How to Avoid Getting Kicked Out of the Forbidden Zone at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market

I suspected that Japan warranted more than 20 hours. But that’s all I could wrangle as a free layover in Tokyo on our way home from Singapore, so that’s what Japan got from us. Rather, that’s what we got from Japan, and we were determined to make the most of it.

Of course we spent time in Asakusa, with its Buddhist Sensō-ji temple and pagoda, Shintoist Sanja-sama shrine, nostalgic shops and traditional restaurants. At the Shintoist Zojoji shrine we were impressed by the massive bell pavilion and sobered by the steles placed in memoriam to children who died in their earliest youth — including, as far as we understood, stillborn and aborted babies. The calming embrace of the Meiji shrine, its forests dotted here and there with white-clad monks, stood in stark contrast to the electrified mayhem at nearby Shibuya Station, the crosswalks of its adjoining intersection trampled by more than a million people each day.

Even if this hadn’t been our first trip to eastern Asia, each of these sites would have made us marvel. But the moment I learned we’d get to sample Tokyo, we set our sights on Tsukiji Fish Market. And in order to make the most of the experience, it had to come first on the itinerary — first, meaning 4:00 a.m., which required a good night’s rest. At the recommendation of a Japanese-American colleague, we chose a ryokan, a type of inn dating back more than a thousand years, where guests pay per person not per room. Whatever pops into your mind when you hear “traditional Japanese inn” is probably accurate: shōji (bamboo and paper walls), futons placed on tatami (straw mats), kashikiri (family-style communal bath — which, yes, we tried, and, yes, it was every bit as awkward as you are imagining at this very moment), mandatory slippers, a cheerful, diminutive matriarch providing in-room tea service, etc. We enjoyed our stay at Homeikan Daimachi Bekkan (homeikan.com) in the Bunkyō ward so much that we wished it had lasted even a few hours longer. But the tuna weren’t going to wait.

ACTIVITY, HISTORY AND LOCATION

The rule of thumb is that if any body of water anywhere on Earth is big enough to house a pair of guppies, then one of them is on its way to Tsukiji, where restaurateurs and fishmongers come every day to select the very best for their customers. And the critters are coming in from all over the planet, often frozen, always iced, and usually within a day or so of being caught.

That in mind, to say that Tsukiji is the world’s biggest, baddest, busiest fish market is to say that the Louvre has lots of paintings and visitors. Some perspective: Picture 1,571 2018 Toyota Corollas. Not helping? Picture a single-lane traffic jam of Corollas about 4.5 miles long. Still no? Okay, pack all of those Corollas as tightly as possible — bumpers bumping and mirrors butterfly kissing — onto an American football field, and then another, and then half of another. Two and a half football fields, including end zones. Got it? Now put all those Corollas on a scale. That’s how much fish (more than 2,000 metric tons) moves through Tsukiji. Every day. Not a typo. And the cash flow — well into the teens of millions of dollars trade hands daily — is equally astonishing.

The market that stands today by Tsukiji Shijo station on the Oedo subway line was first established in 1935, but the tradition of uogashi (riverside fish markets) in this area dates back to the 16th century. If you’re on the Hibiya line, the market is a five-minute walk from Tsukiji station.

EARLY RISERS AND THE TUNA AUCTION

Tsukiji is open every day except Sundays, holidays and some Wednesdays, with the starting bell sounding at 3 a.m. when the first catches arrive, headlined by tons and tons of frozen tuna. The oroshi gyōsha (wholesalers) work through the hauls that they prepare for auction or direct sale, and the licensed buyers get early looks to make initial assessments of what they’re going to target. The tuna auction is the most serious part of the serious business transacting at Tsukiji. Single bluefins usually run in the low thousands but can sell for more than $250k, and in certain instances have fetched more than $1 million. Relentless commercial fishing, driven by growing sushi demand and ever-improved global logistics, has cut the bluefin population considerably, which drives prices higher and higher, a cycle of which Tsukiji is the undisputed hub.

The main predawn attraction is the tuna auction, which starts shortly after 5 a.m. and is limited to wholesalers, licensed buyers, and 120 first-come, first-served spectators who cycle through in two groups of 60. (Register at 4:30 a.m. at the Osakana Fukyu Center at the Kachidoki Gate off Harumi Street, and note that visitors are not admitted every day, so check beforehand.) Alas, our cozy ryokan proved about half an hour too cozy for us to make it into the auction, but we were able to observe it briefly through the frosty windows of two large, brown doors. We saw dozens of rubber-booted men milling among rows of the bulbous, silvery-white, finless tuna bodies that were lined up on the floor, auctioneers yelling or ringing handbells to direct the action from atop crates, and a few guys who jumped up and down like popcorn kernels in a skillet of hot oil, in an apparent effort to emphasize their bids. We watched this for a few moments until someone approached us saying in excited tones what we interpreted as, “Ryokan too cozy. Snooze you lose. Move along or face tuna bandsaw.” And so we moved along.

INCOGNITO IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE

But we didn’t actually leave. Tsukiji is divided into two main areas: jōgai-shijō, the outer market where all are welcome to peruse the restaurants and retail shops, and jōnai-shijō, the inner market where close to a thousand wholesalers conduct business free — ostensibly — from the nuisance and hazard of clumsy tourists. Naturally, our primordial compulsion ushered us directly to the inner market.

My colleague had advised me that the market was trying to reduce tourist flow, a hunch corroborated by several online forums. And so we tried to be as inconspicuous as a pair of 6-foot+ Gaijin (mildly pejorative term for Americans) and their two 95th-percentile-tall, viking-esque wards could be. Which is not very inconspicuous. And so what we lacked in invisibility we made up for by traveling light (one small backpack and a camera bag among the four of us), walking around as if we knew what we were doing, not lingering too long in any one place, and making only occasional eye contact — not difficult, as the wholesalers were focused intently on their work — which we were swift to pair with a slight smile and approving “this is mutually consensual…right?” nod. And over the course of our stay, nobody seemed to direct a disapproving glance or tone in our direction.

“Not lingering too long in one place” is a life-preserving technique at Tsukiji, especially if that “one place” is a passageway used by one of the hundreds of little trolleys and trucks that zip throughout the dizzying maze of stands, whisking goods — some dead, some still swimming, some more likely the product of a Hollywood acid trip than of our oceans — from seller to buyer in styrofoam crates piled atop forklifts and flatbeds. These drivers will not so much as gesture at stagnant pedestrians, let alone yell, honk or tap their brakes. And the ubiquitous buzz of their engines, mixed with the grind of bandsaws against frozen flesh, the hack-hack-hacking of giant cleavers and the constant chatter of commerce, make for an energetic cacophony perfectly suited to the market’s bustling, briny atmosphere.

By the time we headed out of there at about 9 a.m., activity in the inner market had already slowed to a fraction of its earlier levels, with most of the stands now in wind-down/tidy-up mode, while the outer market seemed to be enjoying heavy visitor traffic. We should have stopped for a taste of the freshest sushi known to man, but we had just seven hours of Tokyo left and needed to move along.

IMPORTANT NOTE

It’s my understanding that the Tsukiji Market is moving to a new site on Tokyo’s Toyosu island. This was originally slated for 2016 but has been rescheduled for late 2018.