It’s 3 am and every nerve in my body wants to stay in bed but quickly I remember that the world’s largest fish market is springing to life just a few blocks away from my hotel. I’ve been invited to witness the structured chaos that is Tokyo’s Tsujiki Fish Market.
Tokyo hosts the market on the edge of the Ginza district. It opens to visitors around 5 am most mornings except holidays and Sundays.
Public visitors are limited to around 120 each day and a queue lines up outside the main north gate each morning. The visitors are limited because safety is a concern and distraction is another.
The market crowds with a furious intensity as rushing carts, hand and motorized, careen through narrow passageways, between boxes and pallets, down alleys, and through the warehouses. Each is on a singular mission – to deliver the freshest seafood to customers, restaurants, and wholesalers across the crowded island as quickly as possible.
Most tourists are only allowed in to witness the Tuna auction. On this particular morning I join a fish monger from California’s Catalina Offshore Products who is here to meet clients and observe the auction of sea urchins.
Our small group is led quietly through passageways and upstairs to get our vests. Every visitor wears different colored vests according to which area they are visiting.
At 5 a.m., brokers crowd bleachers in front of a handful of shouting auctioneers and signal their purchases. They’ve already carefully inspected a roomful of boxes of sea urchin tongues shipped in from around the world.
On this day, the collection is drawn from waters in Russia, Chile, China, Canada, Japan, and California. In less than an hour between five and ten thousand trays of prepared sea urchin, or Uni, are sold. It’s a prized delicacy and Japan consumes the most in the world.
The Uni exchange concludes quickly and we head out to the main marketplace to look over other fish. I see bright red octopus coiled in blue boxes, a warehouse full of prized tuna frozen solid, and boxes of live fish sitting in long trenches with salt water continuously pumping past them.
As seafood is the main staple of Japanese diets, most everything edible from the ocean is available every day that the market is open. It’s staggering how much of it ships in and out in just a few hours. It’s also exhausting to witness, so by 8 a.m., our small party heads out to find breakfast and warm up after walking the cool labyrinth of the machine that is Tsukiji Market.
Planning what to do in Tokyo when you visit Tsujiki:
- Check the daily schedule when planning your trip. The market is usually closed on Sundays, national holidays, and some Wednesdays. During the busiest time, between mid-December and January, the market is closed to visitors.
- Stay near the market so you can walk to the entry gate. Search for hotels in Tokyo that are close to the market.
- Arrive at about 4 a.m. to get in line for the 5 a.m. entry. Only about 120 visitors are allowed daily in two groups of 60. This is to observe the Tuna Auction.
- If you can’t get in or get up that early, the Wholesale area is open to visitors after 9am.
- Dress for the cold. The market is not heated and very chilly in the early morning. Wear closed-toe and comfortable shoes. Be prepared to wait and stand.
- After the market closes, be sure to visit the outer area for breakfast and to browse the streets of small vendors and fish markets.
- The market is set to move to a new location in 2016.
This post was created as part of the Hipmunk Cities Less Traveled series.