Tsukiji is the world’s largest ‘fish market’ – the use of inverted commas emphasizes that the range of creatures on sale goes well beyond fish! The wholesale section consists of stall upon stall stacked high with sea creatures of every description (eels, abalone, jellyfish, tilapia, tobiko, conch, and much more). There is such a range of bizarre sea monsters that you’ve probably never seen the like of before, some with bright colours and spiky shells, some huge and others tiny, that the whole place is like a big phantasmagorical natural history museum – but one where many of the animals are still wriggling around.
Cutting Fish on an Industrial Scale. Photo courtesy of Chris_73 and used under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence. There is more variety here than in any aquarium – and if any of the animals really grabs your attention, you can take it home and eat it to find out what it tastes like – an option never available at your local sea-life centre. Alternatively, a slightly tamer option would be to pop into one of the adjoining seafood restaurants – which could still be quite a scary experience as some delicacies are served live, and then cooked at the table.
The most popular attraction is the fast paced auctions. Row upon row of giant man-sized tuna are inspected by buyers, and then sold in a cacophony of shouts as they’re quickly snapped up by wholesalers and restaurants. In other parts of the market you can see these fish being dissected, sometimes with band saws, other times more traditionally with huge knives the size of swords. If you want to get the most out of Tsukiji you need to get up early – the tuna auctions take place between 5:30am and 6:00am, while the other parts of the market start winding down after about 8:00am, before the market closes completely about 11am. It’s also closed Sundays, public holidays and some Wednesdays. Be aware that Tsukiji is a very busy place, and tourists are not really wanted here, though so long as you stay out of the way and behave yourself the marketeers are generally fairly tolerant. Be especially careful of the many carts and forklift trucks dashing around at high speed – if one hits you it’s probably going to be you who gets the blame for getting in its way. And if you don’t have time to visit Tsukiji, then at least pop into a local supermarket – there’s bound to be at least a couple of fish tanks with strange creatures swimming around in them.
Note: As of May 2010, it is necessary to obtain a ticket from the Fish Information Centre next to the Kachidoki gate to gain admittance to the tuna auctions. Tickets are available for each day's auction from 4:30am on a first-come first-served basis, and usually run out quickly. Visitors are also currently only allowed to enter the wholesale area after 9am, though there are no restrictions on visiting the retail shops and restaurants in the outer market. The admittance policy for the market frequently changes, so it’s best to check directly on the Tsukiji Market website for the latest details before you visit.
Access: Tsukijishijo station on Toei Subway’s Oedo line is right next to the market, while Tsukuji station on Tokyo Metro’s Hibiya line is only a five-minute walk away.
Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Centre of the World By Theodore C. Bestor. Most people go to Tsukiji for a quick fix of novel sights and sounds – but this book goes much deeper. We find out about the people who work there, and the web of personal relationships that allow Tsukiji to function as the hub of a huge global system. While it’s a serious scholarly work by a Harvard professor, it’s so well written that it’s a delight to read, though there are one or two more academic sections you might want to skim over.
Sushi: Taste and Technique By Kimiko Barber and Hiroki Takemura. If you want to learn to make really authentic sushi, here is a great place to start. There are clear explanations of everything from ingredients to eating etiquette, and the text is backed up with plenty of photos.
Squeamish About Sushi and Other Food Adventures in Japan By Betty Reynolds. This book is about much more than sushi – it deals with the full range of Japanese culinary challenges, from deciphering the menu to the art of noodle slurping. Despite the title, the author is anything but squeamish – her colourful illustrations and comical text cover a whole range of delicacies I’ve never been brave enough to try.Kabuki-za Shimokitazawa