Photographing the world-famous tuna auction, observing the organized chaos, and sampling vendors’ delicious wares at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan, is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Realizing the largest fish market in the world handles over 2,000 tons of seafood products each day is mind-bending. Carving out time and waking early to see this historic landmark, which has operated since 1935 and employs 60,000 people, is a must-do.
Given the city’s plans to relocate and modernize the market, I recommend visiting before the experience changes drastically. Although initially scheduled to move in November 2016, it’s been delayed to May 2018.
With my love for the ocean and passion for conservation, deciding whether to see the Tsukiji fish market was hard. Knowing that this market has played a significant role in depleting blue fin tuna stocks made me pause. However, gaining a better understanding of the market’s history and tradition made my visit worthwhile.
Learning the Tsukiji fish market auction process intricacies
Learning about the highly coveted wholesaler licenses for the Tsukiji fish market was eye opening. Glimpsing a tag clipped to a hat brim, you’ll realize you’ve found one of the 700 wholesalers authorized to bid at the market.
Similar to NYC taxi medallions, these licenses are extremely valuable. Not surprisingly, families pass the licenses down to future generations. We learned one wholesaler had been buying for 58 years!
Upon entering the auction area, you’ll see MASSIVE frozen (and a few fresh) tuna numbered and laid out on pallets. Watching the wholesalers carefully examine the tuna’s quality by using a hook and flashlight to assess the color and tenderness of a small tail was fascinating.
Given the small tail sample provided, tremendous expertise is required to properly assess which tuna warrant bidding and for how much. These wholesalers are essentially gambling a lot of money based on color, texture and a small taste. Being an avid reader, this seems like reading only the first two pages of a book and then betting thousands of dollars on whether it will be a bestseller.
Witnessing the frantic auction pace was thrilling. After the auctioneer rings a bell to initiate a specified tuna sale, wholesalers begin bidding with quick hand gestures. Surveying the room and announcing increases throughout, the auctioneer’s assistant will attach a yellow tag once the tuna has been sold.
Despite making decisions with such a limited amount of information, wholesalers only evaluate incorrectly 10% of the time. If a blood spot or blemish is found after purchase, wholesalers must call their customers and offer a discount for the “damaged” tuna meat.
Not surprisingly, tuna is expensive
Did you know the most expensive tuna ever sold at auction was $1.8M USD (155.4M Yen), which equals $8,000 per kilogram?! Interestingly, the 222-kilogram Bluefin tuna was sold during the New Year’s auction. Often, wholesalers outbid one another as they believe buying the first tuna of the year is good luck. While I understand wanting to start the new year with some good karma, those prices are CRAZY. Unfortunately, these inflated prices have contributed to the massive overfishing of this species.
Since I don’t eat fish, I was intrigued to learn how sashimi is priced. It’s determined based on the part of the tuna from which the meat comes. The upper belly (o-toro) is the most expensive, while the lower part of the spine (seshimo = lowest quality akami) is the least expensive. High-end restaurants purchase the expensive cuts for 18,000 yen per kilogram/($162 USD).
Supermarkets and individuals buy the cheaper parts for 5,000 yen per kilogram ($45 USD). Typically, the sashimi purchased at local grocery store is from the lower spine and may have been frozen for up to one year.
Learning about the differences between wild vs. farmed tuna
Fishing for tuna is grueling work. Tuna fisherman can be at sea for an entire year accumulating fish for auction. To keep the tuna fresh, fishermen cut the belly open, insert ice and store it in a huge freezer onboard. I had NO idea they were out so long, mistakenly assuming they fished only for a few weeks or months. Unfortunately, this is what has also led to tuna’s massive depletion.
Given the sustainability issues associated with wild tuna, more people are farm raising tuna. This is great news for the species. Sadly, in our 300+ dives, we’ve seen no blue fin and fewer than five yellow fin tuna. Given how rare they are, a sighting is always a highlight for both our guides and us. Some differences between farmed and wild tuna:
- Color – Farmed = whitish or pinkish red. Wild = bright red
- Cost – Farmed is cheaper than Wild
Indulging in fresh wild seafood at a sushi-ya restaurant
After finishing the auction, many visit sushi bars near the Sui Shrine. Enjoying fresh, flavorful seafood between 5-9AM is an experience in itself. Jason feels this sashimi is some of the most delicious he has ever eaten, ruining him for sashimi anywhere else in the world.
Interestingly, many refer to raw fish as sushi. Actually, sushi is rice that’s been flavored with vinegar. The fish pieces are sashimi. If you like fancy rolls from the U.S., it’s important to know these aren’t offered in Japan. Be prepared for classic presentation of raw fish pieces laid on top of rice.
Having eaten at five of the six most well known restaurants, Jason feels they are all pretty equal. Most charge 3200-4000 Yen ($28-36 USD) for an omakase “trust the chef” set menu with nine items. Offerings may include fatty tuna, eel, sea urchin, shellfish, seasonal fish, tekka maki (simple tuna rolls), or rolled tamago (egg).
The three most famous places are Daiwa Sushi (orange curtain), Sushi Dai (blue curtain) and Sushi Zanami. Given that these places are tiny and seat only 10 people, be prepared for long lines. Daiwa Sushi can be a three hour wait! Okame, Iwasa-zushi and Yamazaki are just as good. All six restaurants are in the same alley.
TIP: Make sure to bring cash as the small shops don’t accept credit cards. Also, the chefs flavor the fish with wasabi and/or soy sauce as they deem appropriate. Some consider it insulting if you add additional soy sauce to the fish.
