Tokyo – Tsukiji Fish Market

Coming to Tsukiji, the world’s largest fish market, was something of a pilgrimage for me as it was something I’d wanted to do for more than twenty years. When I lived in Japan in the 90s I was always working or partying too much to go.

This trip then was my chance to put this right so I rented a small apartment via AirBnB right next to the market. From my back door I could see the rooves of the market sheds and Tokyo Bay Bridge beyond.

In the six days I was there I ate sushi, one of my favourite foods, on nine occasions, and I’ve dedicated the next post to cover what I learned from those experiences.

I was especially thankful to be there in late November/early December 2016 partly because this is the best time of year to eat seafood and partly because the market had been due to close in October and move elsewhere. Thankfully for me, the move had been delayed indefinitely due to problems with the new site, so I was very lucky to see the old market in full flow.

The market is organised into two parts, inner and outer, and confusingly, there is also a street market outside the fish market itself. The inner market is the fish wholesale market where chefs and restaurateurs go to buy their fish every morning from 5am.

Tourists are not allowed in here until 10am when most of the action is over. This is for safety reasons as market porters are zipping around at high speed on small trucks called turrets and it can get very congested and busy.

You wouldn’t want to get run over by one of these.

I still saw some amazing things on sale; huge octopus tentacles, the biggest bivalves I’ve ever seen, boxes of poisonous fugu fish, and everywhere men wielding huge fish knives. Please click on the photos to enlarge.

The outer market includes the sushi restaurants and the shops selling products related to eating seafood such as ceramics, knives, bill hooks, seaweed, some pickles and fresh wasabi roots. It’s open to all from 5am. Again, click on the photos to expand them.

In addition there is a street market outside the fish market itself.

This is where to come for your ready-to-eat seafood and pickles amongst other things. Click to enlarge.

One of the main attractions for tourists is to visit the tuna auction but it’s not easy to get in to it. Only 120 tourists are allowed to view it per day and during peak periods you have to get there at around 3.30am to be at the front of the queue. Once you’ve been admitted into the waiting room you then have to hang about until 5 or 5.45am which are the starting times for two groups of 60 to see the auction for 45 minutes each.

On the occasion I went we were fortunate to be entertained for some of the waiting time by Kosei, one of the tuna buyers who edified us in excellent English with some interesting facts about tuna. The buyers work very long days so god knows how he had the time to learn a language. Here is some of what I remember from his speech.

The Japanese consume 25% of the world’s tuna. There are four types of tuna, the best of which is considered to be Bluefin, and the best Bluefin comes from the Tsugaru Strait off Omamachi in Aomori Prefecture in northern Honshu. Bluefin tuna unloaded at Omamachi are known as Oma Maguro and they tend to sell for double the price of tuna caught elsewhere. The second best comes from around Boston on the north eastern coast of the US and the American fish are called Jumbos because they are flown in by jumbo jet.

Fishermen are not allowed to take tuna less than 20kg so as to allow stocks to replenish. Some fishing boats that have been out in distant seas for more than a year. The tuna they catch have spent as much as twelve months in a deep freeze.

Adult tuna are between two to three metres in length, the biggest ever caught was 679kg. The meat fetches between Y18,000 and Y5,000 depending on the quality. There are three grades of tuna; the cheapest is Akami (lean), the medium grade is Chutoro (medium fatty), and the best cut is Otoro (fatty tuna).

The most paid for a fish at the time of writing was just over a million pounds for a 222kg Bluefin back in 2013. It was sold at the first auction of the year which is traditionally the most competitive.

The buyers decide which tuna they are going to bid on by careful examination of the tail end of the fish. The tail has been removed so that they can hack out small pieces of flesh with a special bill hook.

They examine the meat for fat content by rubbing it between their fingers. Kosei will choose about ten fish to bid on but he says he gets his analysis wrong about one in seven times, despite having done the job for nineteen years, so it’s not an exact science and if they get it wrong they have to give the customer a discount. Quality then can vary by the individual fish as I found out when eating toro, the most fatty and most expensive part, with the most flavour.

Next to the fish market is Namiyoke Inari Jinja , a shinto shrine which guards the market and its traders.

Prayers are offered to the deities at the Honden building.

The other buildings house the Mikoshi, portable shrines, in the form of dragon heads.

The gold head is a male dragon and the red one is female.

Every mid year the shrine celebrates a festival called the Tsukiji Shishi Matsuri where two or three of the shrines are paraded around the streets. The shrines are extremely heavy (up to a metric ton) and require tens of men to carry them. Sometimes the bearers shake or toss the shrine to amuse the deity. As they’re dressed only in loin cloths and headbands it’s quite a sight!

Eating sushi in Tsukiji next…

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