I’ve never been as nervous at a “tourist attraction” as I was in the Tsukiji Fish Market.
I put “tourist attraction” in quotations because, unlike Times Square in New York City or the Weekend Market in Bangkok, the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is a serious commercial center first and a sightseeing destination second. It is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the entire world. It’s not just a place for foreigners to oggle at giant slabs of tuna.
Over 5 billion dollars worth of fish and seafood are bought and sold at the market every year. Once you cross the two lanes of truck and forklift traffic that separate the heart of the market from the tourist stalls along the perimeter, you enter a world of ice and fish and million dollar transactions. It’s intimidating. There are only a few feet of walkway between rows of vendors and there are deadly serious men tallying figures and driving little flatbeds at high speeds. People either don’t want you there or don’t care, but nobody’s going to be thrilled by your presence, especially if you get in their way.
It’s no Disney Land.
On the other hand, by the time most tourists show up after 9am, the serious deals are done for the day and, as long as you watch your step and give way to the serious seafood buyers, vendors are pretty nice and its a fascinating place.
I was a little nervous to take photos. There are so many signs and so much literature about how “thou shall not get in the way of a fish sale” and how the market isn’t a place for children, but it wasn’t that bad. One guy smiled at Will sleeping on Chris’ chest and I asked him if I could photograph his fish. After that it got easier.
I didn’t come away with too many great shots but it was still an amazing experience. So many different kinds of fish and seafood, all different colors and sizes. There are all sorts of specialized pieces of machinery just for moving fish around the market and little tiny offices perched on top of shelving units and wooden pallets.
There are, of course, fish innards and guts everywhere you look-as long as everywhere you look is on the inside of neatly contained little styrofoam containers. The pavement might not be clean enough to eat sushi off of, but you won’t find anything much more offensive on the ground than some ice and sea water. The place is pristine.
If tiny walkways and fish heads aren’t your thing, there is still plenty to see in the stalls and shops around the perimeter of the market. It’s busy and atmospheric without the intimidation factor. And of course, there is the sushi.
It is said that some of the best sushi in Japan can be found at the tiny little counters around the market. I wouldn’t know. We might be crazy enough to take our 6.5 month old to the world’s largest fish market but we aren’t in the business of ruining anyone’s sushi nirvana with our wriggly baby. People start waiting in line at 7am for sushi. With Will in tow we knew this wouldn’t be the trip to wait 2 or 3 hours for a meal, even if the sushi is amazing. Next time, hopefully.
Instead, we found ourselves in a very touristy little place that seemed to cater especially to crazy Americans with kids. It certainly wasn’t the best or most creative sushi in the market but it was still very fresh and very delicious. We took our cues from a Japanese couple sitting next to us and ordered up some oysters. They were truly amazing, nearly as big as my hand and dressed with just a light touch of soy, daikon and green onion. We could have skipped the sushi for one meal and feasted solely on oysters, probably the freshest we’ve had since we left Washington D.C.
If you want to go eat good sushi and take photos of the market, head over around 7am. Look for the longest line and join the queue. Eat the best sushi of your life and then, after 9am, go wander around the market for an hour or so. The earlier you go the more you will see, but the less people will be happy to see you. By 11 the scene is mostly dead and by 1 or 2 everyone closes up shop for the day. Which is just as well. By the time you are done seeing the fish, you should be just hungry enough again to join the ramen line on the other side of the market…