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Tuna Auction and Sushi at Tsukiji Market

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I love visiting markets of any type when I travel. It allows me to interact with people, eat small portions of local food and shop for bargains. When I read about the Tsukiji Fish Market, I knew I had to visit it even if it meant waking up before 3am to get a ticket. In this case, I slept for less than an hour after a long trip to Tokyo before I headed towards the market from my capsule hotel. I got lost, found the entrance just in time, saw the auction and had my very first raw fish sushi at Tsukiji- a normal Japanese breakfast meal.

10 Things you need to know before visiting Tsukiji Fish Market

  1. Stay in a hotel close to the market or plan to take a cab if you want to attend the auction. Public transportation is closed at that time of the day. I recommend the First Cabin Tsukiji Hotel, only a couple blocks away.
  2. The market is closed most Wednesdays and Sundays, but sometimes this changes due to holidays. Check the calendar here before you go.
  3. Although the tickets are free, there are only 120 tickets available and they are handed out on a first come, first served basis. There will be two groups of 60 people attending the auction, but at different times.
  4. Most guide books tell you to arrive around 4am. Ignore that and check with your hotel upon arrival. It’s what saved me. I was advised to get there before 3:30am, which I barely did. 10 minutes later, I would have been turned away because all 120 spots were taken.
  5. Prepare to wait about 2 hrs for the auction from the time you arrive at the market. Bring food, a drink and something to entertain yourself. There are no chairs, so people just sit on the floor to wait. The best thing is to grab a spot by the wall so you can lean back.
  6. Wear appropriate footwear. It’s a fish market and the floor is wet. Flip flops and heels are not allowed.
  7. During the tour you will be guided into the auction through the craziness of speeding carts. Be aware of your surroundings, these guys go fast and they don’t care if you are in the way.
  8. No flash photography or tripods are allowed. You will be called out and escorted out.
  9. Do not enter the wholesale market before 9 am. From 5-9am is when the market is busiest, so visiting at this hour can disrupt business for the sellers. It’s best to go have some breakfast and shop around the outer market and come back in at 9am.
  10. Don’t forget to have sushi at one of many small restaurants at the outer market and explore the goods being sold there as well.

Background on the Tsukiji market and the history of fish in Japan

I am not going to bore you with stats and lots of facts, just the tidbits that I consider interesting. If you want to know more, there is a sleuth of information on the web.

So what’s the big deal with Tsukiji? It’s the largest fish market in the world, it sells billions of dollars of seafood and employs over 50K people in any given year, but what makes it special in my mind is how it ties in into the history of change in Japanese cuisine. Until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the majority of fish and meat in the country was consumed primarily by the ruling class. In 1919, there was a shortage in the country of rice due to some speculative wholesale practices and the government was forced to regulate the food wholesale industry, thus creating the Tsukiji Fish Market in the process. What is even more fascinating to me is the fact that today, only a couple hundred years later, the world associates seafood as staples of the Japanese diet, which really wasn’t the case for the majority of the population only a couple of generations ago.

Another interesting tidbit about the market is the cultural aspect of businesses in Japan. Businesses in the market are passed down through generations and the businesses’ survival depends on much more than supply and demand. It relies heavily on relationships. For the past several years, one man, Kiyoshi Kimura, the owner of a sushi restaurant chain has been the top bidder of the first tuna auction of the year. The price set in this first auction is said to be indicative of the market’s success for that year. In 2013, Mr. Kimura paid almost $2M for the first blue fin tuna sale, way more than the fish was worth. The reason he did it was to “encourage Japan” as quoted in the Huffington Post. This didn’t click for me until I was reminded of the devastating nuclear/tsunami incident in Fukushima that torn apart the lives of many people and destroyed the livelihood of several fishermen in the area that year. That had a lot of repercussions for the businesses at the market. With that purchase, Mr. Kimura provided hope for the businesses and workers of the market that they would endure that blow as well.

There is also a ton of controversy with the overfishing of blue fin tuna and the future relocation of the market. What I found most disturbing was the mountain of styrofoam containers used at the market. It’s all very thought provoking, but not the purpose of this post, so let’s move on.

Sushi for the first time? Are you for real? But you look Japanese…

Yep.I am serious.

No, I have not been living under a rock and yes, I am half Japanese. However, I grew up eating a base of Brazilian and Italian cuisine, thanks to my maternal grandfather, who is by far the best chef in my family.

[tweetthis remove_hidden_urls=”true”]Visiting the Tsukiji Market should be on everyone’s top 10 things to do in Tokyo. goodlifexplorers.com[/tweetthis]

How to pick the right place?

I didn’t plan on eating sushi in Japan, actually I planned to avoid it at all costs, but after watching the auction and walking around the outer market, scrutinizing the back of small restaurants, I realized that if I was going to do it, there was no better place to try it. After walking around a couple of times, inspecting the cleanliness and look of each place and building my courage, I settled for a place that had no lines. Usually one would take the lines as a good measure of quality, but I have been realizing 3 things lately:

1) If there are too many tourists in line, sometimes that just means a guide-book wrote about that place in the past. A better measure of quality for me is to see lots of locals in the establishment, which tells me it’s still undiscovered. but good enough that it can remain in business.

2) If I always eat in places that have lines, how am I ever going to discover new places?

3) I hate lines, especially when I am hungry.

After choosing my establishment, I sheepishly entered the tiny restaurant and was greeted with a nod from the other patrons and the sushi chefs. A lovely old lady that reminded me of my great-aunt brought me hot green tea, steaming miso soup and a cold wet towel. I immediately felt at home. I was the only foreigner at the counter. Using a combination of mime and pointing at the menu I ordered a couple of pieces of raw fish sushi and just to be safe, a cucumber sushi roll.

The first time experience

Served on top of a leaf and dipped, just slightly into soy sauce, I plunged that bad boy into my mouth. It tasted nothing like I had expected. No smell, fish taste or sliminess. It was creamy and just the right balance of texture served over rice. I could have ordered more, but with the cucumber roll and miso soup, I was full. There was another experience with sushi and sashimi towards the end of my trip in Japan that was even more memorable, but as first time goes, this was perfect.

Tidbits that you may not know about Sushi and restaurant etiquette in Japan

  • Sushi was not created in Japan. It was adapted from Thailand from a dish that used fermented rice and fish. I learned that from Kimi in Kyoto (more on that later).
  • There are several grades of Tuna, from less fatty to extra fatty. The redder the meat the lower the fat. Pink means more fat. Asians love fat in their meat, so fattier cuts tend to be more expensive.
  • Green tea and miso soup are almost always served with all meals and free of charge.
  • Wet towels are used to clean hands and sometimes face and serve as great napkins throughout the meal.
  • Sushi refers to rolls or raw fish on top of rice. Sashimi only refers to raw fish or seafood by itself.
  • The proper way to eat sushi is to turn it upside down and dip the fish in the soy sauce. Most people dip the rice, which soaks too much of the soy sauce and falls apart easily. In upscale restaurants, you can even use your hands to eat the sushi. I have been told, this shows the chef you are a sushi connoisseur. I wouldn’t try that without checking with the chef first though.
  • Soy sauce should only enhance the fish, not coat it entirely. Some people forego it all together.
  • To order the check, all you need to do is cross your fingers towards the server. It’s easily understood and much easier than remembering the words in Japanese.
  • Often, the hostess will open and close the door for you when entering or leaving a restaurant. It’s impolite to do it yourself. If there is no hostess, you can do it yourself.
  • Never stick your chopsticks upright on the food, cross it on your plate or leave any food. I often had to stuff myself when eating in Japan, so if you eat little, order small plates.
  • The bill will be handed to you in a tray, where you also put your money or credit card. This is customary throughout businesses in Japan, even at Starbucks.
  • Get used to saying “Oishi” (oey-shee) a lot. It means delicious!

Oh, don’t forget to visit the outermarket and the market’s temple.


Next: Senso-ji and temple etiquette.






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