mushrooms in their diet.

Cancer- Lentinan not only boosts the immune system, but also helps prevent cancerous tumors from developing. Overall, studies demonstrate that cancer patients administered lentinan survive longer and feel better.

Shiitake Intake Options & Problems (Shiitake Supplements & Risks)

Shiitake aren’t exactly truffles, but they aren’t cheap either. Those serious about shiitake can find supplements that range from 500 mg to 1000. The supplements aren’t candy, though. Too much of any mineral, vitamin, or acid is either useless or bad for you, shiitake included. Most particularly, overdoing shiitake can result in:

shiitake cultivation

Gout– Shiitaki contains purines, which is broken down to form uric acid, a known cause of gout. Those susceptible to purines or already dealing with gout should steer clear of shiitake, but it would take an incredibly large amount of the fungus to give someone this ailment.

Kidney Stones- Like gout, kidney stones can result from uric acid. Also like gout, it takes a whole lot of shiitake to develop kidney stones. However, those already dealing with the issue would do best to avoid the fungus.

Dermatitis– Shitake can also result in temporary dermatitis. Generally, this results if lots of shiitake is consumed undercooked or raw. Lentinan causes the rash, which is too bad- as mentioned, it’s a known immunity booster, tumor buster, and fat fighter. Such reactions are rare. In fact, it’s suspected that only 2% of the population should avoid uncooked shiitake.

All in all, most anybody can enjoy shiitake or take supplemental extracts. Just know your preexisting conditions- but seriously, who doesn’t notice something like gout?

4 Alternative Barcelona Travel Resources

Travel guidebooks, no matter the publisher, are frequently filled with pages about the art, music, literary icons and food of their chosen destinations. Almost all travellers to a given city will name at least one of these three as a prime motivation for their trip. But just as there are often vast discrepancies between a guidebook’s description of a place and the way each person actually finds it there are very different things that can be learned from utilizing these culture points as the guides themselves. This is true of many parts of world, but none more so than the city of Barcelona where a brief survey of artistic representations of the city, and study of the foods created there can be a far better guide than any you’ll find in a bookstore’s travel section.  This is alternative Barcelona.

 The “King of Spain” Concept

For a quick glance at this art as guidebook theory I’ll stick to three main works specifically picked for a traveller/outsider preparing to visit Barcelona: one song, one novel, and one film. Though still relatively unknown the solo singer/guitarist Kristian Matsson who performs under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth gained a devoted following from his second album, The Wild Hunt, which features a track entitled “King of Spain.” I should mention that Matsson is Swedish and the song is far about the singer/narrator than about Spain itself, but his reflections and impressions of being an outsider in Spain are a good starting place to begin thinking about your trip. The chorus of the song proclaims, “If you could reinvent my name…I want to be the King of Spain.” Matsson is really expressing two concepts that are uniquely in sync in Barcelona: a desire to transform/change and a sense of command and ownership of your time there. Barcelona is very welcoming and very insulated at the same time. Locals are proud of their Catalan identity and can be unforgiving of being referred to as “Spanish.” Yet the large sidewalks lined with quaint tables and chairs where patrons sit and dine so late into the night you could almost call it early in the morning are nothing if not inviting. Waiters and Chefs, who are without a doubt eager to please for a tip, are genuinely proud of the food and culture and happy to make you a temporary part of their lives. Feeling as though you are forced to assimilate—“reinvent my name,”—and the star of your own little story—“the King of Spain”—is an apt way to prepare yourself for your adventure here.

Beauty at Every Turn

These late night dinners and quaint outdoor settings are the main stages on which Woody Allen’s film Vicky Cristina Barcelona takes place, which adds a visual element to the guide started with Matsson’s music. The film, again centering around two outsiders spending a summer in Barcelona, may be satirical but the sometimes overblown beauty of the setting, landscapes, and architecture has some spot on advice for the beauty-seeking traveller. Only a small amount of time in the film shows the more “standard” aesthetic stops (the Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, etc) and they are far from the most visually striking scenes.

barcelona panoramic

The concept here is clear and accurate: much as you may want to see the landmarks, and well you should, Barcelona is a city with visuals to take in on nearly every block that should not be overlooked just because you are en route to get in a two-hour line at Guadí’s church. The “King of Spain” mindset runs deep with locals for who beauty is something to create for themselves not merely let happen around them and giving yourself plenty of time to simply take in your surroundings will be just as rewarding as the more planned out attractions.

