Tsukiji fish market has been a vital hub for Tokyo’s food distribution system for over 80 years. Known to locals as ‘the city’s larder,’ it is the biggest wholesale fish market on the planet. It is also a fascinating place to visit for anyone with an interest in food and a taste for sushi.
The clock is ticking, however, on this legendary piece of real estate sandwiched between ritzy Ginza and the Tokyo waterfront. It has been scheduled to move to a new site several kilometers to the east in November—but plans for this are constantly being debated.
The good news for now is that you can still get in there, but you better be quick if you want to see this iconic institution up-close in all its bustling, cramped, old-style glory. The sheer scale and pace of the market can be bewildering, especially for first-time visitors, so we’ve compiled these handy takeaways for you.
Try both sides
The market is split into two sections. The part you reach first as you’re walking from the Ginza district or Tsukiji Station is the Outer Market (in Japanese it’s called ‘Jogai’). Basically this is the retail section for the general public. Further back lies the much larger Inner Market (‘Jonai’). This is the wholesale section, where massive trucks bring in seafood from all around Japan; where the tuna auctions take place; and where long, long lines form outside the famous sushi counters.
Know your etiquette
Be prepared and stay alert. Wear sturdy waterproof shoes and bring a jacket if you’re going to the tuna auction, as the room is refrigerated. Don’t bring luggage or big backpacks. Flash photography is considered unacceptable. Keep an eye out at all times for the market delivery vehicles known as turret trucks. They have the right of way and don’t take kindly to being obstructed by tourists.
Set your alarm
The action starts very early. Tsukiji wholesalers begin work soon after midnight and are usually having their dinner by the time the rest of us are ready for our first coffee of the day. By around 10:30 am there is little left to see. The tuna auctions take place at around 5 am. Tickets are given out at the information center by the Kachidoki Gate. Aim to arrive a couple hours early to stake your place, as a total of only 120 visitors are allowed in to watch. You are officially allowed to wander around the wholesalers’ booths only after 10 am. But there are no restrictions in the area around the sushi counters and other Inner Market restaurants.
Eat sushi for breakfast
There is a special thrill about having a seafood breakfast right inside the fish market. For sushi, the three main restaurants are (in descending order of popularity and length of the line outside) Sushi Dai, Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Bun. However, there is little difference among them for freshness, flavor or price. There are also many more restaurants in the Outer Market, such as Sushi Sei and Kagura Sushi.
And when you don’t want sushi…
A superb alternative to sushi that usually involves little or no waiting is kaisen-don, a bowl of rice topped with various kinds of sashimi. The most luxurious come piled high with delectable ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin) and maguro (tuna). Or follow the example of the market workers, truckers and chefs, and settle in to a meal of unagi (broiled eel), tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets) or ramen. There are even stores that only sell tamagoyaki, the thick omelet served by sushi restaurants. Yamacho and Shoro are both worth searching out.
Make a plan
The Outer Market is the place to do your shopping. Its working hours reflect those of the Inner Market and it will be mostly closed by the end of lunchtime. The narrow streets are a warren of stalls and restaurants, and are invariably packed with people, especially in the run-up to the New Year holidays. To help find your way around, make your first stop the information center, which is called Plat Tsukiji.
Kit out your kitchen
Most of the shops specialize in a single item, such as nori or konbu (kelp) seaweed, or the katsuobushi (bonito flakes) used to make dashi soup stock. There are several excellent knife shops, including Masamoto, Sugimoto and Aritsugu (this is an offshoot of the main branch in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market). Take your time assessing what kind of blade you want, and the weight and composition of the metal. Once you’ve made your purchase, get them to emboss your name on the blade.
Seek out a quiet corner
If the crowds get too much, make your way to the small Shinto shrine at the rear of the market. Called the Namiyoke Inari Jinja, this is where the guardian god of the market is enshrined and it offers a quiet corner of peace and calm.
It’s not quite over
Even after the wholesale market (eventually) moves away, the Outer Market will remain here. It will be an enduring reminder of the older, more traditional side of Tokyo that has mostly been eroded.
Do you have any tips for exploring Tsukiji? Share them with us at #momentumtravel or in the comments section below.
Videographer: Jiro Kumakura
Main Image: Alamy
Body Images: Robbie Swinnerton