Spotlight: Tsukiji Market (Tokyo)

I have to preface this entry with a word of caution: a year from now, this post may be obsolete. Why? Because the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (what we all know simply by its location – Tsukiji) has been scheduled to move to outside of the city center for, oh, quite a few years now. Why the holdup? Oh, just the minor matter of toxic substances being found at the new site and a mandatory cleanup period. Sadly, it doesn’t instill much confidence in the safety of the fish I am ingesting.

But I digress … this post is about the original Tsukiji Market, the one that looks a bit worse for wear but that still doles out the region’s seafood in the wee hours of the morning in the Tsukiji neighborhood just east of Ginza. When I lived in Tokyo, I actually could see the roofs of Tsukiji’s inner market from my apartment window and I did, on occasion, walk over with guests to see the early morning auction. But never did I do the “full tourist” – witness the 5am tuna auction and then chow down on fresh fresh sushi in one of the market’s restaurants. So on my trip up to Tokyo two weeks ago, I decided to remedy that before the market moves for good.

Shopping at Tsukiji Market
Shopping at Tsukiji Market

For those of you interested in the tuna auction, let me just say … DO NOT be late. In fact, don’t be early either. Be REALLY early. The office that signs in visitors to the tuna auction officially opens at 5am. ONLY the first 120 visitors are permitted  – anyone over that number is turned away. This can be a heartbreaking prospect for anyone who’s trekked down here in the wee hours by (expensive) taxi. And when they say the office opens at 5am, that’s a bit of a misnomer. They open the doors before 4am and if the quota is met early, as it was the day I went, then so be it.

Yes, that’s right. 4am. I stayed in a hotel just a few blocks from the market and figured that getting to Tsukji by 4:10am would absolutely guarantee me a spot. In fact, I was almost wrong. By the time I arrived, I was already about the 80th person in line. The 120 people are split into two groups to view the auction and judging by the color of the vest I received, it was clear I was already in group two. Wow. By 4:20am, a full 40 minutes before the office even opened, the quota had been met. (For reference, this was a Monday morning in mid-May.)

Waiting around at 4:30am
Waiting around at 4:30am

Being in the second group, my viewing time for the auction wasn’t until 5:50am. (Group 1 goes in from 5:25-5:50; Group 2 from 5:50-6:15.) A video with instructions on how to act in the market played on loop but after the first few minutes, no one really paid attention. (All visitors receive a printed flyer as well). When it came time to view the auction, we were led single file across the busy market to a building where massive frozen tunas were laid out for inspection. Buyers – easily identified by the nametags pinned to the front of their hats – moved from fish to fish, poking and prodding to check for quality. Every now and again, an auctioneer would move in and hold a brief auction. Usually no more than ten tuna were auctioned off at a time and the minute reactions of the buyers made it impossible to tell who had bid on what fish.

Tuna at the morning auction
Tuna at the morning auction

And then, all too soon, it was over. We were walked back to an office to return our vests and we were set loose. The problem is, at this hour, you’re not allowed to enter the inner market. While there is no one actually policing this rule, PLEASE PLEASE do not be the traveler that disrespects the desire of Tsukiji Market to be left to their own business until 9am. After 9am, you are free to wander the covered area without worry of impeding the city’s chefs and buyers.

Fresh fish
Fresh fish

In the meantime, you can always eat. 🙂 The restaurants and stalls in the outer market are usually open by 6am. If you need to tick some boxes on your life list, feel free to join the queues at Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi, two of the reputedly best stands there. If you just want to eat some ridiculously fresh fish, consider one of the quieter stalls. I had a lovely set breakfast – about 9 pieces of sushi and a delicious bowl of mushroom miso soup for ¥2657 – at Sushi Bun.

Sushi bun
Sushi bun

Is Tsukiji worth the early morning wake up call? I suppose that depends on your interest in seafood and the trappings of a real workaday market. If you want to see exactly where the tuna on your plate comes from, there’s no better opportunity.

For up to date information on the market’s visitor policy, visit the Tsukiji Market English homepage.

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