Although many of our readers seem to think we’re on a one-year round-the-world food odyssey rather than a grand tour of the globe, we just like visiting food markets and talking to chefs, waiters, restaurateurs, and food enthusiasts. All the same, I was ambivalent about visiting the tuna auction at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Markets.
Don’t get me wrong, I was eager to see Tsukiji (pronounced su-ki-jee), just not at 4am with a hundred tourists who read about it being the thing to do in one of those Top Ten Tokyo stories or 1000-Must-Do-Things-Before-You-Die books*.
Most wholesale fish markets around the world don’t allow tourists into their auction centres for a reason — because they can distract the auctioneer, they can get in the road of guys busting their butts to earn a living, and, due to the sheer number of tourists who don’t know how to turn their flashes off on their point-and-shoot cameras, they could end up seeing a tuna hook get used on a mammal instead of a fish.
I was therefore comforted when Tokyo food and sake expert Etsuko Nakamura of Tokyofoodcast.com, who offered to be our personal guide to the fish markets, agreed and suggested we meet much later instead. Besides, I’m usually not more than a third through the way of sleeping off an evening at an izakaya when the clock strikes 3.30am.
When we arrived at the all-too-sensible hour of 9am the markets were pretty much free of tourists, most of whom were probably off doing what they were told — lining up outside one of the couple of sushi joints that seem to be mentioned in every guidebook (a sure reason to stay away!), while we hit the markets.
The markets are astounding, a real testament to Japan’s collective love of seafood. Even at what was the tail-end of the working day for Tokyo’s seven major wholesalers, and the 700-odd businesses that buy from them to sell to the city’s restaurants and retailers, the energy of the place was still palpable — as you can imagine it would be at the world’s largest fish market, that sells 7% of all of Japan’s seafood!
On the day we visited, there was a great vibe, which Etsuko said she could sense straight away, and put down to good sales that morning. We’d heard from locals that the workers aren’t particularly friendly to visitors, who they see as a hindrance more than anything, getting in their way and occasionally injuring themselves.
However, one fishmonger who had a whole tuna on his bench enthusiastically called us over to have a closer look at the fish when he saw us. The tuna — a “small one” at 70 kilos — had already been sold to a couple of sushi places and they were starting to portion the fish when we arrived.
We watched the guy expertly quarter the tuna, and then, with a smile, he unexpectedly passed me a plastic take-away tray, poured some soy sauce in it, and with his huge knife cut a few slithers off the tuna and put them in the tray. It was, without doubt, one of my most sublime eating experiences ever. “Wow! That’s never happened before,” said Etsuko, who has been to the markets more times than she can count, “It’s amazing that just yesterday this fish was swimming in the ocean.” And that’s how it tasted, pure and fresh, like the cleanest of sea waters.
The vendor was pleased we were impressed and offered me the head of the tuna to hold for a photo op, and gestured for us to have our photo taken together. Etsuko said she didn’t know the guy. Maybe he mistook me for an ageing celebrity chef!
As we leisurely wandered through the markets, Etsuko pointed out different types of fish and seafood, their value, how they’re used, and shared some anecdotes. The fishmongers continued to work, although no doubt at a significantly more relaxed pace than a couple of hours earlier, as they cleaned, filleted, packaged and and labelled their sales. Some were taking a coffee or breakfast break, others were enjoying a quick read of the newspaper before finishing up for the day.
While the tourists were now ensconced in the popular sushi joints, we headed off to explore the rest of the markets. We’d already enjoyed the best ‘sashimi’ ever and were keen to see what else the markets had to offer. More on that experience in our next post.
Tips for Visiting Tsukiji Fish Markets
- Unless you’re a chef or restaurateur, skip the tuna auction in the wee hours and visit the market around 9am when the pace is more relaxed, fishmongers are friendlier, and there are fewer tourists
- Wear practical, closed-in, flat-soled shoes so you don’t slip (there’s water everywhere) — flip flops and open shoes are not allowed.
- Don’t take large bags that will get in the way, and definitely no backpackers; they’re not allowed either.
- Don’t wear anything special as you’re sure to lean up against icy, wet, seafood stands as you try to stay out of the way.
- Even at 9am, the fish markets are still a little chaotic — this is a busy workplace after all — so have a few coffees before you go so you’re alert.
- Keep your wits about you — it’s a dangerous place — there are trucks, forklifts, trolleys, and carts constantly moving here and there, and some seriously sharp knives being used!
- Whatever you do, don’t touch the seafood! Tourists were purportedly banned from the auction for a while after one idiot apparently licked a very expensive tuna for a photo op!
- While you could visit on your own (it’s not the confusing “maze” it’s often described as being — seafood stalls are logically ordered in rows, so start at one end and zig-zag your way to the other), you’ll get far more out of the experience if you visit with a knowledgeable local guide such as Etsuko.
- Save an hour or two for the outer food market, which is just as fascinating and fun.
- The nearest metro stop is Tsukiji on the Hibiya line, which is just one block from the outer market. It’s a short stroll to the Ginza from the market so you could explore that area when you’re done.
* The rules changed restricting the number of tourists entering the auction area, for the reasons I mentioned above, as well as reasons to do with sanitation and the temperature of the facility changing due to all those warm bodies. Rumour has it that the rules could change again and tourists might be restricted all together from the auction area, so check the official Tuskiji Fish Market site before you set your alarm clock!
See Part 2 of this post here.