Japan – Part 5: Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market, pronounced “tskee-gee”,  is the biggest fish market in the world with fish arriving daily, caught from the seas around the world.

The market is like a secret society. 400 years old, it is drenched in history and tradition. There are special memberships, secret entrances, uniforms, secret signals to buy fish, and early morning gatherings. It is also deadly. Blood covers the floor, while hundreds of trucks and fork-lifts whizz about with no warning, threatening to mow down wayward tourists. Very rare creatures can be found here. Sometimes, even illegal fish – caught for ‘research purposes’ can be found ensconced in a polystyrene container in the bowls of the market (a blue whale was reportedly last seen in the market in the 60s).

The fish here are other-worldly. Bottom dwellers, rainbow striped, ugly and beautiful and on occasion rare. Curious Conger eels, murderous marlin, fugu (puffer fish), whelks, barnacles, sea pineapples, scorpion fish, and controversially – whale and turtle can all be found here. If it swims, clings or floats – it’s at Tsukiji.

To see the tuna auction at Tsukiji market you have to get up very early. If you are not in the queue at the Fish Information Center by 4.30 am then you have no chance. Thank goodness for jet lag as we were already awake at 3am!

However, the reward for getting up so early is to wait for two hours while you go through more queuing and then some very detailed instructions about what to do while at the fish market. Everyone must wear bright blue jackets so they don’t get run over by the hundreds of electric wagons that buzz about the market.

Tsukiji Map

There is also a ‘sea urchin’ auction – but these urchins from Hokkaido are kept behind locked doors.

The tuna auction, however, is definitely the highlight of the market. It’s the secretiveness of it – the strict rules and regulations to get in (in very unusual English) – that makes it all so exciting. In fact, it has only recently re-opened to the public.

In the auction room, hundreds of frozen missile sit on the floor. These are the flash frozen tuna – that may have been caught anywhere in the world, but brought here for inspection and purchase.  Crowds of men gather round in huddles across the warehouse to inspect the tuna. They are only able to examine the meat in their tails. No tuna can be cut open before it is sold.

Meat is methodically inspected using a torch and a pick axe. No guide book explains what this is about, but after hours of research I discovered that the merchants are looking at the colour of the meat, the oil content and also if there is any sign of disease. If the tuna has parasites, it will be pocked with holes. The best tuna, however, will have a marbled tail.

If its good the tuna will feel slippery to the touch indicating the high oil content.

As a tourist, you stand petrified of moving – afraid that a wipe of the nose or an eye scratch may convey the secret signal indicating that, yes, you would like to buy that large tuna at twice the going rate. In fact, wrap it in pink paper with a bow and send it straight to the hotel – whole. No need to slice it! My heart was in my mouth when my husband started holding up his camera for better shots. A hefty frozen tuna could have been ours!!!

Once sold, stickers are slapped on the cold fish with names to indicate their owners before being whisked off to the band saws to be hacked into smaller pieces before being put into ‘tuna coffins’.

Tsukiji Tuna Auction

The most expensive tuna fish ever sold went for $736,000 (£475,000). Its head alone was enormous. Check out the article here.

The most prized bit of the tuna is ‘fatty tuna’ (o-toro) which can be anything up to $24 a piece!

A tekagi – hand hook

Around 2,000 tons of fish go through this market every day. Some of the specimens are completely alien.

If you don’t fancy fish – there are plenty of other eateries and vegetable stalls. This delicious looking tempura was ready by 6am in the morning!

Perched on the edge of the market are tiny restaurants – no more than broom cupboards with marble diner style tables and chairs. I have no idea about the name of the place we went to for breakfast at 6am, but it was absolutely tiny. There were only 6 seats and three items on the menu in English.

There are no California rolls here, no imitation crab or avocado, this is pure fish, moulded beautiful on top of a bed of rice and sealed with wasabi. This was the chef’s special – a secret fish selection with two surprises thrown in. This was delicious sushi – but the ambience made it ten times better.

Sushi on hinoki wood platters.

Surprisingly, the sea urchin sushi wasn’t slimy, just a bit squelchy and salty in the mouth – but really delicious.

Sea Urchin – “uni”

For all the controversy, drama and mystery surrounding the market, it remains the most incredible place. The anthropologist, Theodore Bestor said that Tsukiji  “is closely attuned to the subtleties of Japanese food and to the representations of national cultural identity that cloak cuisine, but this is also the market that drives the global fishing industry, from sea urchin divers in Maine, to shrimp farmers in Thailand, from Japanese long-liners in the Indian Ocean to Croatian tuna ranchers in the Adriatic.”


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