Morning at Tsukiji fish market
On March 31st we went to Tsukiji’s wholesale fish market. This was the first opportunity that I’ve had to come to Tsukiji because it’s actually closed on Sundays and holidays, which are usually the only time I would be in Tokyo by 5 in the morning. Since we were taking some time off over spring break to spend time with visiting friends and family, we were able to come to Tokyo on Sunday night so that we could visit the market in the morning.
We woke up early and walked to the market, arriving around 5:00 am. It was a cold and rainy morning, but the inner market is covered, so we left our umbrellas at the entrance and entered the market. The first thing we saw were many many doors and just as many signs that read “Do not enter.” There were so many, in fact, that I began to wonder if the whole market had been closed to visitors and I just hadn’t gotten the memo. Three-wheeled, flatbed delivery trucks (see above) whizzed around everywhere, barely missing the stacks of styrofoam fish boxes, other trucks, and me. Finally, we found the visitor area and went inside. The visitor area was a roped-off corridor through the middle of the frozen tuna auction room. The corridor was filled with tourists, mostly foreigners who had come to see the auction, just like us. As the garage door opened and closed to let the wholesale buyers come in and out, tourists would “accidentally” wander in through the open door into the auction area, while those of us who had read the signs were stuck in the tourist corral. Every once in a while, someone would come over and tell the lost tourists to get back to the visitor area, but mostly they just went about their business.
frozen tuna at the auction – auctioneers at work
At 5:30 the auctions began. Each of the auctioneers for the wholesale houses would ring a bell to attract the attention of the buyers. Then he would begin to shout the number of the fish being auctioned and the buying price. The buyers gathered around would bid for the tuna, and soon the auctioneer was on to the next one. Sometimes there were several auctions going on simultaneously for the different auction houses. It must be tough to be a buyer. After the auction concluded, the auctioneer would pack up, and another man would come through with paper tags with the name of each fish’s buyer. He would dip the tag into a bucket of water and throw it onto the frozen fish. The wet tag would then stick to the fish until the buyer came with a dolly or truck to take it away to the inner market.
slicing frozen tuna on a band saw – slicing fresh tuna with a huge knife
After the auction, we headed into the inner market. Here, we probably say every type of seafood that was fit to eat. There were tanks with live fish, and boxes upon boxes of not-live fish. Octopus, shellfish, blowfish, you-name-it. There were also vendors with other foods like produce, tofu, seaweed, bonito, and so on. The corridors in the inner market are narrow, and it’s business, not a tourist attraction for most of the people here, so you really have to watch your step and keep it moving or you’re going to get wet!
T was looking for the Aritsugu knife shop, so we got directions and headed to the outer market, where Aritsugu is located.
T looks for the perfect knife – sharpening the knife – deba bocho
The outer market has many shops and restaurants, and is probably better suited for tourists and casual shoppers than the hectic inner market. There were actually three knife shops, so of course we went to all of them. T finally settled on a 30 cm blue steel yanagiba at Aritsugu. After he picked out the knife, the shopkeeper let him choose the piece of horn that holds the handle firm over the blade. T chose a lovely ivory and brown one. Finally, the shopkeeper sharpened the knife to perfection.
Tsukiji’s outer market
After we finished our shopping, we wanted to have a sushi breakfast, since we’d all heard that Tsukiji offers the best sushi anywhere. Since it was so cold and rainy, we headed right to the first sushi restaurant that we could all sit down at right away. Some of the other shops had lines out the door. The restaurant we picked only offered sets, so I had the ladies set, Alex had the deluxe set, and Dad and T had the chirashi. The fish was deliciously fresh, but the chefs were a bit hurried, so the presentation was nothing special and some of the nigiri had way too much wasabi. I can’t handle too much wasabi, so my sinuses were burning and my eyes were watering as I struggled to chew without letting the wasabi touch my tongue too much. Ouch!
chirashi-zushi with uni, ikura, maguro, firefly squid, tamago, hamachi, saba, and more
Although on a sunny day it would have been nice to wander the market some more, we were getting pretty wet and cold, so we hightailed it back to our hotel for a hot shower and a nap before heading out for the rest of the day.
tamago, ikura nigiri, and firefly squid nigiri
I highly recommend a trip to Tsukiji if you’ll be in Tokyo on a weekday or Saturday early in the morning. If you’ve just arrived in Japan, it will be great fun because you will probably be wide awake from your jet lag at this time anyways. If you go, I recommend getting a map of the outer market (some of the shopkeepers have old ones that they’ll give you for free), it’s in Japanese, but there’s pictures to help you find the shops you’re looking for. Follow the signs (don’t pretend you can’t read English and sneak into the “Do not enter” areas, that’s not polite). And finally, be careful! There’s lots of trucks, dollies, bicycles, and slippery floors around, so watch your step!
For more info, check out the 24 hours at Tsukiji Market website.