Enjoying other delicious treats
In the inner market, you can see vendors using massive swords or saws to slice the fish. Chefs come early to buy stock for the day, carrying small baskets or riding a bike.
Coming hungry is key as you can wander the market sampling many delicious treats. Soybeans, nori (seaweed) chips, chuo-egg omelet on a stick (Try Yamacho, 4-16-2 Tsukiji), and eel on a skewer (Try Nisshin Tasuke, 4-13-18 Tsukiji) are some of the options.
Some, including Jason and his family, really like wagasi, mochi rice filled with azuki bean paste. While I appreciate the beauty of these little works of art, I don’t care for the consistency. Feeling as if I’m eating chewing gum doesn’t appeal to me.
While Jason and my father-in-law enjoyed eating this flavorful treat, they weren’t prepared for how spicy it would be.
The fruits and vegetables are both beautiful and tasty. You won’t find any bruises, mold or rotten fruit within the gorgeous displays. Covering fruit with umbrellas and handpicking at the farms minimizes damage. And, who knew that wasabi in its fresh, root form, resembles a little green pineapple?
Appreciating Japanese artistry
After finding a stall with beautiful hand forged knives in the outer market, we, regrettably, didn’t buy any. Layering various metals together and hand carving the handles makes for stunning souvenirs. While we looked throughout Japan, we didn’t see knives like this anywhere else. We’ll be returning to Azuma Minamoto-No Masahisa (4-13-7 Tsukiji) on our next visit.
Admiring beautiful pottery in a variety of colors, we decided not to buy until we got to Kyoto. We wanted to minimize traveling with too many breakable things. In hindsight, we also should have bought some of those lovely bowls.
TIP: Buy mementos as you see them. The various areas of Japan specialize in different types of arts.
Keeping conservation top of mind
Two things struck me while spending time at Tsukiji fish market. First, the market uses a HUGE amount of Styrofoam, which is not environmentally friendly. Styrofoam takes 500 years to break down. After watching small bulldozers pushing it into piles, I hoped that it was reused versus just being discarded.
My other observation is that the use of plastic bags throughout Japan is very wasteful. Placing items that are already wrapped in plastic inside another plastic bag is commonplace. Since plastic bags also break down over 500 years, I do hope that they identify a more sustainable solution soon. Perhaps paper or compostable bags?
Sadly, seals, turtles and other sea life sometimes ingest plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish and blocking digestive tracks. I found myself consistently turning down plastic bags. I would put the purchased items in the reusable bag I always carry with me.
TIP: Travel with your own reusable shopping bag to minimize plastic usage. This is a great way that a small change can make a huge difference for environmental and ocean conservation.
Visiting Tsukiji fish market
To streamline your visit and maximize your chances of seeing the famous tuna auction, be aware of the following:
- Closed Sundays, some Wednesdays and national holidays
- Tuna Auction: The first group of 60 visits from 5:25-5:50AM. The second group of 60 visits from 5:50 – 6:15AM. Only 120 people per day can enter.
- Outer Market: 5AM – 2PM (streets and alleys between the intersection of Shin-Ohasi-dori and Harumi-dori)
- Wholesale/inner market area: Open to the public after 10AM. Vendors sell and cut the tuna here. Most activity concludes by 11AM and photography is not allowed.
- Tsukiji’s official site has some helpful information
Getting to Tsukiji fish market
- Plan to wake up early, and I mean SUPER early. Despite arriving at 3:20AM, 30 people were ahead of us. No reservations can be made for the auction. Attendance is first-come, first- serve. All 120 slots were full by 4:30AM.
- TIP: Cabs are the only option as subway/ buses don’t start until 6AM.
- If the auction viewing has reached capacity, the Fish Information Center office will be closed.
- Since the market is HUGE (285,000 square meters/3M square feet), make sure the cab driver drops you at the correct entrance. It is the size of 53 American football fields! If you are dropped on the wrong side, be prepared to walk 45 minutes.
- TIP: Ask to be dropped at the the Fish Information Center (Osakana Fukyu Center) at the Kachidoki Gate entrance near the Kachidokibashi Bridge, which is on Harumi –Dori (street).
- If the auction viewing has reached capacity, the Fish Information Center office will be closed.
Dressing for Tsukiji fish market
- Dress warmly, not fashionably. Since the auction is cold and floors are slippery, wear a hat, fleece and non-slip shoes. Don’t wear high heels or open-toed shoes.
- You’ll wait inside a small room for the auction to start rather than in the cold outside. If you’re lucky, a wholesaler will provide an auction process overview from 4:15-4:30AM.
- You will wear a blue or green safety vest so workers can identify you as a visitor.
Photographing Tsukiji fish market
- The auction does NOT permit flash photography. Since bidders use their fingers to indicate price and interest, it would interfere.
- For photography, I recommend a 70-200mm lens, allowing you to zoom in on the fish and bidders. Jason used a wide angle 18-80mm, but we feel we captured better pictures with my zoom lens.
- Since the auction is dim and tripods are forbidden, use the tips below to capture the best photos:
- A fast lens (2.8) is ideal as it lets in more light
- Increase your ISO. We used 800-3200.
- Shoot at a fast shutter speed. To minimize shake, your shutter speed should be 1/focal legth. (i.e. If using a 200mm lens, you need to shoot with a shutter speed of at least 1/200 or faster)
- Be ALERT while walking to/from the auction. Workers are zipping around at a frantic pace on little carts, moving tuna and fish throughout the market. Organized and efficient chaos at its finest!
- If you are looking to check out another historical area, consider a trip to Takayama in the Japanese Alps