A Different Kind of Travel Book

Though still keeping away from traditional guidebooks, the abstract feelings about Barcelona found in Matsson’s music and visual appetite wetting of Vicky Cristina…all come together with real, meaningful insights into a traveller’s experience of the city in Colm Toibin’s novel The South. The story follows an Irish artist who moves to Barcelona and the writing is as alive as the city itself with depictions of the people, places, food, and culture you’ll encounter today despite being set in the 1950s. I wouldn’t want to spoil your experience of reading the novel with too many details but do take this novel into consideration as you map out your time in Barcelona. Another book you may find even more informative is Barcelona by cultural critic Robert Hughes, which despite being nonfiction still carries a great story and beautiful writing to its detailing of the city and mirrors many of the points we’ve seen and heard from the music and movie—“It is possible, some days, to see the whole of Barcelona with your feet on the ground,” the book begins. Guidebooks are so quick to mention the artistic highlights in informative but often dry descriptions. Use more of your planning time to find cheap flights to let yourself get lost in a great read during rather than plot every moment of your time on the ground. Do not discredit what music, film, and literature have to say about a city where art is a main attraction.

Catalan Cooking

Guidebooks will always offer great advice on the best places to savor the local flavors of any city, but in Barcelona doing some of your own “homework” with regards to food can go a long way. Food is an integral part of Catalan identity, so much so that the first ever cookbook written in any of the Romance languages was in Catalan. While you may not find yourself doing a large amount of cooking while travelling it can still be beneficial to study up and even try making some Barcelona favorites at home to get a feel for food culture. A large staple of the cuisine is centered on the concept of Mar i Muntanya—sea and mountains—frequently featuring combinations of chicken and shrimp or related land and sea delights. Mixing the sweet and savory is also very common in stews, pasta sauces, and soups. Additionally, presentation will go a long way in your understanding of Catalan cuisine, of which the most well known practice is tapas.

catalan cooking

Tapas is more than just a fun way to try many different dishes and learning to eat in the manner of a local can be as important as eating the foods themselves. As we’ve seen in Toibin’s novel and Woody Allen’s film meals are large and late affairs but the days starts no later in Barcelona than anywhere else. While American and British culture may have adapted tapas into appetizers right before a meal, the tapas portion of the day in Barcelona (generally around noon between lunch at 2-4pm and dinner at 9-11pm) is an important social aspect to Catalan culture. Work, politics, and preparations for the rest of the day/evening are all integral discussion topics during tapas dining. Getting used to the kinds of food and ways of eating common in Barcelona can give you a leg up on what to seek out, how to identify authentic cuisines from microwaved tourist traps (as I unfortunately found myself on my first day in the city), and how to map out your day to integrate yourself with the local crowd, conversation, and culture. Follow the food, not the restaurant.

In truth there is so much to see and do in Barcelona that you can choose any of a hundred different ways to research and spend your time there and the artistic and edible route is by no means an all-encompassing view of the city. But some universally applicable food for thought (pun intended) is that travel guidebooks are meant to do just that, guide your travel, not dictate it step by step. So long as you don’t stray to unwelcoming or unsafe parts of town, Barcelona is a city with so much beauty to see, hear, and eat as well as a place where getting lost can offer a special kind of beauty to the traveller seeking line-less sightseeing and a slice of local life.

3 Ways Out of the Airport: Who is at Fault and How to Get Flying Fast

There are thousands who can relate to the news over the past two weeks of Edward Snowden’s Moscow Airport excursion. Few, I would hope, can relate to being on the run from the United States government, but life at the airport is something even the most moderate traveller can speak to. For those who have experienced cancelled, delayed, missed, or overbooked flights, it would be hard to imagine Snowden faces a more severe punishment than such a purgatorial existence. There are essentially three major cases in which most travellers find themselves stuck in limbo and navigating you’re way around each is an important part of any sojourner’s toolkit.

The Airline’s Fault

The first most common cause of delayed or missed flights is decidedly the most frustrating but can be the easiest to navigate around: blame the airline. These are most often maintenance-related delays and due to the belt-tightening by airlines in recent years, using fewer planes for stranger routes, these can and often do occur with absolutely no warning until you are in line at the gate. If a delay looks like it’s going to cause you to miss a connection, composure and quick communication is key. Before you open your mouth the only problem is your missed flight. If you approach a desk attendant with rage and anger your mood becomes a new problem to solve first. This is both human nature and standard customer service procedure. Most airlines will rebook you onto a new flight plan or even endorse your ticket to another carrier at no charge so that you can make your arrival at your final destination relatively close to your expected time.

