Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji market slated to close


Wandering the narrow, dark, cramped, loud, wet aisles between the stalls of fishmongers at Tokyo‘s Tsukiji market is a time-honored tradition. Tourists flock to the site early in the morning; the Tuna auctions start at 6am, with previews open to the public starting at 5am. A breakfast of sushi (and a beer, if you’re so inclined) is a great way to start a day in Tokyo or to work off the after-effects of a late night out on the town. Alas, this tradition will be coming to an end in 2014 as the Tsukiji market closes its doors for good.

The market has been in operation for nearly 80 years and is bursting at the seams. The proposed new market will be 40% larger, covering more than 400,000 square meters of floor space. That’s roughly the same amount of usable space as the Boeing wide-body assembly building in Everett, Washington or the Willis Tower in Chicago. It is going to be HUGE. But it also is not at Tsukiji.

The facility will be built in the Koto ward, a few kilometers away from the current location. The city government unveiled plans late last month for the new site.

The multi-story, multi-building facility will be constructed to support the functions which the site has become known for. There will be dedicated areas for seafood wholesalers, middle-men, fruit and veggie shops and other commercial offices. Construction is not yet started, pending efforts to neutralize toxic substances in the ground at the new site from its prior days as a gas factory.

The wholesale section will be built with observation platforms for the tourists. This will undoubtedly make for easier operations at the market as the vendors won’t be fighting with the tourists for access to the same space. At the same time, however, it notably reduces the intimacy of the experience. And that intimacy is what makes Tsukiji awesome.

I’ve been to the market a few times now, basically every time I visit Tokyo. Wandering those narrow, dark, cramped, loud, wet aisles while fighting off jetlag and trying to remember that I’m in a place of business, not the world’s most interactive tourist site is both glorious and challenging, all at the same time.

I’ve attended the tuna auction just once but that was enough for me to recognize the significance of the tradition and also the major business being conducted in that frantic 20 minutes of shouting every morning.

(More auction videos in this post)

I’ve followed a whole fish through the market, watching to go from auction to wholesaler to a middleman to being sectioned for retail sale, all in just a few hours.

And I’ve seen some awesomely strange animals plucked from the sea and set out for sale.

The market is more about tradition than modern facilities today. It seems to run in spite of itself as much as it runs because of itself. And that is a huge part of what makes it wonderful. I’m sure the new facility will be beautiful. Functional, too. And it will probably make for a better business environment. But it won’t be Tsukiji. And that makes me sad.

I’ll be making at least one "farewell" visit to the market in April 2013. I may have to plan a couple more to help friends and family experience it before it is too late.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

6 Comments

  1. Wow… sad to hear. I went there in July 2011 and had the best sushi of my life at Sushi Dai (waited in line for almost 3 hrs too). Never got a chance to see the auction though since it was closed off to tourists after the tsunami, but I think it’s since been reopened. Hope to make it back there again before it moves in 2014!

  2. My first trip to Tokyo was last August. Unfortunately my timing was bad and I was there during a holiday while the market was closed. I am planning on going back Tokyo in May. Definitely making a visit.

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