Tokyo Travels Part 03: Visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market

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The Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest wholesale fish market in the world and is known for the wide array of exotic seafood and the seemingly chaotic tuna auction.  It’s a Must-See for tourists in most Tokyo guide books, which is actually a problem for the market.

The GF and I went to the market twice while in Tokyo – once in the afternoon to scope it out in advance and again two days later to catch the early morning auctions.

It’s a fantastic experience, and much to the chagrin of the market, I’m going to recommend visiting.  If you go, however, be aware that they don’t actually want you there.

In April, they closed the market to tourists due to the disruptions caused by unruly visitors.  They reopened the auctions on 2010-05-08 and we caught them on the morning of 2010-05-17.  They now allow 140 tourists a day in two groups of 70.  The auctions that visitors can see are at 5:00am and 5:40am. 

They started taking visitors into the waiting area at about 4:30am.  We got there at 4:45 and there were already 100 people in line ahead of us.  There’s no cost to visit, but it is first come, first served.  And if you’re number 141, you’re likely out of luck.  Get up early, and grab some canned coffee from a vending machine.

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It is a working market and can be dangerous, so keep your wits about you.  There is no way people could wander about a market like this in the USA.  The lawsuit potential is mind boggling.  There are bizarre little fork lifts, big box trucks, pallet jacks, scooters, odd flat bed vehicles with giant steering wheels, and more zipping up and down the aisle. The people around have knives, sticks with hooks, and all sorts of other things from wrangling fish.  They are there to do a job – to buy and sell fish. Taking care of tourists is not on their list.

I watched several people from our group nearly get hit by a large truck backing up.  They were in the driver’s blind spot and kept casually walking through an increasingly narrow space between the truck and wall.  It might be a walk I’d attempt while playing Mario Brothers but there are no 1-Up mushrooms in real life.

If you go, be careful and be respectful of these people’s work place.  And have a great time.  We sure did.  Below are more details about our visit, along with some photos and video.

On our fist visit we walked around the outside and then wandered through the outer market. You can see a map of our walk that day here.

The outer market is the “retail” section.  There are dozens (possibly 100+) little stalls, shops, and restaurants lining narrow aisles.  It’s like the Pike Place Market, but much bigger and with much less produce.

It’s filled with seafood to take home, other ingredients, snacks, and more. Most of the food looked either delicious, weird, or both.

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It’s not just fish. There are other Japanese dishes for sale, too.  This sign appears to sport a Japanese Sponge Bob Square Pants character.

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These are multilayered omelets made by folding the egg over and over again.  At least that’s what I think they are.

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You can also get large quantities of Bonito flakes.  The only thing I really know about Bonito flakes is that they are a key ingredient in Iron Chef Michiba’s “Broth of Vigor.” But now I know where to get them.

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Beyond food, you can find things like giant sticks with big metal hooks on them for poking tuna.  You can also find any culinary knife to meet your needs.

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You can also get great deals on dishes, ceramic, and lacquer ware.  We picked up a couple of really neat tea mugs.

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After wandering the stalls for an afternoon, we stopped to get some snacks.  We weren’t entirely sure what we were getting, but we couldn’t let that stop us.

This is a corn thing on a stick.  There’s something binding it together.  It has a flavor similar to corn bread, but with less of the bread flavor.  It was okay, but not great.  I wouldn’t recommend it with so much other stuff in the market.

Tsukiji Day 1 ShoeboxChef (21) This was better.  It a deep fried shrimp, in rice, wrapped in Nori.  There seemed to be some sauce in there, too.  It was sweet and tasty. They were simple and easy to recommend.

Tsukiji Day 1 ShoeboxChef (22) But navigating those stalls in the afternoon can be a nightmare.  The crowds make it difficult to move and to stop and shop. 

Tsukiji for posting _2010-05-15 (11) At 7:00 AM, it’s a different matter.  After the auctions we wandered about the stalls freely.  It’s a much more pleasant experience before the crowds get there.  That’s another way it’s like Pike Place Market.  You want to be there before the masses show up.

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As I said earlier, on Monday morning we went to the Tuna Auctions. Once they made us wait in line and handed us the extensive list of rules, we got to put on reflective vests and head over to the auction area.

Tsukiji for posting_2010-05-17 Day 2 (1) Along the way we passed some of the workers getting ready for their next task.

Tsukiji for posting_2010-05-17 Day 2 (2)One reason for the extensive rule list is that there isn’t a separate tourist window, or anything like that.  They led us into the middle of a large room.  Down the middle was a 4 foot wide (or so) stripe of green paint.  That green line is the tourist area.  The auctions happen on either side of the line.  There is a rope fence on either side of the line, too, reminding people how far they can go.