Sounds easy enough, right? Still there are several key details to this strategy you MUST keep in mind. According to the US Department of Transportation airlines do not guarantee any flight times and there are absolutely no federal regulations regarding what airlines can or must do in the event of delayed and cancelled flights. For example, United Airlines’ policy states that they will try to rebook you if you are delayed more than two hours but makes several exceptions to this: “when the delay of cancellation is due to something beyond our control we typically do not rebook customers on other airlines.” They also go on to state that rebooking on other airlines is not typically done in Chicago, New York, Newark, San Francisco, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Guam, Washington DC, Denver, or Cleveland. Not like a lot of people travel to or through those places anyway…

Researching as many possible flights and airlines as you can before your trip will help you avoid the shock, if not the frustration, of being caught in this situation. It’s also important to remember that airlines go out of their way to make sure you can’t communicate with the people who are really able to say what’s going on. The customer service representative you deal with is not a pilot, air traffic control operator, or maintenance worker. Think of this as a collaborative problem solving, not a “me vs. you” situation and you’re bound to have better luck making your case.

More on Airline Responsibilities: Check out author Andrew Thomas’ thoughts on “Rule 240”  


The Traveller’s Fault

In the second case of airport detention, your humility will beat out any research or logical argument you can make. Hard as it is to admit traffic, long lines, and security delays are considered your fault as far as missed flights are concerned. If you thought airlines had no actual responsibility when delays where their fault, wait till the blame falls on you. Few if any airlines are willing to do much beyond tell you when the next available flight is and ask for your credit card if you miss a flight. But there’s another way to view what seems like the easiest way to lose a few hundred dollars. If there’s no policy requiring an airline to help you it means there’s nothing restricting them from helping you either. Booking a standby ticket can be scary for some, unless you have access to the flight manifest and can tell how full or empty a plane may be; not all one-way flights are automatically grouped together to build a flight plan on airline websites unless they are profitable enough for the airline to sell; airline mergers are a common news topic these days but frequently only the big names get attention while there are many smaller airlines whose flights can be booked by the big guys even though the general public may not be aware. All this information is something that may be hard for the self-directed traveller to find but airline desk attendants can readily tell you the manifest for most any flight, what other flights are running that day, and what other airlines they are partnered with. Take advantage of the freedom of this policy-free area of airline regulations and again make your desk attendant a comrade, not nemesis.


Look at’s Hacker Fares for help here as well          

“Acts of God”

The most vague aspect of traveller rights, airline responsibilities, and all around travel planning is what’s commonly referred to as an “act of god”. Weather, mechanical failure of an unrelated plane stuck on the tarmac, or even problems at your arrival airport, potentially halfway around the world can stall your plane’s departure. These instances are neither your, the traveller’s, fault nor the airlines and so knowing who to contact and how to go about rebooking can be tricky.

In addition to calm and friendly communication and proper planning, these instances will typically involve a bit more flexibility on your part than the other two. Jennifer Alford of the business travel service provider Concur said on their blog, “in my experience, the airlines will do all they can to ensure that you are back in the air as quickly as possible,” and that airlines frequently do not charge passengers to rebook due to weather-related issues. But this courtesy will likely only extend to flights within that airline and it would be rare you’d be the only one vying for a new seat so standby on potentially overbooked flights is a real probability.

There are still some options that while not ideal, can take a little of the edge off. Hotel/flight packages are common in the travel industry these days and if you can relinquish your need to get on the absolutely first flight you can, you may be able to find a great deal with the help of a desk attendant and pay significantly less for both the plane and hotel room than you would jumping from gate to gate waiting standby until the last plane leaves you with no recourse but to book a room anyway. Additionally, as opposed to instances of traffic or single flight delays, “acts of God” tend to affect most if not all the passengers in the airport who all have different flight plans and time restrictions. Look to your fellow groundlings to see if someone has to give up a seat on a flight you yourself could wait and take. Don’t forget to give as much as you receive in these cases, when you have little else to go on, karma can’t hurt.

airline responsibilities
Photo credit: TheeErin

You don’t have to be dodging treason charges to feel caught between a rock and a hard place when flights are delayed or cancelled. Some final thoughts to keep in mind as you plan and prepare for your trips: you are in worse shape than someone else at the airport and someone else is in a lot worse shape than you are, always, every time. A depressing way to look at it may be that when it comes to air travel things can always get worse but I prefer to see the glass as half-full: you are never in as big of a bind as you think. It’s also important no matter of which of the three instances mentioned above you find yourself in that due to the unpredictable nature of flying, there are no hard and fast rules. Depending on whose fault a missed flight is an airline may be more likely to use certain practices over others but nothing is set in stone.

