Anyone that’s curious about food cannot go to Tokyo without visiting its famous Tsukiji fish market. More than just a market, it’s a city, really, with 2,000 tons of almost 500 different types of seafood handled every day. If you think these numbers are impressive, here’s more: 700,000 metric tons of seafood are handled every year at Tokyo’s fish markets, with a total value in excess of 600 billion yen (approximately 5.5 billion US dollars); and around 65,000 people work in and around the markets, including wholesalers, accountants, auctioneers, company officials, and distributors.
A day at the Tsukiji market is like clockwork: Every day, fish and seafood that will be sold the next day start to arrive at around 5 p.m. by ship, truck and plane from all around the world. At 3 a.m. the next morning, workers start inspecting and laying out the goods that will be sold at the daily auction. At 5:30 a.m., the auction starts and the tuna received on the day usually sells out very quickly. By 7 a.m., the goods sold at the auction are taken away by vendors and resellers that bring them to their stalls at the market and start preparing them so that caterers, chefs and customers can buy them. Retailers who have shops elsewhere into the city load the fish and seafood they bought at the auction into their trucks and carry them away to sell them on the day. The market is at its busiest between 8 and 10 am. when most of the customer purchases occur. By 11 a.m., the market quiets down and vendors start to clean up their stalls. At 1 p.m. the market is closed: styrofoam crates are heat-treated and recycled and the cleaning is finished by a sprinkler truck spraying water. The market is now ready for the next day’s transactions.
Needless to say, a visit to Tsukiji market is very impressive – or, should I say, jaw-dropping. That’s exactly how I wandered around the market, jaw-dropped, impressed and filled with wonder. I don’t think I said anything more than “oooh” or “aaah” while we walked swiftly around the market, trying to stay out of the busy workers’ way. Before visiting Tsukiji, it’s fair to say I was a fish and seafood neophyte: I had only ever bought filleted fish and had never been fishing before, so this was a very interesting and eye-opening visit. In just over an hour, I saw more species than I ever knew could be eaten (or even existed). I was impressed by the market’s tidiness (even though it was incredibly busy), by the utter freshness of its products (as attested by the *non-existing* fish smell throughout the market, which I’m still puzzled about: how is that even possible with that many tons of fish handled every day?), and by the workers – always moving, always busy, but always polite, even though we kept getting in their way.
Of course, we ended the experience by eating sushi at 10:30 a.m., rubbing elbows with workers, aficionados and tourists at one of the minuscule sushi shops located right in front of the wholesale area. There, we were able to take a deep breath after so much action, and enjoy some of the beautiful fresh fish we had just seen at the market. All in all, our experience lasted around two hours, after which we walked through the outer market, visiting knife-making artisan shops, tasting candies, nuts and spices, and learning more about seasonal produce in Tokyo.
Guiding us through the visit was Mika, from Tokyo Food Tour. As a Japanese chef and caterer who trained at San Francisco’s Cordon Bleu Academy, she was very knowledgeable and guided us expertly through the market. I’m very thankful that she was there, because she literally acted as our culinary translator – knowing what we were looking at and learning what Japanese cooks make with each product was endlessly interesting. I feel that a visit to the Tsukiji Market without a guide would be like visiting a contemporary art exhibition without an audio tour: you’re missing so much because you’re left trying to figure out things by yourself. I learned so much – not only about fish and seafood, but also about Tokyo’s history and Japanese cuisine – that this tour might have been my best investment of the trip.
Our guide, Mika, on the right, with an old lady tending a booth at the market.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t go to the early morning tuna auction. For one, we stayed on the opposite side of town and we would have had to get up crazy early to make it there on time (so early, in fact, that the metro wasn’t even operating yet) and we didn’t really want to get up in the middle of the night. Also, the number of visitors allowed in is strictly limited and so you have to get in line before 5:00 a.m. to stand a chance of being admitted on a first come, first serve basis (as there are frequently more people waiting than can be allowed in). Finally, we had a tour booked with Mika starting at 9:00 a.m. For all of these reasons, we decided to forego the auction. A first visit to Tsukiji was already overwhelming enough that I preferred being well rested to be able to enjoy the market until its closing time, than tired and yawning by sunrise. It’s a personal choice; I know the tuna auction is worth seeing, but I feel fulfilled by what I saw at the market itself so don’t regret our decision. Maybe that’s something I’ll do when I go back to Tokyo (fingers crossed!).
The best way to guide you through my visit at the Tsukiji market is with pictures and videos. Enjoy! If you have questions about the market or the tour we’ve taken, don’t hesitate to ask, or scroll down to the bottom of this post for a list of resources.
First, here’s a video composed of several short films E took while walking through the market. You’ll notice how quiet it feels, which isn’t at all an indicator of how busy the market was. In Japan, you quickly learn that busy doesn’t have to be noisy.
Picture perfect eel fillets:
Just one of the hundreds of beautiful fish and seafood displays:
Drooling over gorgeous uni (sea urchin):
We happened to walk by a tuna stall when three men lifted a huge piece of red tuna to cut out a 7-lb. fillet out of it. They were so solemn and serious about it, it felt like a ceremony. We were told that the part they cut out was the very best and most expensive part of the fish and that it had probably been sold to one of Tokyo’s most prestigious sushi restaurants.
Here is a short video of the event:
More tuna, elsewhere in the market:
Frozen pieces of tuna:
A man tending his booth. The guy is still wearing a wet suit. Yes, really.
In-season salmon eggs:
Fish, fish and more fish:
Coming out of the market:
Cleaning up after a busy morning:
To see more pictures of the market, or high-resolution versions of the pictures above, see my Flickr set.
Resources and links:
- Food Tours in Tokyo:
Contact Mika at Tokyo Food Tour
- More info about Tsukiji Market: