Getting Up Early for the True Breakfast of Champions!
Visiting the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market is on everyone’s top to do list for Tokyo. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of a real fish auction as the night’s catch are delivered early in the morning to the market, auctioned off to middlemen, then sold in the outer market to either fish shops or restaurants. Frenetic and somewhat mysterious, sellers and buyers rush around inspecting the wares and waiting to bid on the best of the best.
Tsukiji Fish Market has been a must-see tourist attraction for many, many years, but you’ll have to go soon, or you might miss out. By 2016, this market that sells over 2,000 tons of fish per day will be moving to a new spot in Toyusu. Not too long ago, you could get up early and walk around the entire area, free to roam where you wanted, but times have changed. Due to the crumbling infrastructure of the marketplace, the Tokyo fire department has imposed new regulations on the fish market, which has led to some major changes on the visiting procedures.
First, you make your way to the Osakana Fukyu Center (Fish Information Center), where they welcome you, and you begin to wait in line. There are two viewings, one from 5:25-5:50 and the second from 5:40-6:15. Only sixty visitors are allowed in each viewing, so during high tourist season this means getting in line and waiting. Yes, you still have to get up early. That hasn’t changed, but what you have to do now, is make sure you are there well before the first start time.
We arrived at about 4:10 and our numbers were in the thirties. They were already half filled. We were given some papers with a map and rules on it as well as a fluorescent yellow vest. The second viewing visitors wore blue vests. Then we waited, and waited, and waited until it was time for the doors to open. Once they did open, we were hurriedly pushed through and marched to the auction area.
There the warehouse is cordoned off by rope. The sixty of us were sardined into a corridor about 4 feet wide by 30 feet deep. Here we pivoted, trying to watch the goings-on which were all around us. As you enter, the tuna are all lined up in a row on the warehouse floor–noses pointed all in one direction, and a small piece of flesh cut in the tail, where the buyers inspect the meat. They are, of course, interested in the color, the fat content, and who knows what else. It didn’t take them long to wield their ice pick, flicking up the flesh and taking a quick look at it to determine whether they wanted to bid on it or not.
After some time for the inspections to take place, the auctioneer pulls up his stool, takes his bell in hand, and begins ringing it fast and loud, commanding all to look his way and get the bidding rolling. A fast-paced auction, they had sold off at least five of the large tuna before I realized what was happening. The auctioneer starts the ball rolling and the buyers each bid using their own set of hand signals. My favorite was the man with his two fingers, waist-high, just making a continuing more, more motion. Apparently, he would pay almost any price for the fish he found worthy.
Once a price was settled upon, the tickets were collected, the name of the company was painted in red on the fish’s side, and before we knew it the whole room had been sold. Each lot took about five minutes. It was quick, furious, serious, and completely awe-inspiring. Watching the auction was one of those times in life that you are witnessing something you just don’t have the background to completely understand. This was a look into the fishmonger’s life, where everything is spoken in their own language, the language of fish and fat and yen. We watched two lots being sold, then were ushered quickly and determinably out the door. No stragglers. Hurry. They’ve got more work to do, let alone another full group of visitors to deal with.
As we were ushered out the door and through the alley, we had to watch out for the little trucks, called “turret” trucks, that were used by everyone. A cylindrical motor and driving console, it was basically a moving pallet; efficient and a bit scary when they are heading straight for you. We hurried by stall after stall of people packing the fish in Styrofoam boxes, by the pile of boxes, by the stalls that sell the fish meat as well as all things to do with eating fish, like pickles and spices, and who knows what else. We peeled off our vests, handing them unceremoniously to the collector and we were finished.
Standing there, we wondered, “Now what?”
A temple just outside of the fish market area beckoned to us. Poorly lit, but obviously well-cared for and containing some important tributes to the deities, people were there clapping and praying, most assuredly thanking the gods for their bounty, and hoping the next day offered the same. After we left the temple, we walked down the street and found an open sushi restaurant. This was the prize at the end–fresh sushi, the freshest.
We entered the brightly lit establishment with promises of a “breakfast special” for only 1530 yen that held many of the market’s treats. We ordered it, but we also had to add a few other treats. I’d heard that the Uni (sea urchin roe) was best fresh off the boat. I’d never had an urge to eat sea urchin eggs before, but this was definitely the time to do it. It was a sweet taste of salt water and the ocean and, along with the other sushi we had that morning, the perfect end to our trip to the famous fish market of Tokyo.
How would you like to eat sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo?