Visiting Tokyo's Tsukiji, the World's Largest Fish Market

Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market, is also the world's finest fish theater -- a daily drama you can witness for free in Tokyo.
By Kathryn Tolbert
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 6, 2009

At 5 a.m., about 40 tourists were already ahead of us, squeezed into a roped-off aisle and surrounded by more than a hundred frozen tuna. The fish were laid out in neat rows on the floor of the chilly warehouse, giving off a faint frozen mist under the fluorescent lighting. We jostled for position and milled about excitedly, waiting for Tokyo's famous tuna auction to begin.

Men in work shirts and rubber boots bent over the solid carcasses, inspecting them by lifting a three-inch flap of skin that had been neatly cut open on each one, or peering at the cut-off tail end with a flashlight. The weight of each fish was written in kilograms; these were the smaller tuna at about 100 pounds.

A cowbell rang, and the auctioneer launched into the rhythmic chanting that marks this ritual, moving slowly through the room flanked by several men with notepads as the buyers hovered near their choices and made finger signals. My daughter and I weren't sure who got what, or at what price -- the tuna were being sold in groups of six or seven at a time -- but we felt we were witnessing an important transaction.

Tsukiji (pronounced tsu-kee-jee), the world's largest fish market, is also the world's finest fish theater, a daily drama you can witness free. Even if you have only one day in Tokyo, you should spend part of the morning here. (It is closed on Sundays and some Wednesdays.) Seafood is at the heart of Japanese cuisine, and Tsukiji anchors a vast distribution system that delivers more than 2,200 tons of it every night. The immense bounty turns into daintily wrapped supermarket packages of two or three slices of perfect salmon or arrives at restaurant sushi counters by lunchtime.

The market's operations are staggering. Throughout the night, the seafood arrives from all over the world, delivered by tankers and trucks from other ports and the airport. More than 40,000 people buy and sell about 450 species and varieties of fish at the market's more than 1,500 stalls.

The lure of Tsukiji, however, is not so much its size -- the market covers 57 acres -- and importance but the live theater you can walk right through. Surrounded by the warehouses, the inner market is a maze of stalls. You squeeze through the aisles, surrounded by tubs and tanks and plastic-foam trays filled with wriggling, glistening creatures from the sea, along with the frozen tuna that is being sawed into pieces for wholesale customers, and other fish being pulled from tanks onto chopping blocks. People yell to each other, water squirts up from clams and crustaceans, hoses send streams of water across the concrete floors. Buyers fill their wicker baskets.

Tsukiji is a serious place of business, and yet the people who work there are remarkably tolerant of tourists. That tolerance reached its limit late last year, however, when a tourist reportedly licked the head of a tuna. For some weeks afterward, during the busy New Year's season, the popular tuna auction was closed to visitors. It's open again. Cordoning off the tourists in the middle of the room protects the merchandise from public displays of affection.

The tuna auction is one of a series of auctions in various parts of the market -- for frozen and fresh tuna, for sea urchins, shrimp and dried fish -- that start before 5 a.m. But the tuna auction is the most popular with tourists, and the market is ready for them, with a "Visitor Area Entrance" sign in English hanging over a warehouse door.

Be sure to obey the rules posted in English at the market entrance: Watch for trucks and trolleys, don't go to the market in groups of more than five, don't carry large bags that will get in the way, wear closed-toe shoes (and no high heels) and refrain from touching the fish. It is up to you to get out of the way of careening carts and the occasional escaped eel.

Entering the market is a little tricky, because whether you go in through the main gate, across the street from the Asahi Newspaper building, or through side entrances, you have to weave through a stream of trucks and carts. (You can pick up a pamphlet and map in English at the guard booths near the entrances.) Once inside the warehouse, you can wander among the stalls, being mindful of the people who are there to conduct business. The market opens before dawn, but unless you want to see the auction, it's best to go after 8 a.m., when the pace begins to slow. By late morning, the market is packing up and shutting down.

The market might not be as accessible or as visually remarkable a few years from now if the Tokyo government is able to proceed with a plan to move it from its historic location to a site across the bay. That plan has been delayed by the discovery of toxic chemicals in the soil at the new site.

For now, the market is within walking distance of the Ginza shopping district and also easy to reach by subway or taxi. I've gone to Tsukiji for years, both to take visitors and to buy fish. Regular shoppers aren't supposed to make purchases at the inner market, but if I waited until 8 or 9 a.m., nobody seemed to mind if I made my way in, pointed to a large salmon fillet, had it weighed and paid the woman at the booth.

Make sure to save time for the outer market, which covers several blocks adjacent to the wholesale market. Sushi shops and tempura and noodle stalls are scattered throughout. If you're serious about trying the best sushi, look for a line and join it.

The outer market is the place to shop. You can buy pottery and kitchenware, including ladles, small grills, pots and pans, mortars, teapots and chopsticks. The hours correspond roughly to those of the inner market. I've often gone there for fresh tuna, and sometimes for shrimp. Once I was studying the shrimp on display, noting that the bigger the shrimp, the higher the price. But one tray, with some of the largest shrimp, cost significantly less. "Why aren't these as expensive?" I asked. "Because they are dead," I was told. Excellent, I thought. Dead works for me.

Except that when I got home and unwrapped the package, one shrimp leapt to the floor.

Tsukiji fish market, In the Tsukiji district of Tokyo's Chuo ward.

Nearest subway stations: Tsukiji on the Hibiya line brings you to within a half-block of the outer market; you will see the Honganji Buddhist temple as you exit the subway. Tsukijishijo on the Toei Oedo line brings you to the market's main entrance.

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