I can understand why they decided to limited the number of people in there at a time. Even with just 70 people in there it got a bid crowded. Many of my pictures include someone’s shoulder or the back of their head.

One of the first things you notice is a table with slices of fish.  It seems to be set up to show people the kind of meat they will get from the tuna on sale that day.

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Inspecting fish is one of the main activities in the room.  There are rows upon rows of frozen tuna on the floor.  Buyers examine them with hooks, pry bars and flashlights.

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You’ll often see vendors pick out a bit of meat to roll it around their fingers to check out the texture.

Tsukiji for posting_2010-05-17 Day 2 (19)There is not one auction going on; there are multiple.  The auctioneers are throughout the area.  They stand in front of a row of fish and plop down their step stool. They climb up there and ring a hand held bell for several minutes to draw the buyers.  Then the auctions happen, and thousands of dollars of fish get sold in seconds.

Here’s a three minute video showing some of the action.

After the auction, it was time to eat.  At about 6:30 in the morning, we headed into the outer market for fresh sushi.  We’d heard it was pretty good.

There are sushi restaurants all over the place and the biggest challenge was picking one.  We finally settled on Sushizanmai.  I highly recommend it.

   Tsukiji for posting_2010-05-17 Day 2 (55) Tsukiji for posting_2010-05-17 Day 2 (56) Tsukiji for posting_2010-05-17 Day 2 (57)We chose it for a few reasons.  First, we were hungry and tired of looking.  Second, there were a few people in there but it wasn’t crowded. Third, it appeared to be English-language/tourist friendly.

By English-language friendly, I don’t mean there was anything resembling a fluent use of English, but the staff greeted us in Japanese and English, and there was a little bit of English on the menu.  The point is, the lady drumming up business outside, and the people we spoke to inside made us feel welcome. And no matter how adventurous you are in a foreign county, it’s always nice to feel welcome.

Plus (as we found out when it was time to pay) they accept major credit cards, including American Express. 

The menus, as I said, featured a little bit of English and had numbers for each item.  We ordered by filling out a slip of paper, as is common at sushi restaurants in the US.  The challenge is that the item numbers and and prices were in western digits (as such things usually are) but the item descriptions were in in Japanese characters.  Once we figured out the item numbers, we were good to go.  

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We chose several types of tuna from the menu.  A few other things, too.  The waiter took our slip of paper and came back a few minutes later, showed us another menu which featured deals for ordering multiple types of tuna for less money.  Basically, he took the extra step to save us a few bucks, which is always appreciated.

We started with some large bowls of Miso Soup. I opted for the Seaweed Miso, while the Shoebox Chef chose the Crab Miso.  Now, most places, that means there are bits of crab meat in there.

But here?  No.  Crab Miso means there is a big, hairy crab sitting in the middle of the soup.

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The soup was excellent, but it was soon to be surpassed by the sushi itself.

The tuna, eel, and more were divine.  They tasted slightly of the sea, but had no “fishy” taste about them. They were tender and flavorful.  Amazingly fresh, it was definitely the best sushi I have ever had. 

Even if you have no interest in seeing the auctions, if you go to Tokyo, go to Tsukiji and stop by Sushizanmai.  It’s a crime to miss this fish.


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Auctions, vendors, food, dishes, and more. There’s all sorts of stuff to see at Tsukiji.  I wanted to go there just for the spectacle of the auction.  I got so much more.

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The Soul of Japan said...

You did very well on this photo tour. You even mentioned sushizanmai and a few of the other stalls in that area. Nice job!

Mrs Sweetwater said...

wowww.. Sushi looks lovely. you had a great time apparently. I knew that the auctions were big affairs but I didn't know they allowed tourists. that was quite a behind the scenes tour Mr Cromley. Thanks.

Naoko said...

Great post and Photos. we live in Osaka and we had a chance to go there, but we couldn't get in. I hope we can go again sometime this year, It looks like a great experience to see.

josie said...

thanks Cromely for sharing, I felt like I'm already in Japan. LOL.

Cromely said...

@The Soul of Japan: Thanks. It was a great day.

@RE Ausetkmt: Thanks. It was mighty tasty. I'm not sure how much longer they let the tourists in. It seems like different stake holders are arguing over that.

@Naoko: Thanks. I hope you get another chance to see it. How long is the trip from Osaka?

@Josie: Glad to hear it. Are you planning to go?