My stay in Tokyo was brief but eventful. The brightest memory of that visit, without reservations, was one early morning at the Tsukiji Market, the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.
The idea to go there came up by chance, as many brilliant ideas do, during a late, alcohol-soaked dinner. A Japanese colleague kindly offered to take us visitors to Tsukiji’s legendary tuna auction, but we had to leave the hotel by 4:30 am the next morning. I was among two people mad enough to show up–but WHAT an experience!
The Tsukiji Market was never intended to be a tourist destination, perhaps explaining its unique charm and proclivity to be exactly that. It is a hectic, high-pressure working environment, especially during the tuna auctions. To permit some tourist presence, but to ensure that work is undisturbed, only 120 registered visitors (first-come, first-served) are allowed to see the auction during the week: The first 60 go in between 5:25 and 5:50 am, and the next group is admitted from 5:50 to 6:15 am. Registration begins at 5 at the Fish Information Center by the Kachidoki Bridge entrance, but people begin lining up well before then (this site has all the latest news on tourist access–the tuna auction is sometimes closed to the public).
We arrived around 4:45, landing in the second group–and that’s on a rainy, cold November morning (in spring and early autumn, Tokyo’s peak tourist seasons, it is recommended to arrive between 3:00 and 4:00 am)! While languishing in line, we were given this brochure in Japanese and English and treated to a video about the market and its secret language, steeped in tradition. Soon, time began to fly by, our excitement mounting: We, a motley collection of tourists from all over the world, expats, and some locals, were about to see something very special.
Finally, showtime: Our group was shuffled through to a designated warehouse area overlooking the tuna auction. With carts, swift turret trucks, forklifts, and market employees rushing around, it is crucial to pay attention to your surroundings and follow instructions–you absolutely can be run over, and it is easy to slip and fall if you don’t watch your step.
Once there, you simply gulp up the action unraveling before you: Rows of huge tuna carcasses line the floor; a swarm of focused men with flashlights descend upon them, poking at the wares with long hooks, assessing the fish quality by rubbing tiny morsels of meat between their fingers.
Auctioneers, meanwhile, dart around with small wooden stools, regularly climbing them to issue an impressive barrage of something extremely meaningful. Their colleagues, weave through the crowd with red paint and brush, marking purchased fish and wheeling it out on weathered carts. The energy of the warehouse is exhilarating.
No one seems to pay attention to anyone, yet everyone is, somehow, beautifully in sync amidst this carefully choreographed chaos of practiced, virtually invisible gestures shared between sellers and buyers, each playing his role as part of this intricate, mesmerizing organism. A breathtaking spectacle!
As the whirlwind of the auction gradually dissipated, with most tunas claimed, we were led outside. There, bright turret trucks still zoomed around, piling up newly empty Styrofoam boxes. The action now moved to the Wholesale Market, closed to the public until 9 am. This is where authorized chefs and distributors from across Tokyo come to buy seafood and fish, the freshest of catches, for the day.
Of course, I had to sneak a peek through a half-raised curtain. Just after 6, sellers were already welcoming numerous customers. The warehouse buzzed with activity.
We were clearly imposing and in the way, so off we headed to the Outer Market, Tsukiji’s “Food Town”, a maze of colorful shops and open-air stalls, selling fruits, vegetables, condiments, cookware, and anything and everything else imaginable. Here, I saw my very first wasabi root–funny, but I had not actually visualized what wasabi paste came from before.
Our host guided us to a lineup of small, picturesque restaurants overlooking the market stalls.
Sushi for breakfast? Yes, please! I read online that restaurants on this narrow lane fill up quickly in spring and summer, with long lines. In November, this was not the case. We just strolled into a place that looked warm and inviting and were welcomed with aromatic green tea and seats by the chef.
Our chef slowly prepared and served single sashimi pieces (I think we had a procession of ten or twelve of his careful creations in the end), from that morning’s catch, which we ate with our hands. I have never tried fish, or seafood, quite THIS fresh before. It was delicious, but the aesthetics of how it was made and presented made it more–it was beautiful.
As our leisurely breakfast came to an end, we headed back into the cold, wet morning, the city now fully awake around us, elated by the experience and ready for the day of meetings ahead.