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Tokyo Day Three Part One – Inside Access to Tsukiji Fish Market and Tuna Auction

by on June 13, 2011 · 12 comments

in Tokyo, Trip Reports

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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.

The outer market shops at 3:50am on a Tuesday

The shops coming to life.. this one specializing in the egg cake served with sushi in Tokyo

Lanterns donated by market benefactors, including major shipping companies and fish distributors

Shrine side doors

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.

Our guide sneaking us into the market

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.

Backside of the fish market

River view

Knife sharpener getting ready for a busy day

Sneak peak through the locked doors – the frozen tuna ready for auction

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.

Naoto-san leading us into the market

Stall upon stall of interesting offerings

Shrimp anyone?

Regular squid and pickled squid

Some fish is sold pre-auction, so this middle-man was taking his early purchases back to his stall

Whale meat

Big fish

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:

Wasabi pre-paste

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.

Sign telling visitors to go away … good thing we had Jesse James as our guide

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.

Traditional Japanese toilet.. a far cry from the souped up toilet with built-in bidet at the Park Hyatt



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.

Bubble bath anyone?

Blowfish … you need to have a license to serve them because they can be deadly


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.

Newbie guard wasn’t much of a challenge to our mission

Checking out the tuna auction from a short distance

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.

The canvas

The big guns come out

Internal work begins… I just want to sink my teeth into that!

It takes three men to carry a quarter of the tuna

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.

Me and Naoto-san

TPG Unites!

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:

My Trip to TokyoMy Initial Thoughts on Tokyo

Tokyo Day One Part One – Arrival at Haneda, Meiji Shrine, and Harajuku

Tokyo Day One Part Two – Shibuya, Park Hyatt Spa and Tokyo Hands

Tokyo Day Two Part One – Walking Around Shinjuku and Tokyo Hands

Tokyo Day Two Part Two – A Tale of Three Very Different Dining Experiences

Day Three Part One - Inside Access to Tsukiji Fish Market and Tuna Auction

Tokyo Day Three Part Two – Sushi at 6:30am, Tempura and a Night Out in Shinjuku

Tokyo Day Four – Jetlag Blues, Relaxing at the Park Hyatt and Hanging at the Delta SkyClub at Narita

Delta to Tokyo – 757 BusinessElite Review – JFK to LAX

Delta to Tokyo 777LR BusinessElite Review LAX to Haneda

Delta to Tokyo – 747 Upper Deck BusinessElite and Economy Comfort Review Narita to JFK

Park Hyatt Tokyo Review

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • CAM

    How lucky! To be able to see the famed Tuna auction!

    I found a free tour guide service for my trip to Tokyo over Labor Day Weekend at tokyofreeguide.com.

    My ‘personal tour guide’ emailed me this morning– a 62 year old Grandfather of 2 little boys named ICHIRO SAN. He will lead us through a few Temples and share a Japanese meal with us.

    I had sent a follow-up request to the service asking to see the Tuna auction but learned that it is closed to tourists, as reported in this blog, so I will stick to Temples while with the guide– who will meet us in our hotel lobby– FOR FREE!!

    You are obligated to pay for all meals, transportation and entrance costs for the guide but you choose all activities and length of time.

  • stan

    tokyofreeguide.com.–Is a fantastic thing for all ( givers n takers) it is a great way to build good will among people ,AMERICA what we waiting for!!! we are far from loved by the world this may be a tiny baby step

    I live in Greece ,it always amazes me how I see many tourist standing on a corner reading a guide book or looking up trying to figure out what street they are on with a open map , you will never see a local stop and ask if they can help ( many people in greece speak English ) I always try to help them ,it is so easy to communicate when people want to .

  • Michael

    You epitomize EXACTLY why I love to take these 2-3 day runs. Sure, it can be exhausting, as my spouse and friends point out, but not completely fatiguing if you are flying in upper class and if you stay in nice places. And, as I have pointed out so often, in a defensive tone, surely, that “it’s either taking these 2-3 day trips around the globe or not going at all and I prefer to see the world.”

    You see, most of us have jobs and families and can only get away for short bursts and it is a trip itenerary like yours above, that crystalizes why us miles-addicted-weirdos go on these jaunts. Well done.

    (On a related note: my wife spent $6000 to fly business to Capetown from LAX last minute last month and I’m trying to convince her that it is smarter to buy 100K US AIR miles for $1480 so she can have the flexibility to possible grab a last minute award seat. In that vein, what are the exact steps, if you don’t mind, on how to book, say South African Airways business on US AIR’s website or do I go somewhere else? As always, your help is greatly appreciated.)

  • Shigeki

    The shrimp looking creatures are called squilla. They are caught even in Tokyo bay. Some people do not like them because they look ugly but I think crabs/shrimps are ugly enough. However, they taste lighter than shrimps and you must be glad we do not eat their heads :)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oratosquilla_oratoria

    Good day.

  • Colin

    Great post! This looks amazing! I wish I could do this on the HND mileage run, but I’d arrive Saturday night, the market is closed Sunday, and I leave Monday morning :(

  • Y Lee

    Just to let you know, the thing you call raw squid and pickled squid (the pink ones) are actually octopus.

  • chemist661

    I went to Tokyo back in 2003 and watched the inner fish auction on the day I flew out. A great experience. Also walked around the vegetable market. After all that, I had some great sushi nearby. Talk about fresh!!! At the time, I ate lots of sushi for $13. (back when the $ bought 110 yen :)).

    I stayed in a traditional Japanese place that had private singles and shared bath for just $28/night. Decently located. Tokyo was one stopover on the way to SIN when I got Los Angeles-SIN RT. My ticket was $600 that included a HNL 24 hr layover, 2 day NRT stop, SIN for 2 days & also a 2 day Hong Kong stopover.

  • RobMERC

    Wow, I am setting on FC headed To LAX for the outbound segment of my HND-SIN-HKG-HND Delta MR and I can’t wait to take advantage of the tips from TPG. I don’t return to us turf till the 30th. Can’t wait to get there.

    BTW, just made GM since I started in April to focus on Delta with the GC. Last week they upgrade me to. FC on 3 of 4 segments as a silver. Delta GM is just great to walk into the sky lounge for free and de-stress the hour between flight vs the obvious other choice.

  • Lee

    Brings back recent memories of my trip to Tokyo for 10 days this Feb. I also went to Skijee and stayed about 4 hrs watching the auction and wandering the fish market. Had a fabulous Sushi breakfast there at the famous “Sushi Dai” where it was sooo fresh that you eat it w/o soy sauce. Expect a line since it has only 16 seats. Also a little expensive. If you are into sushi chef knives, there are a couple of shops that can custom manufacture them for you. I also spent the rest of my time visiting Shinjuku, Ahkibara, Ropongi & observation tower, and the Snow Monkeys in Nagano. One of the highlight was finding out that Tokyo has a “Cafe Du Monde” that serves New Orleans style beignets & coffee! There are many good Japanese restaurants at Narita Airport Terminal 1 & 2 that serves traditional food.. I counted about 10-12 restaurants. You can also do some airplane spotting at the observation deck in Terminal 1 & 2. where you can take pictures of planes taxiing & takeoff.

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