Tsukiji (Tokyo) – The Sea Burst onto the Ground

Tsukiji is the world’s largest fish market – 10x the size of its nearest competitor. This had to be a stop on my trip in Tokyo. Tourists are tolerated but it’s a stressful time – narrow aisles, slippery floors, packed crowds of busy shoppers, and motorized vehicles that are aiming for you from every direction – you have to be alert. And mindful that these people scurrying around are trying to make a living, many owners of small mom and pop shops across Tokyo.

Most of the fish is housed under one gigantic roof that runs seemingly forever. There are hundreds (thousands?) of stalls, most themselves mom and pop operations, that have about 100-150 sqft of “retail” space; and a very tiny office, usually large enough for just a chair and a cash register. The stalls and aisles are generally organized by type of seafood.

You will obviously see a lot of blood and death – not to mention corpses being hacked by knife and power saws. The seafood runs the entire gamut of possibilities – from the familiar to monstrosities straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It is fascinating to think of all the permutations of shrimp and fish – and it certainly provides ample excuse for repeat trips to Tokyo sushi spots.

For me, despite salivating over fish and anticipating my upcoming sushi meals, the logistics of this daily operation were one of the most impressive things I saw in Japan, if not ever. Fish is caught around the world, somehow making its way to Tsukiji, all of it finding its place within this gigantic warehouse by 5am. And it is all packed up by 1pm. I don’t think there is a real central planning agency; the whole spectacle makes a great case for bottom-up organization – let people work and they will get things done. (If one wanted to get fancy in their ethnographic, economic, or social studies, there is a lot of material here to play with the ideas of emergence in a social / economic setting.)

It’s a Holiday week so I will leave you with some pictures. If you would like to read more serious pieces about Tsukiji, there is an article and book I will recommed:

If you Knew Sushi by Nick Tosches for Vanity Fair – an excellent overview of the market and its players. Recommended for everyone.

Tsukiji – The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore Bestor – this is an ethnographic study of the market, its history, and how it manages to work. The book is full of interesting facts and figures, but it is an academic study so it can be (quite) dry at times too. Only recommended for the die-hard.

One of a few parking lots

Whale meat / blubber anyone? Despite the moral issues, this stuff looked seriously tasty.

Chopping turtles – yum yum

Cutting tuna

The remains of some fish

Some sort of miniature eel

A random stall selling random things

An octopus for every size

It might be alive

Some tiny fish

Dried squid

It’s definitely a must-do for anyone that has a passing interest in sushi – just be careful – you can get seriously hurt. Some people recommend the sushi restaurants within Tsukiji but the lines were ridiculously long (I can’t stand lines) and I heard that, while excellent by American standards, the sushi did not compare to the best places (two of which I would later eat at.) But the whole affair, my third day in Japan pre-sushi, made me crave sushi. I managed to snag a same-day reservation later that day at Kyubey (Ginza) for lunch.

That story will have to wait.

- chuck

  • paul

    I know i should not judge other cultures but whale meat that is disgusting, but having said all that the fish market in Tokyo must be a very very very fascinating place to have a wander round, And it should probably be on one of those modern day 7 wonders of the world lists that you read about in the newspapers from time to time IMO.

  • http://www.foodtravelblog.com/blog/ yun

    It’s definitely a must-do for anyone that has a passing interest in sushi
    Obviously it’s true. We came back to this fish market twice because my husband was crazy about fresh sushi they had at Tsukiji. Maybe you can find a comparable quality of fish outside tsukiji if you don’t care about the price :D .
    Great blog, I am happy that you left a comment on my site so that I can visit yours too.

  • Mike

    Umm, whale was amongst my favorite sushi pieces during my visit!

  • joyciel

    hmm…how do the price at the restaurants within Tsukiji compare with the ones you went though?

    Anyways, the place looks exciting. Too bad I wasn’t interested in food before when I went to Tokyo. Now I’m poor and can’t afford plane tickets. Pfft, life.

  • chuckeats

    joyciel – prices are probably cheaper but price points have never been an issue w/ this blog. i’d rather forego 5 ordinary meals for 1 tremendous meal. i did try 3 different sushi price points in Tokyo – for any limited vacation there, I would only recommend the highest price point ($200/person or so, which is very cheap by American standards) b/c that is where the revelation will be tasted.

  • per

    Really nice pics.
    Tsukiji was on top of my list after a china/HK/Japan trip, hard to explain for someone who hasn´t been there how mindblowing it is….. tried sushi at two stands, a lot of people and very cheap, believe it was around 1200 yen for a tuna tasting plate of sushi :)

  • Cam_13

    Chuck love ur blog but everynight I’ve been checking in to see the Ryugin post….plz, plz, plz…want to stage there soooo bad and want to see more ASAP…plz

  • chuckeats

    cam_13, i’ll get it out before the holidays. i’ve been pretty busy the last few weeks.

  • http://upescalator.wordpress.com/ JC

    “Some tiny fish” – I think that’s sayori (halfbeak/needlefish). Yum.

    What time did you attempt the sushi counter at Tsukiji? I know people who have gone at 6am, but even then there’s a wait.

    It’ll probably be another 3-5 years before I can visit Japan again, but I plan to do it right next time. And try whale.

  • pina

    unfortunately, the tuna auctions are temporarily suspended until Jan 15th 2009
    http://japansugoi.com/wordpress/tsukiji-tuna-auction-no-tourists-allowed/

  • tuna

    Unfortunately, Tuna Auction at Tsukiji was closed because of bad-mannered foregin visitors.

    http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=tzBwtylHiqo

    This was broadcasted all over Japan.

  • tuna

    Unfortunately, Tuna Auction at Tsukiji became off-limits for foreign visitors because of bad-mannered foregin visitors.

    http://jp.youtube.com/watch?v=tzBwtylHiqo

    This was broadcasted all over Japan.

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