Tsukiji -- Tokyo Central Wholesale Fish Market

Tsukiji is the best tip I got for Japan from a guidebook (several mentioned it). The only problem with Tsukiji is that the action takes place in the early, early morning, so be prepared to lose some sleep!

Winding our Way In

My friend Debbie On the left is my friend Debbie and her cat. The cat's wondering what in the world got us all up at 4am. We hopped the subway and then, on the right, follow the pedestrian traffic jam leading from the subway stop to the fish market at 5am. Morning Rush
Winding our way in


The fish market is a huge, cavernous series of buildings and parking lots. At left, Debbie and, dimly seen on the left, my friend Jeremy, work our way in through the rows of parked trucks. Next you come to a layer of boxes and boxes of something (later, we would learn, largely shrimp).

Da Shrimps

In this part of the market we ran into a couple 'ugly American' tourists -- an older couple, the man of whom had no qualms about walking up to a busy fishseller and, without introduction, barking out "Where's the tuna auction?" in English expecting an immediate and English answer. They latched onto us both because we were clearly foreigners and because Debbie could ask the same questions in politely in Japanese -- somehow the guy never seemed to grasp that the polite was as important as the Japanese (although admittedley, unlike downtown Tokyo, the Japanese was pretty important too).

Just a lot of Ice
Since this is a raw fish auction, they need a lot of ice, and you see lots of it as you wind your way in. Like, truckloads of it. Truck o' Ice
You also see these little ice-vending platforms throughout the facility.
Platform o' Ice  
We finally found our way in to the auction area. This place was a beehive of activity at 5:15am -- it was hard to find somewhere to stand and take a picture, for fear that you were blocking someone trying to do their job.
Which one do you like?
And their job centered around tuna -- lots of tuna. The fishing fleet comes in at about 3am, and hustles that morning's catch over to Tsukiji to be displayed on these wooden palettes. Potential buyers roam the aisles, poking and prodding the carcasses with their fishooks. Every tuna is marked for identification. Us and our big mouths!
Lined up in neat rows
The auctions for the last batch of tuna are going on while the inspections take place for the next batch. These two guys work for the market, and they're conducting an auction of a particular fish at the moment. Japan being Japan, it's not quite as in-your-face loud as an American auction -- but nevertheless, the pacing is that unmistakeable cadence of an auction.
I rekkin that tuna's worth...
No it ain't
At left are the buyers who were bidding in that auction. As you can see, baseball caps are an integral part of the Tsukiji uniform, whether buyer or seller. At right, another auction takes place in a different auction stall. There were two simultaneous auctions when we were there; apparently earlier there had been three simultaneous auctions. The auction for each fish only seemed to take a minute or two, but they were organized into sessions at each auction stand that lasted about half an hour, after which people broke up and milled around. The auctions go on from 4:30am-6:30am. Tuna inspection
Double order to go
After the conclusion of a round of auctions, the successful bidders come around with their fishhooks and hand-drawn carts to haul away their prize. Tuna to go
Hunka hunka burning fish
This was the biggest single tuna we saw that morning. Hunka hunka burning fish, huh?
There are other areas with other auctions. This was a shrimp auction being conducted off to one side of the tuna auction area. Those white boxes in the foreground are filled with large Japanese shrimp.
What's the yellow one do?
Hunka hunka frozen love
And this was perhaps the most Blade-Runner-esque thing I've ever encountered -- the frozen tuna auction. Across the aisle from the tuna auction was this area, with huge, rock-solid frozen carcasses of tuna lying everywhere on the floor. Since they'd been frozen in dry ice, the entire place had a light white mist rising up, and hundred of Japanese men ran back and forth hustling these things around.
I thought, this has gotta be used for a movie set someday. Anyone?
No smell in here, at least
Rasta tuna guy Retail sale Future Sushi Specials
This was rasta tuna guy -- we have no idea how or why he was there. Later, as we made out way out around 7am, the outer layers of the market were waking up. We realized that many of the buyers at the auctions were actually these folks, who would slice up the whole tuna into these large pieces for resale, and that probably restaurant owners actually bought their tuna here rather than bidding directly on whole fish at the auction. We didn't catch the prices paid for whole tuna at the auction, but even at this level sashimi-quality tuna was still cheap -- the large piece in the middle of this display case was around ¥2500. The vendors on the outer layers of the market didn't stock just tuna -- Bonito, anyone? They also had huge boxes of eel, roe, mackeral -- pretty much a wholesale equivalent of your favorite sushi restaurant.
Something's fishy And speaking of sushi -- our reward for a hard morning of obstructing the workers of the fish market. There are all sorts of food stalls at Tsukiji -- mostly noodle shops for the workers. But there are definitely a few sushi shops as well, and we stopped into this one for a quick bite of the tuna we just had watched be auctioned. It was -- as you'd hope -- exquisite. By all means, if you get to Tokyo, try and burn an early morning at Tsukiji.
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  © 1998-2005 Leo Hourvitz