Tsukiji market: blood, sweat and scales
Walking through a fish market might not be on your top priorities when exploring a new country. But if you ever have the chance to visit the Japanese capital don't think twice and wander around the narrow alleys of Tsukiji market. It is not only Tokyo's pantry, it is its soul.
A reclaimed land
The Tsuki-ji area which gives its name to the wholesale market has been reclaimed from the Tokyo Bay back in the 17thcentury. What was once a very quiet land which Samurai and few shrines called home, has then been transformed following the great Kanto Earthquake on September 1st, 1923. The Nihombashi Fish Market, which was the main provider of seafood in Tokyo, was completely destroyed and the authorities decided to move its operations in 1935 to Tsukiji. Japanese architects and engineers were sent to Europe and America to do research for the new market. They've opted for a quarter circular shape which is allowing easier access and handling for freight trains. The steel structure above gives it a wide space free from columns and subdivisions.
As the Japanese cuisine is greatly influenced by its coastal treasures – and moreover Japanese people love their food!-, it is not surprising that the growth of the Japanese economy in the 1980's resulted in an expansion of its main market. Around the same time, Sushi and other sashimi started to intrigue foodies worldwide, who came to Tokyo to find out more about the source of all this marine deliciousness. If secrets aren’t revealed, you can take the pulse of the Nippon culinary art in Tsukiji inner and outer market. The first one carries the wholesale area with seafood both fresh and dry. The second one, known as the Jogai Shijo, is Japan's "Food Town," where you can find retail shops selling fruits, vegetables and Japanese products –I recommend you to buy some cutlery and kitchen utensil-;as well as restaurants.
The biggest in the world
Tsukiji is definitely breaking all kind of records. It is the world's largest fish market and handles over 2,000 tons of marine products per day, with over 400 different varieties of seafood: tuna of course, but also caviar, swordfish, shrimps, seaweed, octopus, sea urchin or even the controversial whale. To operate this huge machinery, over 60.000 people are working from the crack of dawn (except Sundays, holidays and some Wednesdays). After that the tide of fresh seafood is unloaded from trucks, boats and planes coming from all over Japan; the auctions start around 5:20am. If you won't be able to bid on the beautiful tuna –only licensed participants can-, you may be one of the daily lucky few who witness this show. Once the auctions are over, around 7am, the buyers head to the wholesale areas where an array of products is patiently waiting for them to pick and distribute all over the island. You won't be able to visit those narrow and wet alleys until 9 am. So go to explore the outer part of the market or simply have some well deserved breakfast: ramen and fresh sushi are a must. After 9am, most customers are far gone and the tourists start to invade the space. Tsukiji has become a major tourist spot in the recent years, but isn't per se a "sightseeing", so act accordingly (check out our rules of good behavior further down).
Don’t get overwhelmed by the marvelous entanglement of the people, products and infrastructure. All those stocked up crates of colorful and humongous seafood are really astonishing and the smell isn't even that bad! As long as you don’t bother them, vendors are friendly and if you are lucky enough you will be able to witness them cutting frozen tuna or swordfish with a band saw, or carve a fresh tuna with extremely long knives, called maguro-bōchō, which can reach an impressive 1 meter length. They might even give you some free samples. Nothing beats a fresh piece of red tuna in the morning! The craftsmanship of those fishermen is amazing to observe. There is something so utterly timeless about their studied and skillful gestures, which are as relevant to Japanese culture as Kabuki performances or calligraphy.
Tsukiji in danger?
Not unlike the seas from which it draws its power, Tsukiji is in danger. Even with its popularity among foreigners and the true attachment of Japanese people, the glorious days of the marketplace might soon be over. Tsukiji is indeed situated in a very valuable zip code of central Tokyo. There are plans to retain a retail market, roughly a quarter of the current operation in Tsukiji. The rest will be relocated to a new site in Toyosu. But as the new location has been criticized for being heavily polluted, the big move has been postponed. Until then, you can walk your way through the organized mess of Tsukiji, reflecting on the disappearance of such a charming and historical place.
How to behave in Tsukiji market?
Tsukiji is a functioning and busy market for professionals. It is important to be considerate of people working there and their products.
- The Wholesale Area is only open to visitors after 9:00am. The Tuna Auction is opened to visitors from 5:25am to 6:15am but restricted to only 120 visitors/day. Rules also change quite fast concerning this strategic area of the market so make sure it is opened before you decide to wake up that early.
- You can take pictures or videos of the place and people, but don’t disturb them. Don’t forget to be respectful and polite. An "arigato" (thank you) goes a long way.
- For your own safety, be aware of cars, trucks and turret trucks. They are all in a hurry to bring merchandise to their clients and you should let them circulate freely.
- Wear a proper outfit. As it is a fresh food market, the floors can be wet and slippery. Wear closed walking shoes.
- Don't bring children, pets or big bags with you when you come to visit.
- Don't touch anything. Food or materials.
- Don't smoke
- It is a market, not a museum, so try to buy something, either in the dry or fresh food sections. Don’t bargain with vendors, it isn't part of the Japanese culture.
How to get there?
Tsukiji Market is just above Tsukiji Shijo Station on the Oedo Subway Line. It can also be reached in a five minute walk from Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya Subway Line. The closest JR station is Shimbashi, from where you can walk to the market in about 15 minutes.