Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee) Fish Market is the largest fish market in the world and one of Tokyo’s top tourist destinations – especially for sushi lovers. Many of you recommended visiting when I requested Tokyo tips, so it was high on my list of “must do” things. I was disappointed, however, to find out after I arrived in Tokyo that the inner market (and tuna auction) is now closed to tourists. I still planned to go and explore the outer market shops and restaurants until I got an interesting email from TPG reader Erin. She had arranged a tour with a Japanese guide, Naoto-san, who could “get us in.” I immediately hopped on board and it would be the best 7,500 Yen ($93) I spent on the trip.
The fish market opens really early, so I had to be waiting outside of my hotel at 3:20am for when Erin and her husband came by to pick me up in their taxi (they were also staying in Shinjuku). Luckily I called it an early night after my sushi extravaganza, but it was still bizarre to wake up at 3am – especially since my body was trying its hardest to adjust to Tokyo’s 13 hour time difference from New York.
I met them promptly at 3:20am and we crossed the city to the south-east corner’s market area, which is located on the Sumida River, which empties into Tokyo Bay. Our guide, Naoto-san, was waiting for us – surprisingly dressed in crisp khakis, button down shirt and blazer. Immediately we could sense his warmth and sense of humor and he began the tour shortly after introductions. I originally thought there would be a couple other people with us, but it ended up just being the three of us and Naoto-san for the next 3.5 hours.
We arrived a bit earlier than 4am, so he started off the tour by walking us through the outer shops, which were mostly closed at that point. We also paid a quick visit to the market shrine as Naoto-san warned us that he was like the “Jesse James” of Tsukiji and we may be kicked out at any time. At that point I wasn’t sure if he was just saying that to build excitement, but it worked.
Before long we were cutting through the parking lot and headed for the backside of the market. The bustle of the market was beginning to intensify – mini forklifts and motorized carts were whizzing by in all directions. You needed to walk quickly and go with the flow or else you’d easily cause a scene by ruining the natural movement of the market. The last time I felt this way was in Marrakesh as I was walking through the medina while horse-drawn carts and motorcycles sped by me on both sides. Being a New Yorker, I’m an avid jaywalker, so I don’t get too intimidated, but it was still early in the morning and I could have used several shots of espresso to kick me into gear.
We walked along the river and peeked into the market doors, which were locked. It was fascinating to see everyone focused on their small tasks, like the man sharpening his blade getting ready for hours of intense cutting.
We then walked into the market and watched as the vendors set up their stands, ready for the middle-men to purchase their products. Most vendors specialize in just a couple items – whether a certain type of fish, shellfish or other assorted sea creature. The stalls are packed tight and Naoto-san told us they were pretty cheap to rent from the Tokyo government – the equivalent of about $300 a month. For the most part, middle men purchase items in bulk and then they sell to restaurant owners. The middle-men also have big stalls where they prepare the items (especially large fish) that they’ve purchased, so it can be packed up and ready for sale to restaurants and smaller middle-men. We walked through the tiny aisles and I couldn’t get over how diverse the offerings were. I think the best way to describe the scene is with pictures, so this report will mostly be pictures and video.
Check-out the eel man busy at work … though don’t watch if you are squeamish and haven’t eaten your breakfast yet …
After we took a quick run through the inner market, we walked through the vegetable market, which also features auctioned goods, but it’s far less exciting and the prices barely fluctuate. I did like seeing wasabi in its natural state:
After the vegetable market, we walked to the main entrance of the market and Naoto-san gave us a quick overview of where we had been and we all got coffees from a vending machine. Unfortunately this machine didn’t have any Black Wonda, but the other brand sufficed and gave me the energy I needed to deal with such commotion at 5am. It was clear that tourists were not allowed to be in the market, but since we were the only ones, it didn’t seem to be bothering anyone. This was actually Naoto-san’s first tour since the earthquake, so he wasn’t even sure how people were going to react. However, at no point did I feel like I was unwelcome or that people were annoyed with our presence.
Naoto-san showing us where we’ve been so far.
After we got our second wind, Naoto-san really wanted to show us the auctions. There are several types, but the most popular is the tuna auction. The uni (urchin) auction is also a sight to be seen and it was a good coming attraction. The uni auction is held in a common area on the second floor office complex, so we made our way up the stairs and got a great view of the action from the elevated stairwell in the back of the room. Though after our reception didn’t seem to bring any negative feelings, we got closer up and watched the auction go down as if we were about to bid on uni ourselves.
After the uni auction, we walked through the live fish portion, which was pretty fascinating. Apparently live fish used to be much less desirable because it was thought that the fish got lethargic and thus tasted worse than fish that were killed right away and frozen. However, with modern technology that’s no longer the case and the live fish auction is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the Tsukiji market.
After checking out the live fish auction, we went to the main event – the tuna auction. We got pretty close, when a guard approached us and showed us a sign that tourists were not allowed. The guard was pretty nice and our guide played dumb and pretended to be a tourist himself. Apparently the guard was also brand-new so all we had to do was walk 30 feet back and watch from a distance. Frankly, at that point, I had already seen several auctions, so I was fine not being up close for the tuna auction.
After the tuna auction, we watched some vendors slice and dice the fish they purchased so they could get it prepared to sell to restaurants. Carving a huge tuna is a three person job and requires a 5+ foot long sword. It was pretty fascinating to watch them in action.
After hours of being in the market, we had worked up a pretty hearty appetite. However, before we could indulge ourselves in a 6:30am sushi and beer breakfast, Naoto-san took us to the top of the 7 story parking lot so we could get a good view of the market. The view was indeed spectacular and we got to take a group picture.
Overall, the tour – thanks to Naoto-san, was one of the best things I’ve ever done while traveling. He was very enthusiastic about the whole market and he had a great sense of humor. It was unbelievable to me that we were the only three tourists in the entire facility and when we walked out to the outer market and saw some other tourists, I almost felt bad that they couldn’t experience what we had.
I know a lot of TPG readers are coming to Tokyo this summer on the uber-cheap fares, so I highly recommend contacting Naoto-san (email link) ahead of time (link to his website) and setting up a tour – you will not regret it. It won’t be long until the tourists start coming back in droves and clogging up the market. In fact, in 2009 I read an article in the LA Times about tourists behaving badly - getting drunk, kissing the fish and even stripping in the market. That would definitely take away from the experience, so go before it inevitably happens again.
This post is long enough so I’ll continue with our sinfully indulgent 6:30am sushi and beer breakfast in the next post in this series. I just want to say thanks again to TPG reader Erin who was kind enough to invite me along to share this unforgettable experience. And that’s an open invitation to everyone else – email me if you have something cool to do – especially if I’m traveling to your city!
Full disclosure: My flights and hotels were comped by Delta and Hyatt respectively but all opinions expressed are entirely my own.
This is one installment in my series on my trip to Tokyo. You can find my past posts on the trip below, including: