I really cannot get over just how much fun I had wandering the stalls of the Tsukiji market, taking in the tuna auction and otherwise being immersed in a bit of the local culture where, even as an obvious foreigner, I was paid no mind. The folks there had work to do and my presence certainly wasn’t going to affect them getting their job done.
And what a job it is. Once the tuna are bought they rapidly travel through a series of wholesalers, making it to the retail market only an hour or two after the auction, and into my stomach shortly after that. For the frozen tuna the tool of choice is the band saw. For the fresh stuff it is a series of knives, starting with what appears to be a samurai sword that takes three men to wield and proceeding to a series of smaller knives after that.
Not wanting to waste even the slightest bit of fish (and at the prices they are paying, who can blame them??) they even go so far as to scrape the bones clean and save that last little bit to put to use somehow.
Weighing in a chunk of tuna for a customer
Yup, it is a yellow fin tuna
A bit of a shrine in the driver’s door of a delivery truck parked at the market
The market has way more than just tuna available. Just about any type of fish could be found, as well as many non-fish items in the farmers’ market offshoot around the side. I recognized some of the fish that were out on display, but many, many, many were completely foreign to me, at least in their natural state.
I think that perhaps the most interesting part of the entire auction process is that the language used is not really Japanese. Yes, the numbers from the bidding are, but the rest of the words that the auctioneer shouts are no more intelligible to a native Japanese speaker than they were to me. Second-most interesting is that it only takes about six seconds to sell a fish. With a couple hundred to sell each morning that speed is rather important. They apparently actually tried to computerize the process a couple years back, sinking USD $20MM into the effort, and realized that it was slowing them down so they scrapped the whole thing.
Also, I mentioned in my initial post about my Tsukiji visit that I took some video of the auction process. Generally I’m not a fan of video; I prefer to tell the story through still images. But I don’t think that I could do the auction justice without some videos, so here they are.
Prepping the fish for the auction:
Getting a feel for the quality of the tuna:
The auctions underway:
Just an awesome time overall. They are working on plans to overhaul the existing space, in use for ~80 years at this point, in favor of a new facility by 2014. So get there now and see the show before it is gone.
If you really wanted to, a visit could be done in just about 48 hours from most cities in the USA with non-stop service to Tokyo. Fly over on day one, see the market and head back out to the airport for the return flight. There’s even some extra time in there to see other things around town. I don’t think it is quite as compelling an experience as the Taj at sunrise, and probably wouldn’t make a special trip just for it again, but it is definitely one of the highlights of a visit to Tokyo.
A few other logistical notes about the visit. The market is up and running very early in the morning. There was activity at 4:20am when I got there. And the tuna room is only open from 5-6:15am. The first ~45 minutes of that is them getting ready and then the auctions come fast and furious. The 6:15am stop time is pretty strictly enforced, so don’t expect to arrive late and still get to see things. That being said, you do not really need to be there at 5am to catch the action. The Tokyo metro doesn’t start running until ~5am and, depending on which neighborhood you are staying in, you can be at the market by 5:30am by taking the metro without too much trouble. That is a good thing since taxis in Tokyo are pretty ridiculously expensive. I ended up spending ¥3000 (~$30) for a taxi to the market because I was awake at 4am and ready to go and didn’t realize that the metro wasn’t open yet until I found all the gates closed. So, if you are looking to save a bit of cash, time things for the first metro train and skip the taxi. There were several people at the auctions with “guides” escorting them around but I wouldn’t spend my money on them, particularly based on the info I heard them providing while there. They didn’t seem very helpful at all and it really isn’t too hard to navigate that part of the market on your own. And it is cold in there. It was also relatively cold outside while I was there so I’m not sure what it would be like in the middle of the summer, but all that frozen fish in a room keeps the temperatures pretty low in there.
If you plan on eating sushi in the market area after the show, expect to spend ¥1500-2000 per person, cash only, at the lower end places and as much as you want if you just keep ordering more at some of the other places. A breakfast can easily end up in the ¥4,000 range in a hurry, particularly if you keep ordering the o-toro. Also if you plan on going to a place where you aren’t ordering a set menu, try to learn a few words of the types of sushi you want. Salmon is the easiest since it is the same. Otherwise, copy down the Japanese words from your local sushi place (the regular stuff, not the crazy rolls) and use that as a guide. Ordering hamachi, for example, was easy to do and much better received by the chef than had I said “yellow tail.”
A couple parting photos from the tuna market. The “steam” you see rising off the fish is actually the ice melting. And it really is hard to get a grasp for just how big the room is. There were easily 200 fish sold the morning I was there, ranging in size from 20-300Kg. That’s a LOT of tuna!
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