At 4 am in the morning one of the biggest cities in the world, Tokyo is asleep, the trains have ground to a halt, and there is a skeleton crew of residents tending to their activities on the brightly lit streets in the bitter cold. The scene is a far call from the hustle of everyday life in Tokyo, there are no commuters trying to walk through you, there is no urgency to get anywhere and most alarmingly it is dead quiet.
We amble blurry-eyed into our warm clothing, placing layers upon layers in the hope that the morning air will not get through to our bed warmed bodies. There is no time for breakfast if we want to get to the markets on time it is a get up and go job. Staying in the Ueno precinct of Tokyo we were within walking distance of the iconic Tsukiji Market. Walking briskly in the cool December air we are aware that the tuna auctions that normally begin at 5am are not on due to the holiday period. However we are still on a mission to be the first in line for fresh sushi at one of the restaurants bordering the market.
The Tsukiji markets have been around since 1935 officially an houses approximately 900 stalls. It one tine shed of chaos, every sea creature imaginable, Japanese heckling and cold.
You can tell the boats have arrived by the shrill squeal of sea birds fighting over scraps, the excitement of what is to come builds, with the combination of fresh (cold) ocean air and the quickened pace towards a montage of horns and Japanese words yelled periodically… all I can think is who needed coffee after all?
When entering the Market space you need to be on your toes, this is the livelihood of many Japanese fisherman and they have no time or patience for unaware and belligerent tourists. Time is money as they rush around delivering the freshest of fish to restaurant owners, local businesses and other hagglers. If you get in the way you will be pushed and given a stern talking to, in extreme cases people have been run over or evicted. Trust me, I stupidly got in the way and was elbowed by a hardworking courier that came out of nowhere with a trolley! My advice is to remain aware (maybe grab a vending machine coffee), don’t demand personal space and do not go against the crowds as you will not win.
As we enter the warehouse, a whiff or should I say tsunami of fish enters your nostrils and all of a sudden you don’t feel hungry anymore, this is not a typical breakfast smell. In an unique and organised manner each fisherman has their fish stall lines neatly in what seems like hundreds of rows. Every sea creature possible sits idly in tanks with a dull look on their face as they look on at their comrades who have been purchased for tonight’s meal. I cannot help but feel sorry them.
Tuna carcasses and fish meat are on display everywhere, priced by the size it is extraordinary that 2000 pounds of seafood is purchased in this place every day! The tuna auctions begin at 5am with an allotted 120 places for tourists to watch the proceedings. These are distributed on a first in basis and can be collected from the Fish Information centre. I unfortunately have never managed to drag myself out of bed in time.
The atmosphere is electric, the tension between sellers can be felt with everyone hoping to sell all of their produce for the day. Generations of families man each stall with young children even helping out before school, weighing the produce and offering tastings (yes that’s right tastings).By the looks of it each is a family business, with a long history of tradition and culture. I felt humbled being amongst it.
It took us about 1.5-2 hours to get through both the fish market and the surround fresh produce market called Uogashi-yokochō. Even with the early morning arrival there were already queues a mile long queuing for the freshest, most authentic jjapanese breakfast out. Disturbed by the bloodbath I had just witnessed I was unsure whether my stomach could handle fresh fish. But hey when in Tokyo….
I managed to find a small restaurant down a side alley way where we could pull up a bar stool. The intensity and the rush of the markets has cascaded down into the restaurants as people try to maximise their customers in a short period of time. Cold Asahi was served at 8am with a sushi tasting plate slapped down in front of use not long after, due to the rush half the time you don’t even know what you are ordering you literally point to a picture and hope for the best. Being a traditional Japanese restaurant there was no way of knowing what we were eating… instead we just had to take our chance and let Japan show us what it was made of.
Once I was well oiled with coffee, cold, asahi and the freshest sushi in the capital I was free to spend the rest of the day exploring this magical city. Belly filled, buzzing from the electricity that is Japan and with a light kick in my step, I now was ready to experience the rest of Tokyo knowing that I have just witnessed a truly hectic and maginal occurrence to be remembered forever. Oh and it was only 11am…
Useful facts about Tsukiji Market
CHECK THE CALENDAR for opening times and days! At http://www.tsukiji-market.or.jp/tukiji_e.htm.
The markets are usually closed on Japanese holidays, Sundays and some Wednesday. Avoid any day on the calendar that has a red dot.
Not to be missed! If you can get there in time.
60 visitors go in to see the auctions between 5.25am and 5.50am; the second batch is from 5.50am to 6.15am. Registration takes place on the 1st floor of the aptly-named Fish Information Center (Osakana Fukyu Center), located by the market’s Kachidoki Bridge entrance (Kachidoki Hashi), off Harumi Dori Street
The market is the busiest between 5:30 and 8:00 a.m., and the activity declines significantly afterward. Many shops start to close around 11:00 a.m.
Ensure you wear enclosed shoes and something warm especially if visiting the auctions. Ensure you take cash as there are limited ATM’s and do not bring large bags or anything that can get caught on displays or other people.
It is suggested that you locate an airbnb, hostel or hotel close to the area which is still quite central to the rest of Tokyo’s attractions.
*Note the Tsukiji Markets are due to move from their historical location in 2016 due to the site being named as where the new area for the 2020 Japanese Olympics will be. Although it will be relocated it is suggested you experience the original site.