One of the things I was most looking forward to while in Japan was visiting was the fish market in Tokyo.
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I know what you’re thinking. Why a fish market of all things?! It seems like such a strange thing to want to see when traveling!
I guess you’re right. It sounds smelly and wet, plus there are tons of people everywhere and you’d just be getting in the way. But the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market is not just any market. It’s the world’s largest and busiest wholesale fish and seafood market (not to mention one of the world’s largest markets period), handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day. It has been in its current location since 1935. Fish isn’t the only product being sold within its walls. You can find an assortment of seafood as well as fruits and vegetables.
Being an appreciator of great food, and having also previously worked in the food manufacturing industry, the movement of food through the processing chain has always fascinated me. How does food get to the restaurant table or the supermarket? The Tsukiji fish market is one of those stops for fish in Tokyo making it a must see for me.
The market is divided into two main sections. Appropriately, the Inner Market (Jonai Shijo), where all the wholesale activities, including the famed tuna auction, take place, and the Outer Market (Jogai Shijo) where retail shops and restaurants cater to the public. Much of the market is off limits to the public and visiting the wholesale portion of the market is only possible after 9 am.
One of the major draws of the market is to watch the tuna auction which takes place every morning bright and early. With only 120 available tickets on a first come first serve basis, people start lining up for this in the middle of the night. Despite being jet lagged, we elected to skip this particular activity and visited the market at a much more reasonable 7:30 am.
We arrived as the outer market was just getting into the swing of things. There are what seems to be hundreds of little stalls selling fresh fish, vegetables, kitchen supplies and other specialty food items like mochi and bonito flakes.
Not to mention all the restaurants in the area serving up sushi and ramen and the few food stalls with fresh seafood snacks.
The aisles are tiny, and despite the early hour, it can be a tight squeeze to get around. However, the back aisles of the market aren’t so bad.
In many ways, wandering through the stalls reminded me of the fishing village I visited in Hong Kong called Tai O on Lantau Island.
Apparently the sushi restaurant of choice by the Tsukiji market is Sushi Dai, however, not wanting to stand in lines for hours, we opted to go with another option which seemed busy, rated decently on Tripadvisor, but didn’t have much of a line. Turns out Sushizenmai is actually a restaurant chain throughout Tokyo. I guess this is what happens when you don’t do proper research before you go!
Regardless, my breakfast was delicious and fresh consisting of a chirashi don which is a selection of fish served over seasoned rice. The set came with a miso soup and set us back about ¥1500 ($12.50 USD). We sat right at the bar and it was interesting to watch the chefs behind the counter at work.
Fully fed, we ventured back out into the market this time in search of the actual fish market as it was getting close to 9 am. The entrance is tucked at the very back of a market, hidden next to a temple at the end of a road. You want to enter from the Kaikobashi Gate in the map above.
There is nothing like the hustle and bustle of an active market and this one moves at a pace unmatched by other markets I’ve visited. Workers zig zag through the boxes of seafood and dodge people on their motorized carts. One wrong step and you could easily be run over by one.
Inside are aisle after aisle of stalls with a variety of fish and seafood. Every way you look are more stalls, boxes stacked high. One surprising thing is that it doesn’t smell fishy at all. In fact, it was really clean smelling.
You could really get it all! Most of the items in the boxes I had no idea what they were.
We stumbled upon a stall that was breaking down some tuna they had bought that morning. The fish were huge! Until you see it in person it’s hard to appreciate their size, but up close they’re massive.
The market is slated to be moved from its current location in central Tokyo to a new site across the river in Toyosu in November 2016. The current area will be downsized to about a quarter of its current size and the remaining area will be redeveloped. The move has brought with it criticism from operators in the market and no one knows for sure how much of this experience will be retained with the move.
If seeing this piece of Japanese history is important to you, then a visit to the Tsukiji fish market in the next year is a must. It’s a great way to use your jet lag to your advantage and do something a little different in your travels. I thoroughly enjoyed my time wandering through the confusing aisles.
Know Before You Go
The Inner Market doesn’t open until 9 am to the public. Out of respect for the workers stay out until that time.
Wear closed toed shoes! The ground inside the market is very wet. The last thing you want is some weird liquid dripping on your feet. No high heels either!
If you want to see the tuna auction, it is best to stay nearby as trains don’t run that early to get you to the market. You’ll also want to check the schedule to make sure there is an auction on the day of your visit. Avoid the days with a red dot which means they’re closed. For a good explanation of what to expect, check out this post or this one.
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Is this something you would do in your travels? Have you been to the Tsukiji Fish Market? If so, what was your experience like?