by Yukari Sakamoto
Tsukiji, in the heart of the city, is the world's largest fish market; it is perhaps one of the most dynamic culinary destinations in the country. (In total there are twelve wholesale markets in Tokyo. The other popular ones are the Adachi market for seafood and the Ota market, which sells seafood, produce, and flowers; both are open to the public.)
The history of the Tsukiji market dates back to 1603, when it was located in the nearby historic Nihonbashi district. The market moved to its current location in 1923 after the Kanto earthquake, and is tentatively scheduled to move again in 2013, a few kilometers along the bay to Toyosu. The new location will have better access to the highway connecting the market to Narita International Airport, which has become the gateway for much of the seafood that comes in and out of Tsukiji. The move is controversial for a variety of political, environmental, financial, and other reasons. The current facilities are in desperate need of renovation; regardless, you may never have a chance to see this longstanding Tokyo institution unless you visit soon.
Tsukiji is very much a working market, with more than 30,000 people coming here daily to trade more than 2,000 varieties of seafood. The market supports the restaurants and retail shops of Tokyo, and sends some of its seafood to famous sushi restaurants around the world. Be careful when visiting—an estimated 19,000 delivery trucks and 6,000 carts, often driven by cigarette-smoking workers, weave in and out of the narrow streets. You'll also see rickety bikes with wooden boxes balanced on the back, bearing the names of pricey and elegant sushi shops such as "Jiro" (denoting the three Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro), picking up fish to take back to the restaurant.
The market is divided into two parts: jōgai, the outer market, which is open to the general public, and jōnai, the inner market, which is restricted to wholesalers. There are 1600 stalls in the inner market and another four hundred in the outer market. The stores listed below are in the outer market. Beware; the surroundings are overwhelming at first.
The market sets up while the city is just going to sleep, around 2 a.m. The shops start to open by 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. and close in the early afternoon. The frozen tuna auction, a celebrated attraction of the inner market, generally starts at around 5:00 a.m. The king of the marketplace is tuna. The most revered is the bluefin. Tuna is available in both fresh and super-frozen varieties (the latter is cut into pieces at the market with a bandsaw).
In the market you will find a dizzying array of thousands of sea creatures, including spiny sea urchin, salmon roe, shellfish, oysters, squid, octopus, and eels. As seafood comes into the market, the fishmongers see the first sign of the changing seasons. It is often said that fishmongers at Tsukiji Market are more knowledgeable about weather patterns than weather forecasters. In addition to seafood, the market also sells produce, knives, and pantry items. A wide variety of restaurants on site feed, at reasonable prices, the thousands of people working at and visiting the market.
Avoid Sundays and national holidays, when the market is closed.
There are also a few weekdays each month when it is closed, so it is best to check on the market's website to see whether it is open: Tsukiji Market (English). Many of the shops in the outer market also close on the days when the inner market is closed. If Tsukiji Market is closed, visit Ameyoko near Ueno station: it is open all year long.
The end of the year, right before the New Year's holidays, is one of the busiest times of the year—during this time in 2008, the tuna auction was closed to the public for the first time because the public presence had become disruptive and distracting to the business of the auction. Since then, it has been closed during the holiday season.
Travel lightly and wear comfortable shoes. Leave large backpacks at home.
There is delicious and reasonably priced food available at the market, albeit, for the most part, served in very humble settings. Many of the shops source their food from the market, so ingredients could hardly be fresher. Best of all, there is a wide variety of options to choose from, including tempura, ramen, curry, and of course, sushi; there is even an Italian restaurant that specializes in seafood dishes.
The most casual places to eat are stand-and-eat shops where you will find one-bowl dishes such as ramen, curry, or rice bowls. Many of these are located along Shin Ohashi Dori Street.
Another part of the market filled with restaurants is called Uogashi Yokocho. Here you will find long lines of hungry people in the morning queuing for the Japanese breakfast of champions: sushi. If you find raw fish unappetizing in the morning, there are other options.
The two most famous sushi restaurants in the market are Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi. They also have the longest lines. Both restaurants are constantly seen on TV and covered in magazines, and sometimes the wait is more than two hours. While the sushi is good, customers are often squeezed into tight spaces and rushed through their meals. Remember, this isn't your only chance to have sushi.
Addresses in and around the market are all in Chuo-ku.
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This page created September 2010
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