If it lives in the sea, it’s probably for sale at the Tsukiji Market, where acres and acres of fish and fish products pass hands. Everything is allotted its own area, and a quick scan of the loading docks will reveal mountains of octopus, rows of giant tuna, endless varieties of shellfish and tanks of live unnameable fish. About 2246 tonnes of fish, worth over 1.8 billion yen (US$15.5 million), are sold here daily; that’s 615,409 tonnes of fish, worth some US$4.25 billion a year. It’s not unheard of for a single tuna to fetch an incredible US$20 million.
After it’s been fished from the sea and before it turns up on a sashimi platter, most of Tokyo’s seafood transits through the market. This gigantic pulsating hub of Tokyo’s gastronomic systems pumps at a frenetic, fish-fuelled pace. Workers yell, slice blocks of ice, haul massive bluefin tuna, spit, stop for a smoke, laugh, bone an eel and yell some more. Watching the rough-and-ready, hardworking market men and women of Tsukiji, you can imagine the massive creative, communal energy that allowed Tokyo to rise, in less than 200 years, from riverside swamp to one of the world’s greatest cities.
Some of the hundreds of merchants have been here for 20 generations. The hustle and bustle can be intoxicating, and as long as you’re there before 8am, some kind of push and pull will doubtless be going on. The market shuts completely by 1pm for cleaning. Although the market is not as odoriferous as you might think, you still don’t want to wear your nicest clothing (and especially not your best shoes), and watch out for the electric carts zipping around the narrow aisles.
You’ll have to trundle out here early to see the predawn arrival of fish and its wholesale auctioning. Recently the rules have changed, restricting the number of tourists allowed to view the auctions and the wholesale markets. Apply at the Osakana Fukyu Centre (Fish Information Centre) at the markets as early as possible as people are accepted on a first come, first serve basis. Double check with your hotel what the state of affairs is before you trundle out to the market at 4am, as the rules could change.
The rest of the market can be visited freely, and you can do so without waking up at an unholy hour. Move out to the nearby alleys of the external market, where hundreds of little stalls sell pottery, cooking equipment, cutlery and packaged foods for a fraction of the prices charged at department stalls. Everyone will probably find something in Tsukiji’s Outer Market.
It is neither as famous nor as breathtakingly busy as its inner counterpart, but that is usually a blessing. It gives you the time you need to browse all kinds of seafood (naturally) and produce, noodle shops, tiny cafes and cooking-supply shops, in addition to boots, baubles, baskets, plates, picks (of the tooth variety) and pottery, all at reasonable prices. It can be quite an education to see how those foods you’ve always loved are actually made or to wonder what those tiny bowls are used for. There are loads of tasting opportunities as well. In short, it’s one stop shopping for anything you need to prepare and serve that next great Japanese meal, though check your country’s import restrictions if you plan to take any food products out of the country.
Top off your visit with melt-in-your-mouth fresh sushi for breakfast as another morning winds down in Tsukiji.
The article was first published in www.lonelyplanet.com in July 2010. It was refreshed and updated in November 2012