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An insider guide to Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market
Or, why there's more to a Tsukiji trip than posing with a giant dead tuna at 5 a.m.
In normal times, Tokyo’s world-renowned Tsukiji wholesale fish market is crowded with gawping tourists out for an early-morning glimpse of the colorful tuna auctions and a taste of fresh-from-the-ocean sushi for breakfast. However, the March 11 earthquake and tsunami mean things in Tsukiji are now anything but normal.
On my recent visit, two weeks after the earthquake, I was the first visitor many traders had seen since the disaster. People went out of their way to welcome me and took my being there as a sign that life as they used to know it might return and, along with it, the crowds of pesky tourists.
For my stroll around the post-March 11 Tsukiji, I was joined by Reiko Yoshikawa, a caterer who uses the market as the main food source of her business, and we took a look at what insiders truly love about Tokyo’s celebrated market.
“Tsukiji has a wide variety of the best of the best, including vegetables, fruit, beef, poultry and of course, fish -- the specialty stores also make it unique,” says Reiko.
The market as a whole is split between the inner market, Jonai Shijo, and the outer market, Jogai Shijo. The inner market, where the fish is auctioned, gets going around 3 a.m., with the busiest time between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. By 9:30 a.m., the business for the day is over at a time when most folk are only just starting work.
The oft-overlooked part of Tsukiji is the outer market. This area surrounds the fish sales and sells a mix of seasonal fruit and vegetables, kitchen utensils and kitchenware, beans, spices, meat, knives and fish. It is open from 6 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. There is no bargaining and almost all payments are cash.
Tourists are usually unaware of the high-end melon auction, which takes place at 9:30 a.m. These are the notoriously super-expensive melons sold in department stores for up to ¥10,000 a pair.
You’ll find the melon fans in the fruit and vegetable warehouse across the street from the inner fish market -- just look for the lime-green metal bleachers.
The real deal
If seeing all this food makes you hungry, skip the same packed sushi restaurants recommended in every guidebook and try Reiko’s favorite spot for Tsukiji sushi, Kagura Sushi.
To find the restaurant that invented seared sushi, stand with your back to Namiyoke Shrine -- a 400-year-old sanctuary whose name means “avoid the waves” -- turn to your right, and walk past the pottery store. It's a couple of shops down from there.
Kagura Sushi also has a tented branch around the corner that is fun. English menus are available.
If sushi for breakfast is not your thing, try Ten Fusa, a deliciously fresh tempura restaurant. To find it, look for the long lines in front of Daiwa Sushi, which is two doors down. You can’t go wrong ordering the Jo-Tendon -- a variety of fried seafood and veggies on top of rice.
Along Monzeki Street, you’ll find many tiny restaurants and shops. Keep your eyes peeled for the ramen shop, Dai-ni Tsukiji Seimen-jo, where owner Ume-chan makes noodles fresh each morning in the back of the store. You can buy a bag of noodles with soup (three different kinds -- chicken, soy or miso) for ¥600.
If you still think a trip to Tsukiji is not complete without seeing a giant tuna, Minoru-chan, owner of Dainobu -- one of the biggest and most respected tuna vendors in the market -- suggests coming by between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.
“When the tuna auction is done, there is a lot of activity delivering the purchases to the stalls," he says.
"Come and watch the workers use large, sharp knives to filet the massive fish into saleable pieces -- it's a two-man job and very interesting to watch.”
Either: take the Hibiya Metro line, alight at Tsukiji and use exit A2. Walk straight to Harumi Dori, cross the street and then make a left and cross again. This will put you on Monzeki Street, the beginning of the outer market.
Or: ride the Oedo line to Tsukijishijo and use exit A1. Once on the street, turn left and, at the first corner, turn left again. Outside of exit A1 there is a fantastic map of the market in English.
Tip Box: If you are interested in Reiko Yoshikawa’s catering or a private tour of Tsukiji, she welcomes inquiries by email.
Want fresh fish delivered from Tsukiji to your door? Try Andy's Fish -- deliveries to the Tokyo area and Yokohama.
The market is closed on Sundays, holidays and some Wednesdays, so check the official Tsukiji website before you go.
Lastly, watch out for the ta-re, the motorized trolleys -- they always have right of way inside the market.