Monday, October 08, 2007

Something Fishy Going On at Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, Japan

If there’s on place to see over 400 different types of fish and seafood other than in the world’s oceans, it is at the Tsukiji fish market (築地市場, Tsukiji shijō), part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market which also handles meat, vegetables and flowers. One of three fish markets in Tokyo trading over 700, 000 metric tonnes of seafood equivalent to 6 billion US dollars in value, Tsukiji is not only the largest fish market in Tokyo serving its 20 million plus residents but also in the world.

Tsukiji handles about 2000 metric tonnes of seafood a day, employs around 60,000 workers and deals with everything from seaweed to some of the world’s most expensive caviar. It’s probably most famous for its tuna, some of which weigh in at a whopping 300kg.

The current market was built in 1935, after the Great Kanto Earthquake, and now attracts an average of 52,000 visitors per day. Its roots, however, stem from the 16th century when the first Tokugawa shogun and builder of Edo, now Tokyo, Tokugawa Ieyasu invited fishermen from Tsukudajima in Osaka to provide seafood for Edo castle. Fish not purchased by the castle was sold near the Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo. Merchants at this riverside fish market or ‘Uogashi’ were licensed by the Shogunate and soon became wealthy as population growth lead to demand increases and distribution networks became established. Trade was at that time based on negotiation between buyers and sellers.

In 1918, the so-called ‘Rice Riots’ took place across Japan in protest against food shortages and the trading practices of wholesalers. As a result, a Central Wholesale Market Law operating the markets through an auction system was established in 1923. In the same year the Great Kanto earthquake occurred and many of the private markets in Tokyo were destroyed. It was decided to construct central wholesale markets. Nihonbashi fish market was relocated to the Tsukiji district (near Tsukiji Shijou Station on the Oedo subway line and the Tsukiji Station on the Hibiya subway line) and began operating once construction of the new market was completed in 1935.

The market consists of inner and outer market areas. The inner market area, or ‘jonai shijo’ is the licensed wholesale market and where the auctions, most of the fish processing and wholesale dealer transactions occur. The outer market area, or ‘jogai shijo’ contains a mixture of wholesale and retail shops selling restaurant supplies, fishmonger tools and supplies (knives, wellington boots etc), groceries, seafood products and restaurants. The wholesale fruit and vegetable market is in this section.

Tsukiji market is open daily from about 3:00am apart from Sundays and public holidays but probably best to check if you're planning an early morning visit.

Trucks arrive during the night to unload all the fish which has been transported from the various oceans of the world to Tokyo by ship or plane and after the the unloading, pre-auction inspections take place. Around 5:00am the auctions commence. Officially, tourists are not allowed into the inspection areas and auctions themselves although there are a few viewing spots and the remainder of the market is still accessible. Apparently, it is sometimes possible to get into these areas discreetly and as long as you are respectful and do not touch the fish, a blind eye is usually turned.

The auctions tend to end around 7:00am at which point the fish is then moved to stalls by cart and taken to stalls operated by middlemen or loaded onto trucks for transportation to other destinations. If you linger by the middlemen's stalls, you can witness the stallholders preparing the fish for sale. Watching them cut the larger fish, such as tuna and swordfish is fascinating, and butchery becomes an art form. Something akin to samurai fishmongery.

It is suggested that you take a tour of the market but you can wander around by yourself but bear in mind that some areas might be off-limits.

The Tsukiji Market has 3 entrances: the main entrance, the Kaiko-bashi entrance and the Kachidoki-bashi entrance.

Kachidoki-bashi is a large drawbridge on Harumi Street. At the entrance gate, you will see a small office occupied by Tokyo Government guards. You can ask for a booklet and map here which introduces the market in Japanese and English.

Once you’ve finished viewing the many different types of fish and all the market life, you can wander over to one of the several restaurants located in Building 6 of the outer market, join the long queues and sample some of the freshest sushi in Japan. Daiwa Sushi (大和寿司) and Sushidai (寿司大) are two of the most popular restaurants. They open around 5:00am and close around midday as the market activity dies down and cleaning begins.

One final piece of advice is to take extreme care as you walk around the market area as it is a very busy working market, with slippery floors, knives and fish hooks all around. You will see lots of motorized carts whizzing around all over the place at speed - they are just trying to get on with business. Be careful, especially if you have children with you.

Official website:

Tsukiji Wholsale Market

Location map

Market Tours:

Tsukiji Tour