Use fellow travellers, compassion for those trying to assist you, and a wide view of what possibilities may exist rather than take a black and white approach to missed flights. Finally, know that for financial and logistical purposes it is far less in an airline’s interest to keep you on the ground than to get you on a plane as quickly as possible. You’ve already paid for your seat so the quicker they can get you out of a line and get new customers in, the better. Be an opportunist rather than an antagonist and take the best course of action to get you on the quickest course towards your destination.

The Ugliest Place on Earth

The ugliest place on earth lies between two places that are always, inevitably, far more appealing than this one. The only reason to ever visit this place is to get to one of these other places. If the ugliest place on earth becomes a destination it loses everything ugly about it and then there is little reason to see it at all.

It starts about an hour west of Austin, Texas. Or an hour south of Santa Fe, New Mexico; an hour east of Tucson, Arizona. It’s a place that is many places, places without names and often without any people in it. When I discovered it I was on I-10, the highway that runs from California to Florida, clear across the southern tip of the United States. It’s West Texas, it’s coal country Pennsylvania, it’s eastern Oregon, it’s Southall outside of London, it’s Dharavi in Mumbai. It’s all the places of the world that the world has selected to fit this category. For me, it was West Texas.

Texas is often noted for it’s massive size, for the seemingly endless swath of time you can spend just travelling from one end of the state to the other. On I-10, it is just under 1,000 miles end to end; a third of the entire country ocean to ocean. But what is seldom mentioned is what happens to the landscape as you make this trek. On the eastern edge, bordering Louisiana, Texas is a swamp, green and lush but thickly green not crisply green like in the Northeast or Pacific Northwest. west texas landscapeLeaving Central Texas, most easily identified as Austin, you enter Hill Country and you are for the first time assured that you are distinctly in Texas now. The rolling hills are a quiet kind of yellow, sanded and scorched but not quiet desert country, and they are dotted with a combination of Southwestern Prickly Pears and more lush Fragrant Ash trees. It’s a quiet back and forth that even the most nature-resistant traveller can’t help but take note of.

Eventually, we come to the towns. Again in a wholly unique and uniquely Texas manner each town looks exactly like the one before it yet either by their individual nature or their cumulative volume they tell a story as big as the state itself. They all look as if they once offered large promises and aspirations for new residents and in a funny way, even in their dilapidated states, they still preach that gospel of possibility. Each town’s colors tend to mirror the part of Texas they inhabit rather than complement or balance them out. The further west you go the more yellow and scorched the gas stations and houses, always a few boarded up, look. The entire towns are always very low to the ground, almost as if to appear born straight from the earth itself. But compared to parts of the country far more lush and irrigated, these places are entirely man-made. There is no soil to seed or tree to tap. For a house to stand in these towns it must always be in battle with nature; trying to cool the unbearable heat and quench the thirst of the air and inhabitants alike.

These towns start out separated by about fifty miles but become far more infrequent. They do not grow in size, they do not offer more for the long distance traveller and for this reason what they do offer becomes more and more valuable. The convenience store you passed two hundred miles back until you could find a more recognizable chain becomes more than welcomed by the time you get around Van Horn, Texas. It’s not even convenience anymore, it’s dinner. For many, this is the ugliness in full force, travel becoming survival. But baseline survival can be an incredibly rewarding style of travel. It can make the unwanted, embraced and the ugly something to marvel at.

where is west texas located

There’s certainly something voyeuristic about viewing your travels like this, embracing beauty in “ugliness” and finding other people’s daily life as a form of survival. Part of it is truly the burden of necessity with so few routes to take you the full 1,000 miles and so few reasons to seek out these places as destinations in their own right. To combat this approach to West Texas or any of the other ugliest places on earth while still maintaining this openness and appreciation for that which makes it worth at least passing through, try to think of the destinations you get to on this route (New Orleans, Austin, El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, Los Angeles) as much as markers of how far you’ve traveled as destinations to get to. These in between places, particularly the “ugly” ones are more reflective of you—neither here nor there, unknown and often unknowable—than the cities or landmarks you think you’re seeking out. Be like the low yellow houses of West Texas and mirror your surroundings rather than cover them up. You might be surprised how much beauty you encounter.

