It always surprises me how some places end up becoming tourist attractions and Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is one of them. How did walking around a smelly fish market, essentially just watching fishmongers do their daily job, become one of the top things to do in this crazy, wild, metropolis of a city?
I think the answer lies somewhere in the fact that, like many things in the country, there is an attraction that ancient old traditions and practises can co-exist so easily with the futuristic, modern, expensive world around them. You see it everywhere in Japan. Tiny old houses sandwiched between big, fancy tower blocks; women in kimonos seamlessly slipping onto the subway surrounded by businessmen in suits; Geishas talking on their mobile phones before their spring theatre performances.
And Tsukiji fish market is one of those places that has managed to maintain its traditions. For the last 80 years fishmongers have been selling their fresh catch of the day and locals have been going there to buy it. The years may come and go, but the daily hauls of silvery scaly fish, deep purple octopuses and oysters the size of your palm remain the same.
The main problem with visiting the market is that you are advised to go very early. Like 5am early if you want to see the famous tuna auction. Now Mr A and I are not morning people. So the thought of getting up at 4am to travel across the city and stand in a queue to potentially get a ticket (only a limited number are handed out each day) was a bit of a hard sell. Fortunately for us we found a copy of Time Out which said: “Unless you’re a Japanese fishmonger and your livelihood depends on it, there’s no good reason to get up before the crack of dawn and queue for hours to watch men shout over dead fish.”
And if it’s good enough for Time Out, it’s good enough for us! We arrived at a respectable 9am instead. In the inner market, where the actual selling takes place, it is business as usual, despite the hordes of tourists tramping through their workplace.
To be fair to the people who work there, they deal quite well with the fact that people come on a daily basis to photograph them doing their job. I mean I’m not sure how I’d feel about a bunch of holidaymakers sitting next to me watching me send an email or shoving a camera in my face as I stand at the photocopier.
However the workers here just get on with the job in hand. From sawing open the biggest tuna fish I’ve ever seen in my life to lining up crustaceans in neat rows ready to be examined by discerning customers. The huge building is dimly lit and filled with row after row of merchants, with their outward facing stalls and ladders leading up to their offices in the back. The narrow walkways are lined with iced boxes of fish; shoppers with long straw baskets, the perfect size to store a fresh fish wrapped tightly in newspaper, and the fishmongers themselves, expertly weaving in and out of the crowds on little carts which don’t slow down for anyone or anything.
For us, it was a whole new world, as we examined the weird and wonderful wares, some of which we’d never even seen before (Mr A was particularly pleased to see geoduck for sale – a large, ugly, saltwater clam).
Eventually we left behind the chaos of the morning sales at the Inner Market and headed to the Outer Market, for a different kind of chaos – caused this time by the tourists. The Outer Market is the place to go to get the freshest sushi and the queues were already long. Not quite ready to face sushi for breakfast Mr A instead opted for an egg omelette on a stick, while I went for the slightly more unusual chiyoda (an onion wrapped in a streak of bacon). The old ladies who served us were an absolute delight, keen to ensure that I enjoyed my snack, which had a surprisingly pleasant caramelised taste.
The colour, noise and vibrancy of the market made it easy to see why Tsukiji has become such an attraction. So it is sad to know that it will soon all be gone when the market moves to a new location in November. A tiny piece of Tokyo’s tradition which will be lost forever.
For more information about our honeymoon route in Japan, check out this post and to read about the cute Airbnb apartment we stayed in click here.