It may not be the most conventional of tourist attractions, but Tokyo’s bustling Tsukiji Market has become an outside favourite of many visitors to the land of the rising sun. As the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market, it handles some 2,000 tonnes of seafood products worth $20m every day, with more than 1,000 vendors gathering to sell marine life from all over the world.
Tsukiji’s origins lie in the Edo period, when the shogun invited fishermen from the Osaka region to come to Tokyo in the interests of providing provisions for the city’s castle.
Anything not bought by the castle could then be sold at a market near the Nihonbashi Bridge. An earthquake in 1923 devastated the market and operations were subsequently relocated to the Tsukiji district upon the completion of its modern facilities in 1935.
One of the biggest draws is the morning auction where rival bidders compete for the daily haul of seafood, generally including the much-coveted blue fin tuna.
All the fish are brought in during the early morning and preceding day, before being inspected by potential buyers prior to the start of the auction. At 5.25am, the bidding begins, with intermediate wholesalers and authorised buyers vying for the best marine stock. The authorised buyers usually represent large retailers or restaurants, while the intermediate wholesalers resell their purchases in smaller portions at their own shops in the inner market. Authorised buyers unable to purchase goods directly from the auction often turn to the intermediate wholesalers afterwards.
The fish frequently sell for astounding amounts, with the average blue fin costing in the range of $10,000. An all-time record for a single tuna was set on January 5, 2013 when one sold for $1.7m, or $7,600 per kilogram. Sky-high bids early in the year may not represent the quality or size of the product, however, as bidders attempt to generate publicity and set the business tone for the rest of the year.
Tourists wishing to see the auction should be prepared to arrive early, as market authorities have instituted a strict limit of 120 visitors a day, on a first-come-first-served basis. This was introduced after business participants complained that the surge in spectators had begun to interfere with the bidding process.
Nothing but a sea thing
For those unable to make the early morning auction, the inner wholesale area of the market opens to visitors at 9am. The crowded halls are an exciting place to view buyers and sellers haggling over a plethora of different seafoods, ranging from small sardines to colossal tuna and even, controversially, whale. While the most frantic business is done before visiting hours, tourists will still need to exercise caution in avoiding the various trucks and trolleys zipping around the selling floor.
Visitors are also encouraged to explore the outer market, an area more amenable to everyday shopping. This collection of stalls and small retail shops sell fresh seafood in much smaller portions than the inner market, as well as stocking important culinary tools such as sashimi knives.
The area in and around the fish market is swimming with restaurants and sushi counters to cater for hungry guests. And with so much seafood around, there is no better way to satisfy a whet appetite than finishing off a morning at Tsukiji with a traditional sushi lunch.