If there's one thing everyone thinks of when thinking of Japan, it's fish. Sushi, deadly puffer fish, sashimi, sea urchin and more! Fish is one of Japan's biggest exports, and the best place to see where it comes from and how it gets to tables all over the world is at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Located in the lower east side of Tokyo, the market sits between the Sumida River and the luxury shopping district of Ginza. Professional chefs and homemakers alike make the rounds here every day to searching out the best for their family and their customers.
Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the world's largest fish markets, and within this enormous building they sell over 2,000 tonnes of ocean delicacies per day. The market is open most mornings as early as 3 am (except Sundays, holidays and some Wednesdays) for local buyers - tourists must arrive later in the day. Fish comes in from the sea, air and even by truck from all over the world to be sold in these tiny, ramshackle shops.
Hours & Access
Tsukiji market is located near the Tsukijishijō Station on the Toei Ōedo Line and Tsukiji Station on the Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line. The market is made up of two areas: the inner markets (where you'll find all the wholesale shops) and the outer market where you'll find retail shops and restaurants. Getting to Tsujiki can seem confusing at first because the main entrance is not easily marked (on purpose) and the opening times seem to change on a daily basis. 9 am was originally the time when tourists would be let inside the market but now that time has been pushed back to 10 am. Over the years, the market's infrastructure has been rapidly ageing as it was not originally designed to accommodate the slew of tourists who now visit.
The fish market has now become one of Tokyo's major tourist attractions, and as such, the building has seen more foot traffic inside than it ever expected to have. The buyers and sellers who work here have also become more than a little bit annoyed at the tourists getting in their way when they're just trying to go about their daily lives.
I understand the dilemma as someone who shops at the world famous the St. Lawrence market in Toronto. I am constantly bothered by tourists taking up space not buying anything when I'm trying to do my weekly shopping. That being said, I was looking forward to seeing the market myself, so I appreciate that the city is trying to find a balance between letting the customers do their shopping without a selfie stick in the face, and letting tourists see this place in action.
As 10 am approached, we made our way to where we thought one of the entrances was. We had to line up with about two dozen other tourists before we were let inside. Workers transporting boxes of fish zoomed about, willy nilly on their "turret trucks", notorious for running into tourists who aren't paying attention.
Visitors are told not to enter areas restricted to authorised personnel, not to obstruct traffic, not to bring large bags or suitcases, not to enter the market in high heeled shoes or sandals, not to bring small children or pets, not to smoke in the market and, most importantly, not to touch anything! If you are acutally trying to purchase something, this can be difficult as a tourist since they aren't really used to people buying - just looking. Start by showing them the money first and then pointing to the item. They'll see you're serious and will happily pack up whatever you're interested in. Despite being a "market" there is no haggling here - the prices are firm so don't try to get a "deal".
Between 60,000 to 65,000 workers/buyers come through these doors every day, we are just visiting, this is their house. The least we can do is respect their rules and try to keep out of their way.
When we were finally let inside, we could see the last of the busy sellers and buyers hurrying about. Things had significantly died down from the frenzied scenes I'd seen on TV and in documentaries about the market. Most of the shops were actually closed, but there were still a few aisles open where fishmongers were still selling the remainder of their catch.
The wholesale area of the market consists of over 900 small shops crowded into the large, central hall. In here you can find over 400 different types of seafood! Whether you have a hundred dollars or just a few yen, there is something here at any price point.
Every day more than 700,000 metric tonnes of seafood are sold inside this building. That equals more than 5.9 billion dollars US in profits every year just in this market alone.
The first unofficial fish market was first established during the Edo period. Fishmongers were invited to come into town to sell fish to the royal family in the Edo castle. Any of the fish not good enough to be bought by the Royals was sold on Nihonbashi bridge to the common people.
They dubbed this area, "fish quay". For years this was the way most fish was sold but after the 1918 "rice riots" the government needed to establish a centralised distribution centre where food was sold in urban areas. And the area now known as Tsujiki Market was created in 1923.
Tuna is by far the most important item that comes into the market every day. So much so that there are tuna actions every morning at 5 am. Tonnes and tonnes of tuna comes into the market but not all of it is the same quality, and people have been known to fight over the best "nama-maguro" around.
The tuna auction is open to the public but getting a spot is almost as hard as getting a ticket to Hamilton. The number of visitors allowed inside with a designated tour guide is limited to 120 per day. People line up to secure their spot as early as 3 am since it's a first come first serve operation, no reservations. If you're fighting that jet lag and can't sleep or are awake extra early, this is the perfect activity for you! If you get a spot, you'll get the chance to see the unique dance that is the tune auction. First, the buyers come in to inspect the fish and decide what they want to bid on. Next, comes the auction, when a fast-talking man shouts out prices at lighting speed. The prize goes to the highest bidder, and the tuna heads off as fast as the sale over to their stall inside the market. Owners then prepare the fish for either sale in the market or distribution. The large frozen tunas are cut into smaller pieces with large band saws and extremely long knives (some well over a meter in length) called Maguro bōchō.
Many stores in the market specialise only in tuna. There are many varieties to choose from. There is the "oo-toro" (fatty-tuna) which is the most expensive and most delicious (in my opinion). Then there is the "chu-toro" (the belly area of the tuna) and finally the "akami" (the leaner meat from the sides and the least expensive).
What to See
But there is more to the market than just the tuna. In hundreds of styrofoam contains across the market floor (literally sometimes on the floor) you'll find the freshest catch of the day. Everything is seasonal, so there's always something new to scope out.
These giant clams were definitely the most interesting thing we saw. Their tentacle-like muscles were moving around like snakes in the water, creepy and cool.
Foreign (to North American pallets) and gourmet foods on offers here include the famed salted, pickled mullet roe (karasumi). This delicacy is known in Japan as one of the three "chinmis". Karasumi is made by salting mullet roe and drying it by the sunlight. Although it's pretty pricey, the umami flavour is unlike anything else and is much like caviar in taste and luxury status.
Another "chinmi" is the sought after sea urchin (uni). Many people come to Japan never having tried sea urchin but it is a very popular sushi dish here, and you can't escape without trying it. Sea urchin is the animal's gonads, and although it sounds a little off-putting, it is one of the best tasting foods out there. It tastes like ocean butter and it's rich and creamy texture is unrivaled. It is also very expensive and can vary widely in price depending on the region it was caught, the gender and even the urchin's diet. Generally, the brighter and more colourful, the better the uni.
The octopus tentacles hanging out on display were as large as the ones I've only ever seen before in aquariums! Truly, the best of the best here.
Sea snails are very much like their earthly brethren and are used in Japanese cooking much like escargot is cooked in France. The shells and bodies are slightly bigger though so you don't need an entire tray to fill you up.
An essential ingredient to any piece of sushi is the wasabi. Most wasabi we're accustomed to in North America is just horseradish dyed green and is nothing like the real wasabi root from Japan. The market had box upon box of the real stuff and even just smelling it from a foot away, you could tell how intense and aromatic the real thing is.
By 1 pm, the workers come in to clean the guts and dirt off the floor and start to usher tourists out. Water sprays all over the place so be sure not to wear your best shoes. I got sprayed a few times and stepped in my fair share of fishy puddles. It was all part of the experience, and I certainly didn't mind, but it is something to be wary of.
A few fishmongers were reading the local newspaper and having smoke as we left. Waiting for the remainder of tourists to filter out before they could get on with their day. Overall, I got the feeling that we weren't wanted there. Which again, I really do understand. The market is due to move to a new building in 2017/2018 to make room for all the tourists and influx of more wholesalers. Perhaps the new location will allow for a happy medium between the locals and tourists. Only time can tell. In the meantime, keep expectations to a minimum and make sure you know what you're in for. It's an amazing place and even seeing it as it winds down was something very special.