Since 1935, Tsukiji market and its famous fish auction has lured global travelers with its frenetic pace. Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle? That's casual entertainment. Fulton Fish market can't even compete. When it comes to fish, Tsukiji Market is the epicenter of washoku (和食, Japanese cuisine) for Tokyo's 9.3 million people. The market and the people that work there are the physical representation of seasonality in Japan.
Those of you seeking to witness the tuna auction in the original location will need to visit Tsukiji before October of 2018. The fish auction will be moved to Toyosu, in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Only 120 people are allowed in each morning. If you are one of the lucky few to witness the auction, you will know why they limit it to so few people. It is controlled chaos there!
Here are our tips to visit and enjoy the auction:
1. Arrive early - like REAL early. Reservations officially begin at 5AM, but people queue up as early as 3:30 in the morning. Tours are done in two groups of 60. I got there at 4:30AM a week ago and group one was already full. As it gets closer to October, you will more than likely need to get there significantly earlier. If you want a decent hotel walking distance to the market, check out Mitsui Garden Hotels. There are at least two properties within 15 min walk of Tsukiji Market.
2. Go to Kachidoki Gate NOT Kaikobashi Gate - To a non-native Japanese speaker, it may sound the same, but it is not. Google maps is definitely handy when you are in Tokyo, so get a wifi hotspot at the Narita airport.
The Fish Information Center where you queue for the tour is located at Kachidoki Gate. This is a three block walk from the Main Gate (Shinohashi Street). In your early-morning-pre-coffee-stupor, the line of laborers seeking blessings at Namiyoke-jinja Shrine by Kaikobashi gate might confuse you as well.
Kachidoki Gate is located AT THE END of Harumi Street BEFORE it crosses the Sumida River. From the Tsukiji Lawsons, it is a quick two block walk.
3. Be situationally aware - this is a working market and buyers and sellers are trying to get their orders distributed and delivered. There are dozens of electric vehicles running about. The security guards that accompany are trying to keep you from getting injured by these silent but powerful electric carts. The carts are designed to haul hundreds of kilos of fish quickly through the market. They are more Tesla than golf cart. Get in the way of one of those carts, you could be turned into kamaboko, i.e. fish paste (蒲鉾:かまぼこ) !
4. Enjoy the Auction - Instead of looking for the perfect instagram-able selfie, watch the auctioneer and the bidders. Each tuna can earn one of four grades. The tail section of the tuna is cut open so the bidders can examine the quality of the meat with respect to color, texture and fat content. (If you want to get a sense of how tuna is graded watch this.)
5. After the tour - go find something to eat at Tsukiji Outer Market. This is the wholesale market for the professionals but also for tourist. Chirashi, a bowl of sashimi over a bed of rice, should not be missed.
I have been going to the Outer Market for nearly 15 years. These shops supply restaurants around the world with a wide variety of fresh and dried goods. There is more than seafood there.
There are amazing pickles and tsukudani (佃煮). The grandmother in the photo below has been traveling two hours every day to deliver her tsukudani to the market for decades. I've found her pickles in NYC's finest restaurants. No joke.
It is important to note: after the Tsukiji distribution point and auction moves, the Outer Market will remain. Many of the people who have shops there, live there as well. There has been quite a bit a controversy about the move.
What is tsukudani? This is how the Japanese preserve small fish, shell fish and seaweed. The ingredients are simmered in a combination of soy, miring and sugar. I've been buying from this lovely lady for years. You want an authentic taste of Japan? This is the easiest way to bring a umami bomb to your home cooking. Don't be surprised if you run into famous chef trying out all the treats.
5. Need a caffeine boost? - if you are like me, you'll need a cup of joe after waking up so early and eating so much. Try something other than Starbucks. Go to Yonemoto Coffee (米本珈琲), they will satisfy your craving for even Blue Bottle coffee. The aromas of their house blend will boot those cobwebs aside so you can explore the Outer Market further or head to Ginza.
There are two locations in the Outer Market:
HQ: 4-11-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0041
Branch: 4-13-4 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0041
6. Walk to Ginza from Tsukiji - as you sip your coffee, walk to Ginza District. It's a short two-three block walk. Ginza's glamour and glitz borders gives Park Avenue a run for their money. Walk to Ginza Six and look out from the rooftop.
Kent is a management consultant who has spent years traveling for work. His refuge is looking for the perfect meal so that he can reproduce it at home with his wife and friends.