One of the best things I’ve done in Tokyo thus far is visit the Tsukiji fish market. Officially called the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, Tsukiji (pronounced “skee-gee”) is where 2,000 tons of seafood come into Japan every day. Did you get that? Every day! With the auctions beginning at 5:00 am, I dragged my feet a bit in getting around to visit here — I thought, if this place requires me getting up so dang early, it better be worth it. Since I had a friend visiting who was up at the crack of dawn with a bit of jet-lag, it seemed as good a time as any. With iced coffee and onigiri in hand, we set off soon after the subway started running.
A gigantic warehouse complex packed full of tiny stalls where wholesale vendors peddle their goods, the market is not for the faint of heart. We picked our way through the skinny walkways, trying to avoid the remains of who-knows-what at our feet. The place was busy and packed so full of people doing their daily business that it felt like a place we really shouldn’t be. But one of the great things about visiting Tsukiji is that you get to see the real deal. No one asked us to leave, and a few men in rubber boots even nodded or smiled at us as we passed. Fish flop at every corner, or are gutted and sitting on styrofoam platters. Every sort of sea creature is for sale, some still alive, all packed on ice or in huge plastic tubs. One live shrimp jumped out of its bucket as we walked by, and at one point I’m pretty sure I was fish-slapped by a stray in a passing tank. Water mixed with fish guts sloshed around the floor.
The market was almost chaotic, but perfectly orchestrated. By far the loudest place I’ve found in Tokyo, people shout and little three-wheeled motorized carts speed by (seriously, they are fast), but everyone is respectful and no one crashes and everything moves together in unison. It was really amazing and beautiful to watch, despite the glassy eyeballs staring up at me from the styrofoam.
Then we found the tuna. Tuna is a big deal in Japan, and once I saw them at Tsukiji I understood why. I was mesmerized by them. They are as big as me and flash frozen, so the giant fish literally look like ghosts. They’re stacked on palettes, driven around by carts, sent through table saws, and hacked up for sale. Their insides have a deep red color unlike any other fish in the market (they’re warm blooded!), and create a dramatic contrast to the other fish in mostly whites and grays. A slab of tuna looks like a juicy t-bone steak, and could cost you $50 or more. I watched the bright white and red tuna parts being carted around the market and was incredibly moved. I actually felt haunted by them.
After learning that bluefin tuna is seriously endangered, Dan and I have tried to stop eating it, a difficult undertaking while living in Japan. I’m still not quite sure what I was feeling at Tsukiji, I suppose simultaneous awe and heartbreak. It is a very weird feeling, and I remain conflicted. Tsukiji is an amazing place to experience, but part of what makes it so is exactly the thing it hurts.
In case any readers wander upon this post and want to visit Tsukiji, the closest subway station is Tsukiji-Shijo on the Odeo line, though it seems the Tsukiji stop on the Hibiya line works as well. If you want to make it in time for the fish auctions at 5 am, you’ll have to take a taxi or walk.
Also, if you’d like more information on the peril of the bluefin tuna, there’s a hefty yet worthwhile article here.