By Jake Sorgen

There’s Something Fishy in Tokyo – Tsukiji market

The wondrous Tsukiji market

When westerners get in their cars every morning, it’s safe to say very few think actively and empathetically for the assembly-line workers who built the machine; the burns, cuts, or scars production may have caused them, or even their deteriorating health from years in factory life. The same could be said for construction workers who build our homes, or even the ER nurses working forty-eight hour shifts to make sure we are healthy. What doesn’t fit into this category, what is increasingly scorned and mourned publicly, is the toll that is taken on all those associated with the food we eat. We have become, on a general level, much more conscious of what goes into our bodies and how it gets there.

Who is harmed or treated unfairly to put this slab on our plate? How are the original sources (the cows, pigs, and yes even the soil contaminated to make vegetables grow larger and quicker) being abused? These issues surround no one food source more than the Japanese fish trade, which in Tokyo at least comes to a head as a world-renown destination and darkly-viewed ground zero for these issues.

Tsukiji market  Tuna

This issue is so vast, and our time to travel and explore is often so limited that we’ll restrict our view into Tokyo as a travel destination and learning opportunity through the eyes of my personal favorite kind of fish: sushi. One of the first things you’ll notice, or at least should be on the look out for, is how much of the fresh authentic sushi that you’ll find in almost any restaurant is more likely to have been caught ten miles from your home than it was even one hundred miles from your restaurant.

Nearly a quarter of all Bluefin tuna imported into Japan comes from the United States, and that’s just one fish. The sushi trade has been as lauded as it’s been criticized for it’s comparatively pure reliance on supply and demand. As governments have more and more protected the Bluefin tuna, its demand has gone up. Early this year, one Bluefin sold at the famous Tsukiji fish market auction for $1.8 million USD.

But this is meant to encourage your exploration, not discourage your sense of what makes Tokyo sushi authentic. The Tsukiji market’s Outer-Market is loaded with retailors for personal consumption while the auctions and wholesale trade takes place in the Inner-Market. Browsing through the market it seems there are two ways of seeing the fish before you: you can hold firm to the irrationality of these tuna flown in from New England to sell to locals, as well as New England tourists, a food that forty years ago was considered disgusting by most Americans and Europeans.

Or you can see what is still beautiful about the Japanese relationship to these fish. Many of the markets that import from around the world send “tuna techs” as they are known to New England, Spain, Croatia, and the other tuna exporting countries to teach fisherman how to properly catch, cut, and determine which fish are of the proper quality to be sold at Tsukiji. It may seem neurotic or controlling but it is neither. It comes from a place of pride and respect for the fish and consumers alike.

Auctioneer at Tsukiji market

Locals and in-the-know activists will surely have their own views on where to travel to get the “truth” about the international fish trade but for curious travelers and non-ideological investigators, Tokyo should be embraced specifically for the range of views one can take away from it. Moving beyond the market, an important part of any investigatory trip is to view your subject “in action.”

The small restaurants Daisho Siusan, Tonsui, and Sushi Sawada are frequently praised as the best of the more traditional end of the sushi spectrum. Also make sure to carve out some time to visit restaurants featuring the distinctly Japanese, kaitenzushi method of serving. Also known as “conveyor belt sushi” these restaurants often have no menus and very few servers.

Instead a long conveyer belt with plates of one or two pieces of sushi roves its way throughout the restaurant and patrons pick and choose the bites they want. The plates are often colored different to represent the price of each piece. This is as entertaining an experience as it is eye opening.

The lack of westernized sushi entrees like the ubiquitous  Sushi/Sashimi Combination For Two is reflective of the respect for the fish themselves and the food as its own cultural institution. Sushi is to be savored not merely ingested.
More “contemporary” approaches to the cuisine can be found almost anywhere but I recommend seeking out those who hold as true as possible to the ancient ethos of sushi culture to get the best understanding of how this fish is regarded and, perhaps, why some are willing to do almost anything to keep it available.  The catching and trading of sushi-grade fish is not a perfect system but not all those involved with the trade are out to do harm to consumers or the fish themselves. It’s a complex relationship that is best understood on the personal level.

Spending time at the Tsukiji market and taking several hours to eat one piece at a time will if nothing else bring you closer to understanding, if not totally approving of, the journey these fish take throughout our physical and cultural lives. And for many, that is precisely what sushi in Tokyo is all about.

There’s Something Fishy in Tokyo (And It’s American Made)

By T.S. Allen