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.
There’s a line of visitors to see the workings of the fish market. That’s pretty interesting. I bet the auctioning is pretty intense.
The auction is intense but the brokers and auctioneers have a lot of experience. It’s a daily thing but a short burst of intensity for sure.
Wow! Jealous that you got to get a behind the scenes look into the auctioning part of the fish market. What a great way to envision local practice and trade!
I was lucky to be traveling with a pair of licensed fishermen from the States or wouldn’t have been allowed in. Fortunate indeed.
I didn’t realize you could tour the market – very cool!
You can if you get there early. I slipped in behind the scenes with the pair of U.S. fishmongers I was traveling with.
I love the sea-gulls hanging around hoping for a meal. I cycle through the Fish Market in Sydney quite often and there are always half a dozen pelicans there waiting for left-over bits of fish.
I’ve visited the Fish Market in Sydney once! You’re absolutely right about the opportunists flying about.
Wow! Fresh seafood. This is something that must not be missed when visiting Japan. Great post!
Thanks. It doesn’t get much fresher unless you pull it out of the water yourself! Fun to see how the process works too getting fish from the boats, to processors, to shippers around the world.
While I’d love to see this market behind the scenes I don’t think you could get me up at 3 am to do it. Also, who knew that sea urchins had tongues?
That 3 am wake up call was brutal but soon forgotten. Sea urchin ‘tongues’ is an expression as it’s what they look like to me. Their actually the critters gonads but I didn’t think that would go down so well!
Great post! We’re hoping to see the markets in June when we’re in Tokyo – and your explanation of how to do it is exactly what I was looking for. (found you via #TheWeeklyPostcard)
Thanks! I hope that you get in and the market is open when you’re there. It’s worth the effort.
The fish market looks like fun–smell, early hour and all. I will definitely put it on my list if/when I visit Tokyo. For something so chaotic it seems very well organized. Then again, I guess it would have to be.
It’s worth the trouble. Nothing else like that exists.
I remember when I went there I had a very weird experience. First, because I’m not used to eating sushi at 7am, second because I never knew what was I eating. I got a sea urchin and it was horrible! Haha!
I wouldn’t wish a first encounter with Uni at 7am on anyone! It’s such a delicacy in Japan that your hosts might not have considered that you’d react any way but ecstatically. Lost in translation!
Well I can’t promise I’d ever wake up so early to go to a fish market…but I was happy to read about it nonetheless 😉
Got it. I slept later on the bus! So happens I was tagging along with a pair of fish processors and followed them day and night around Japan. It was wonderful and so different than my first visit about 8 years earlier as a tourist.
I really appreciate the tips; I hadn’t realized that the fish market is so difficult to visit. Do you know if the new market will have more space for visitors?
I look forward to finding out all I can about the new market. Can’t say they’ll open up more to tourists. The move is based on skyrocketing real estate prices for that prime downtown riverfront location. Pity I can’t imagine it being as interesting.
Elaine, sorry to disappoint you, but a fish market would not be on my list if I were in Japan. In fact, I avoid them. Although I like eating fish, seeing and smelling it is not exactly my cup of tea. Thanks for joining us for the blog link-up.
I understand completely, Anda. My partner is the fishmonger who brought me on the tour and I think I’ve gotten past the ‘fragrance’ over the years! You’d enjoy more the marketplace next to the market that is full of tea houses and restaurants.
Awesome…another clear concise article…If you’ve got the time. Everyone who visits Tokyo, should check it out..
Thanks, Bob! More on Tokyo to come. I would live in Japan if I could.