The alarm clock sounds, bright red lights on the clock, read 2AM! Now that’s an early wake up call especially being jet-lag, Day 2 in Tokyo. I woke up quickly … after all who wouldn’t want ‘sushi breakfast‘ at one of the most exciting and largest fish markets in the world?
We arrived at the Tsukiji Fish Market ‘Tsukiji Shijo’, located in Tsukiji, in the center of Tokyo before 3AM at the largest wholesale seafood and fish market in the world! We were of the first ten people in line. A seafood lovers dream come true! While waiting in line to experience the live bluefin tuna auctions, we met the nicest couple from Australia, also visiting Tokyo ! Sharing in common our interest in travel and fish market-talk in general, the time passed by quickly. Not many couples would be eager, curious or ‘over the moon’ excited to visit a fish market on a chilly November morning, but we wouldn’t have left Tokyo without the visit to Tsukiji! From the market’s rich history to the early morning tuna auctions to the variety of sushi and seafood, it is a must-see/experience destination while traveling in Tokyo. Some of the fish although alittle strange was totally cool! There is so much more to Tokyo than the cat cafè’s and karaoke … The Tsukiji Fish Market is fascinating, with over 400 different types of seafood to see and learn about! Over 3,000 frozen bluefin tuna are sold daily with some price tags close to $10,000 and over! Check out this EATER article that mentions in 2018 a bluefin tuna was sold for over $300k weighing in over 800lbs! Now that’s a big tuna!
… And how does fish get there? While at the auction, I learned both fresh and frozen products arrive by ship, truck or planes from all over the world!
What you should know about how the market operates before you visit:
Before you arrive at Tsukiji, be prepared it will take some time from waiting in line to actually getting inside the market. Here is a tip for a morning coffee: Locate a canned coffee vending machine on the way to the market (they are all over the streets in Tokyo) pick up a ‘BOSS SUNTORY‘ (usually 100-150 ¥) and sip some hot coffee while you’re en route!
The tuna auctions do not begin until around 5AM, so be prepared to wait as you’ll only be allowed entrance if you arrive early … and even that is not guaranteed. At around 3:45AM, 120 visitors who arrived early (first come first serve basis) are admitted entrance (I still can’t believe admission is free of charge!)
While we waited to enter the auction a local representative from the market spoke to all 120 of us in both English and Japanese preparing us all on what to expect while walking around the fish market and during the live auction. Super informational and allowed Q’s and A’s which was interactive and conversational! The biggest take-a-way in the room was hearing where everyone was from, tourists visiting from all over the world. I asked a question about the tuna and mentioned where I was from, “New England” … they clapped and gave me a shout out,
“you know you’re in the right place but Boston’s got pretty good tuna, too!”
During the waiting period, we were 2 of 120 visitors who were required to wear neon green mesh vests over our jackets when allowed entrance into the auction areas, as you an imagine at 3:45AM there wasn’t much daylight so wearing florescent green was a good thing! At about 5:30AM we were allowed into the ‘inner market’ where the frozen bluefin tuna auctions began with the loud ringing of cowbells! This was a sight to observe, men walking in rubber tall knee boots staring at the tuna one by one admiring the quality of marbling, stickers on each tuna indicating the tuna’s weight. The buyers inspect the fish and decide what fish they want to bid on and for what price. Buyers and sellers in most cases, have known each other for years, one might say it’s healthy competition!
We had to pay close attention to the gentleman leading the tour as they did not allow us to get too close to the auction area. The auction itself only lasted about 30 minutes but was totally worth the 2AM wake up call! You may be wondering who bids on the tuna? Only licensed bidders can bid and those dealers that have spaces ‘stalls‘ in the inner market as well as retailers and restaurant shop owners. After the buyer purchases the seafood, it is either loaded on the trucks or moved to retailers in the market, the shop owners then prepare the seafood they purchase. There is no doubt, Tokyo is known all over the world for its frozen bluefin tuna.
There two parts of the market: the ‘inner market’ (jōnai-shijō) and the ‘outer market’ (jōgai-shijō). The inside market is filled with thousands of licensed dealers operating small areas where much of the seafood is processed (photo above). Let me add, for a market this HUGE, it is very, very clean. The ‘inner market‘ is where the early morning live bluefin tuna auctions take place. The ‘outer market‘ has retail and wholesale shops that fill the streets and alleys with groceries like inexpensive dried seaweed and sea urchin also know as, ‘uni’ among other varieties of seafood (oysters the size of my hand!) and where you can savor the delicacy of sushi. What else might you find in the ‘outer market’? I found some restaurants nearby that have traditional tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) and traditional Japanese noodles on their menus but you will find a lot of sushi restaurants to choose from! And who could forget the egg sushi ‘tomago‘ …. a staple in Japan!
10 Tips for visiting the market:
- Arrive at the market early! Only 120 people are allowed entrance to see the live bluefin tuna auctions beginning at 5AM, you’ll be divided into 2 groups of 60. No reservations can be made in advance, even early arrival does not guarantee admission.
- On your way to the fish market, pick up an inexpensive morning coffee. Hot canned coffee vending machines can be found on some of the busy streets or at a LAWSON (chain store in Japan). Which canned coffee to choose? I recommend BOSS SUNTORY and GEORGIA, my favorite Japanese canned coffees!
- Tsukiji market is not open every day so double check the calendar before you arrive.
- Remember, there are people working in the market and a lot of activity is happening by the second. Trucks will be loading and unloading products, motor carts and boxes everywhere, be aware of daily operations, enjoy your time as a visitor but pay attention if you’re distracted chatting with your travel partners and snapping photos!
- It’s pronounced ‘Tsukiji‘ … the “T” is silent.
- Savor a variety of sushi for breakfast, the market starts closing down around 12noon (if not earlier)! The busiest times of the market are 5:30AM – 8AM.
- It is recommended NOT to wear open toe shoes or high heels, there are puddles of water and the ground is not leveled in many of the areas throughout the market, use caution while walking.
- Please do not touch the fish unless you plan on buying it.
- The entire market is expected to move in the Fall of 2018 to Toyosu, in the waterfront district of Tokyo, note this blog post may be considered history in a few months!
- If you don’t like seafood or the smell of fish, maybe reconsider going to the market once you do 🙂
Spoiler for next post:
The Tsukiji fish market was featured in the 2011 documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, if you’re looking to make dinner reservations MONTHS in advance to your trip to Tokyo, look into dining at sushi master and owner Jiro or his younger son Takashi’s Michelin sushi restaurants.
Check out my next blog post on Takashi’s restaurant in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo!
3 star Michelin restaurant
6 Chome-12-2 Roppongi, Minato, Tokyo 106-0032, Japan
Peace, Love, Gelato,