After a full week in Tokyo, we work up at 3:00 am Thursday to check one last thing off our list: a visit to the Tsukiji Market, also known as the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market. Pronounced “tskii-jii”, this is the largest fish market in the world, doing some US$28 million of business each day.
The guidebooks all say that that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has placed restrictions on what tourists can access at the market, after crowds caused concerns about sanitation and got in the way of the market workers. That, combined with my perception that a wholesale fish market isn’t a place I want to be wandering around on my own, aimlessly, prompted me to search out guided tour options.
Several reviews on the web sang the praises of Naoto Nakamura, a former market middleman who now gives tours three mornings a week. While pricey at 7500 yen per person (about US$75), he limits his groups to no more than six and adjusts his tours each time based on the conditions of each day.
This, I was certain, would be a good way to learn about the market from someone with first-hand experience.
My certainty was well-founded as the tour turned out to be every bit as insightful and informative as I could have hoped for. Nakamura-san’s English was excellent and his sense of humor very dry. We met our other two tour members, a pair of women (one who was half-Thai) visiting from the US.
The underlying subtext for the morning was a cat-and-mouse game. Outsiders (non-employees) are not allowed in many areas of the market, especially on the auction floors around the seafood. White-booted Tokyo Municipal Government inspectors were about and the captain of the market, Nakamura-san’s nemesis, kept appearing around corners and down hallways, so we would climb stairs, duck out side doors and do everything we could to avoid a confrontation.
We started our tour in the fresh fish area, observing an auction and taking a look at the huge variety (more than 400 types!) of seafood for sale at Tsukiji. The fish arrives between about 6pm and midnight and is arranged by the vendors for inspection. By 3 am the middlemen start poking around, looking at the seafood and evaluating it. These days a lot of the sales are pre-negotiated, so auctions play a smaller role.
We then went to the fresh tuna warehouse, where these 70 kg (150 lbs) fish lay in neat rows, being inspected by middlemen, notches in the side allowing a clear view of the quality – and fattiness – of their flesh.
This is the key area that visitors are no longer allowed. So this picture was actually taken crouching down looking under a rolling door that was open about two feet high. The things I’ll do to get my shot.
We attended the auctions for fresh fish, live fish and sea urchins, marching away through the busy market, dodging electric carts that would silently creep up on you.
It was obvious that the market workers don’t really enjoy having tourists in their way, so it took a lot of concentration to keep out of trouble. I was amazed when, later in the morning, I saw tourists on their own, dragging children as young as about five around. Dangerous and inconsiderate of the people working here.
The frozen tuna auction is by far the most interesting, at least visually. These frosted fish look surreal, lined up with frozen mist rising around them like smoke. We had just a few minutes at the rolling door before it was closed on us, so we headed to the live fish auction.
Nakamura-san was able to get us up close for the live fish auction, above. This moves very fast as there are two auctions going on at the same time. Nearby, we saw workers pulling live fish from tanks based on the auction results, bashing them on the head with a knife, slitting their tail so the blood would drain out, then ramming a steel rod through their mouth and down their spinal nerve, killing them. Not quite so gruesome as it sounds, but definitely gives you an appreciation for the food you eat.
At the live tuna auction, the market’s captain caught up with us and gave Nakamura-san a lecture. Afterwards, he said, “At least he’s calling me ‘Nakamura-san’ now instead of the nasty names he used to use.”
The auctions run from about 4:30-5:30, one after another. Even before the last fish is sold, middlemen start carrying their purchases off to their stalls, where they prepare the fish for sale. This is the last step in the transformation from whole fish to retail-ready cuts.
Recognize this fish? It is whale meat. The two rows on the right are from smaller whales but the back row is from whatever large-size whales Greenpeace tries to intervene in the hunt of.
Nakamura-san provided some perspective on why the Japanese are resistant to international pressure to end whaling. After World War II, the whaling industry we re-established in Japan to help with severe food shortages. For many baby boomers, whale meat was one of their main sources of protein during their childhood years. To this day, it has strong resonance with the population even if its consumption has sharply declined.
According to statistics, almost 50% of the total animal protein consumption in 1947 in Japan was whale meat. (Source: http://luna.pos.to/whale/jwa_trad.html)
Watching the middlemen do their work was fascinating. Knife skills are a beautiful art and this balding man in the picture below really was an artist. Using a knife longer than a samurai’s sword, it took four men to carefully quarter a large fresh tuna.
The middlemen who bought frozen tuna had an easier time of it, using band saws to cut through the flesh.
By 5:45 or so, many tourists had shown up, most guiding themselves and trying to edge in on our tour for free. While they did get a peek at the tuna auction, I can’t imagine that they walked away with much of an understanding of the whole market. For that reason, I’m glad we did the tour.
By shortly after 6:00, Nakamura-san had shown us all we needed to see. He pointed out a few good sushi restaurants, took our money and thanked us. Since we were already there and we knew the sushi would be fresh, Tawn and I queued up to eat the best sushi we’ve ever had.
There are two restaurants in alley 6 of the “auxiliary market” (where the vendors that serve the needs of the market workers are located), both of which get quite a queue out their front doors. These are are the two most highly recommended sushi bars.
Here’s what we ate. Sorry that I can’t identify what everything was.
Something very fatty (toro?) and squid
Ebi (Shrimp) and Maguro (Blue Fin tuna)
Uni – sea urchin with scrambled egg
Tuna and Ikura (Salmon Roe) Nigiri (seaweed-wrapped sushi); and I think Grilled Saba (Mackerel) and Hamachi (Yellow Tail tuna). But I’m not certain.
Total cost for the set including rice, soup and tea: 3500 yen, about US$35. Pricey, but really good. This is one of the few times I was willing to really splurge.
Again, I can’t say enough good things about the tour. If you’re going to Tokyo and are interested in the tour of the market, you can find Nakamura-san’s website here.
Here’s a video of our trip to the market:
After “breakfast” we returned to the hotel for a few more hours of sleep, then packed our bags and headed to Narita Airport for the flight home. And with that, eight days in Japan came to an end.