18 Oct 2015

Back to Japan - Day 9, Part 1: Tsukiji Fish Market

I first visited Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo back in 2004, on my first visit to the city. Things were very different then; while it was reasonably well-known, the crowds of tourists hadn't really discovered it and you were able to just rock up on your own and wander around at leisure, trying not to get in anyone's way. From memory, I'd got an expensive taxi there at about 5.30am and caught the end of the frozen tuna auction (the fresh one was earlier; too early). Now things are a lot different - get there after 4.13am (or possibly earlier) and you'll miss the opportunity to have an early-morning visit to see the spectacle of the auction and all the prodding and sampling that goes on prior to it.

I first read the official guidance on the market's website, which basically said that you had to be there at 5.00am in order to register. 120 visitors were allowed each day, split into two tour groups - the first would visit the market from 5.25am until 5.50am and the second from 5.50am until 6.15am. I decided to check a few blogs to see if this was still the case and for any further guidance on timing and queues and read a few stories of people showing up at 4.30am and all of the slots had already been filled. You needed to get there before 4am, one blog suggested. It would be pretty annoying to get up super-early, get yourself there, only to find you were 15 minutes too late. Part of my strategy for visiting the market was to stay as close as possible, which meant that we only had to walk for 5 or so minutes to the entrance (we'd been given a map and instructions on how to get there by the hotel). The other strategy was to just get there as early as possible - if we were going to get up in the middle of the night, half an hour less sleep wasn't going to make much difference.

It was still a struggle though, as we pulled on our clothes at just after 3am and headed out into the mild night. Being the rainy season meant that tourist numbers were relatively low, so we were confident of securing a place. We met an Israeli guy walking along the road who was also on his way; he'd cycled and tied his bike up nearby. The entrance wasn't well marked, but there were some security men guiding us to the brightly-lit office. As we went in we put our names on a list and were handed yellow high-vis vests to put on. We went into a room, where there were already about thirty people already waiting; the two at the front were standing, eager to get to the auction action as quickly as possible and get the best view. It was 3.25am; we had another 2 hours of waiting before that was possible. People arrived regularly and by 3.50am the first group was full. The next people arriving got blue vests and came in quickly; by 4.13am it was full! Given the advice on the website says registration is at 5am there must've been some annoyed people showing after 4.13am! (I just read a review on TripAdvisor by someone arriving at 3.45am on a Saturday morning and it being full already). People chatted, took photos, but generally it was a dull wait, sitting on the floor of a holding room, checking the clock regularly.

Finally at 5.20am (after 2 hours of waiting) we were led out across the market roads, dodging motorised trolleys and carts hurtling past, before arriving in a tiny corridor between two tuna areas which was our viewing spot for the next 20-25 minutes.

On either side were rows of steaming frozen tuna with the ends of their tails cut away from the bodies for the salesmen to test the quality of the fish. The men pottered about in their wellies, prodding the flesh with hooks, rubbing bits between their fingers, tasting some, shining flashlights on the flesh to examine the quality more closely, scribbling notes down, discussing with colleagues. These men were buying tuna for some of the world's best restaurants, so it was a serious (and lucrative) business. It was as I'd remembered, only this time I wasn't able to just wander through the rows of tuna at my whim. I switched lenses to try to capture different views, but it was challenging with little light (high ISO so grainy photos).

After a short while on the other side of the corridor a man rang a bell and the auction started. We couldn't really see much (good view of other peoples' iPhones videoing it), but there wasn't much to see anyway - one man stood with his hands moving about, shouting numbers and prices (presumably), while salesmen raised their hands and shouted back.

When it was over our time was up and we were ushered out into the daylight, back across the busy roads, to the entrance where we gave back our vests and headed off. Visitors were allowed back into the market after about 9am. We said our goodbyes to the Israeli guy, took a few last photos, and then headed back to the hotel for a few hours' more sleep.

We were up again at 9am and went back to the market, to catch the end of the morning's activity. Most of the stalls inside the market were closing shop, cleaning up the remains, doing the books, readying the place for the following night's work. It was quite calm in there now, and still fascinating, watching men sharpen knives (gave the hubby a few ideas), heads being chopped off massive frozen tuna bodies, huge crates of ice being delivered, buckets of fish remains, and a few beautiful fish still on show for sale. The market is moving next year, I believe, to a purpose-built building on the outskirts of the city - it'll be interesting to see if they make provision for visitors (building a viewing gallery, perhaps), and whether people will still go if it's miles away. It'll be a sad end of an era, as the market is quite unique. Here's a selection of shots from our hour milling around the market.

Eventually we headed out and back to the outer market streets, looking for a place for a sushi breakfast, past the stalls selling all sorts of things.

Some places had lines of tourists outside (presumably the places in the Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor) but we found one a bit further out that was quieter and we went straight in. It wasn't nearly as good as Sushisay, which was disappointing. We also tried a few more adventurous items, like sea urchin and some dried roe that made us gag, before wandering back to the hotel to pack and check out, before heading across the city for the next part of our Tokyo adventure.

1 comment:

  1. OMG sushiiiii!! Now I know where to stay in Tokyo : Tsukiji area! :P