Sometimes the most interesting food experiences don’t involve eating. Sometimes they involve waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning, several hours before breakfast, so food is actually the last thing on your mind. This was our experience visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, the world’s largest wholesale fish market and one of the largest food markets in the world. It’s a great place for traveling foodies to learn about the origins of Japanese seafood and the massive scale of the industry around the world.
Unlike consumer-oriented retail food markets you’re likely to find when you travel, Tsukiji Market is a mostly logistical and wholesale operation, run by the City of Tokyo metropolitan government. Tsukiji Market’s job is to move food from across Japan and places around the world into Tokyo and beyond. The market sells 1,800 tons of fish and seafood each day.
The market has two distinct parts. The vast inner market is a licensed wholesale market and the smaller, outer market is a mixture of wholesale and retail shops that sell groceries and kitchen goods to consumers and restaurants. Though most of the inner market is closed to the public before 9am, our Japanese hosts arranged for us to have an early morning tour. The Frozen Tuna Auction (pictured below) is the only part of the inner market open to tourists before 9am.
Visiting the Tsukiji Inner Market
We arrived at the market office at quarter to five in the morning. The market’s public information officer greeted us and told us to put on some rubber boots…
… and an orange “Visitor”-emblazoned safety vest which was important when we saw the chaos inside.
The interior of the market is a live, working warehouse, full of constant activity that runs together like a machine. And since we weren’t part of that machine, we needed to stay alert at all times, because these motor carts were traveling straight at us at alarming speeds, and it was up to us to get out of the way — and survive.
The Live Fish Area
The first part of our tour was through the large warehouse that included the live fish inspection area, where buyers could examine fish and seafood in endless rows of bins such as these.
Some species of poisonous puffer fish (“Fugu”) are considered a delicacy in Japan. Well-heeled foodies will fork out hundreds of dollars for the excitement of eating a dish that if prepared incorrectly, will kill you. Luckily, Japanese chefs are rigorously trained and licensed to serve this dish, and there is actually no danger at all.
Like wild mushrooms, some poisonous fish resemble common, edible fish. Near the health inspector’s office, we spotted several notices indicating which species were safe, and which were poisonous.
The Fresh Tuna Auction
Bluefin and big eye tuna caught off the Japanese coast are the most desirable fish at the market. Because they come from so close, they don’t have to be flash frozen on the boat and can thus be sold fresh within hours. We weren’t allowed to stop and watch the fresh tuna auction, but I caught these photos from the street.
The Frozen Tuna Auction
The frozen tuna auction is the larger and more photogenic event because it auctions off hundreds of giant bluefin tuna caught around the world. This auction is open to the public, though visitors are limited to 120 per morning (lines for 5 AM entry start to form even before 4AM so get there early!)
Expert wholesale buyers examine the color and texture of the flesh to decide which to bid on.
The auction itself was over in what seemed like a flash.
Each fish was marked with the winning bid, and dragged away so there was room to circle the next row.
The Intermediate Wholesalers Shops
After watching the auction for about 20 minutes, we moved into the Tsukiji intermediate wholesalers market where buyers prepare and sell food (that they bought at auction from the wholesalers) to a small number of grocery store buyers and chefs. The public is not allowed to shop here.
Again, the fresh bluefin tuna were the stars.
These are the high quality fish that might sell for as high as 30,000 yen (~$300) per kilogram. If you’ve seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, these are the fish that Jiro himself might use at his restaurant.
There were several vendors slicing frozen tuna (straight from the auction) into slabs to defrost and sell.
The laundry baskets full of pale pink tuna “shavings” was an interesting sight.
Beyond the tuna, the market sold other strange-looking sea creatures.
We got one quick glance into the fruit and vegetable warehouse. The market sells 1,200 tons of fruits and vegetables each day.
Time Is Limited
Visiting the Tsukiji market to witness the frozen tuna auction is an interesting experience but it may only be available for a few more months. Tokyo is planning to move the market to a highway-oriented location outside of the city, freeing up the market’s prime waterfront land for redevelopment. They haven’t announced yet whether the new market will be open to travelers. Until then…
How to Visit the Tsukiji Fish Market:
- To see the Frozen Tuna Auction: Doors open at 5AM but staff recommend you get there by no about 4AM to line up. Admission is limited to the first 120 people in line. Line up at the 1st Floor of “The Fish Information Center” (by the Kachidoki Bridge entrance). Market days vary so check the website before you come. Take a taxi because Tokyo public transportation doesn’t start until 5AM.
- After 9AM, the Intermediate market vendor area (most of the photos above) opens up to the public.
- The food vendors and retail space in the outer market are open to tourists later in the day though, many shops close by early afternoon.
Our trip to Tokyo was supported by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All opinions and photos are my own.