Japan: Tsukiji Fish Market (1 Day)

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Tuna fish lined up for auction at Tsukiji Fish Market
Tuna fish lined up for auction at Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market is a fascinating place. Bustling with activity from 5am in the morning, the world’s biggest wholesale fish and seafood market handles over 2,000 tons of marine products per day!

Seeing the famous tuna auctions, however, is not for the faint of heart as there are only 120 people allowed per day so visitors have to line up already at 3am in the morning to witness the action. However, the entrance is free and the 3 hour wait is well worth it.

The Tsukiji Fish Market is actually shutting down in November 2016 due to the upcoming Summer Olympics in 2020 and will move to a new site in Toyosu. To commemorate the end of an almost century long tradition of Tsukiji, here is an insider’s view to document the traditions.

1. The Tuna Auctions

Fresh tuna from Japanese waters and frozen tuna from all around the world are laid out on the floor each morning in preparation for the famous tuna auction. Their tail is cut off, allowing bidders to judge the fattiness of each tuna fish by poking into the meat with a large hook and sampling a piece with their fingers.

Starting around 5:30am, an auction master rings a bell to summon all interested bidders to a given pallet of tuna fish and the action begins! Standing on a small pedestal, the master takes off his hat and starts to screams out prices. Bidders indicate their desired price per kilogram in silence using only their fingers, until the highest bidder wins and all the fish are sold in a matter of minutes. A typical tuna at the auction weighs 50-150 kg so based on the winning bid of JPY 5400 / kg (USD 50) on the day we visited, the final price for a whole tuna fish ranges from few thousand to tens of thousands USD.

2. Filleting the Tuna

Fresh tuna undergoes an elegant filleting process done in a traditional way with long knives called “maguro bōchō” that look like old samurai swords. We were fortunate to be invited by one of the oldest vendors Yoshino-san to his shop who showed us the entire filleting process. First, the head and fins are cut off and the whole fish is washed clean with a wet cloth. Using a medium sized knife, the skin is cut along the side and the meat is sliced down to the spine. The master Yoshino-san himself then takes a long 2 meter knife to carve up the tuna into 4 long quarters.

Frozen tuna is cut up horizontally along the spine into 4 quarters using a large electric band saw. Their spine is then chipped away with an axe and the meat is further sawed up into smaller chunks which are then sold to restaurants, seafood stores and retail customers.

Different grades of filleted tuna for sale
Different grades of filleted tuna for sale (“toro” tuna belly commands higher price for its fattiness)

3. The Seafood Wholesale Area

Every type of fish, crab, octopus, squid, shellfish and seafood imaginable is found at the wholesale market. With the right license, you can even buy “fugu” the deadly Japanese puffer fish with enough poison in its liver to kill five people. Unfortunately, it is sad to see that there is even whale meat for sale to this date.

Tsukiji Fish Market wholesale vendor
Wholesale vendor displaying their seafood for sale
Black and white squid
Black and white squid
Red fish chilled in ice
Red fish chilled in ice
Giant octopus
Giant octopus (my finger for comparison)

4. The Vegetable Market

Just outside the seafood market is a wholesale vegetable market that gets busy from 6 to 7am in the morning. With up to 8 auctions running simultaneously, the bidding process appears incomprehensible to an outsider but it is actually quite organized and methodical. Shiitake mushrooms, fresh tomatoes, every type of vegetable and greens are all auctioned off in entire boxes.

5. The Outer Market

Outside the wholesale area are hundreds of vendors open to the public for shopping. A particularly popular venue are sushi restaurants serving fresh seafood just dozens of meters away from where the fish were auctioned earlier that morning.

Tsukiji famous sushi restaurant
Famous sushi restaurant with a long queue
Traditional Japanese decorated bowls
Traditional Japanese decorated bowls
Japanese stainless steel knives
Japanese stainless steel knives

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