A Guide to the Tsukiji Market Tuna Auction, Tokyo

Has anyone else felt the need to take a Valium after buying a guidebook?

Japan Guide BookI mean, I’ve bought guide books before (and yes, I still buy guide books before each trip. And no, I’m not your grandma, you jerk.) but I’ve never felt this feeling of being overwhelmed by the country itself.

Well, that is until I bought a Japan guidebook before my two week adventure.

Within two minutes of reading it, I thought, “Holy crap, there’s a lot to do and see. I’ll never have time to see it all. Then, I’ll have to leave the country without seeing it all and then, some jerk will say, ‘did you see this’ and I’ll have to say, ‘no’ and then, I’ll convince myself that I didn’t see anything worthwhile. Then, I’ll regret not seeing that thing for the rest of my life. And then, that one thing will hang like a dark cloud over all of the cool things that we did see just knowing that we didn’t see that one thing and then, the world will just end suddenly and I will have never seen that one thing. ARRGHHH!!!!”

Goodness, I’m weirder since we last met, huh?

Although it would be impossible to see all of this country in two weeks, the things we did see were amazing. Besides the temples, the shrines, the Zen, the culinary excellence, the architecture, the religion, the Buddhism, the deer, the local festivals, the crazy transportation systems, the bento boxes, the heat, the food, the food and the food, it was the Japanese people that impressed me the most.

I know I was only there for a short period of time, but Japan struck me as a society deeply rooted in profound respect. Is it a respect for life, for tradition? Am I reading too much into it? I don’t know, but the truth is you can sense a certain sophisticated, yet quiet pride when walking around Japan. And although we certainly had a language barrier, everywhere we went, people were so helpful and respectful, at times quite funny and charming and damn it, Spain, why do you have to be ornery all the time?

Day One: Tsukiji Market

Although I could go on and on about my current Japanese culture crush, I’m going to delve right into my Japan recap with our visit to the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, Tsukiji Market.

While markets aren’t my thing normally, we really wanted to see the famous tuna auction. The problem is that A LOT of people want to see this auction, but it’s only open to 120 visitors a day, broken up into two groups of 60.

Although Tsukiji Market is a popular landmark for the city, the workers have complained recently about so many tourists walking around and interupting the flow of their very frentic workday. And it is crazy busy in the market, mainly because of the frantic bicyclists and zooming turret trucks that are charged with the responsibility of getting to their destination quickly without running over clumsy, camera wielding goofs from all over the world.

Watch em go:

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A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

The Tuna Auction

The auction runs every day except Sunday, every second Wednesday and some holidays. The kicker to visiting the event is that it starts at 5:30 a.m., but it’s highly recommended to be there between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m.

Yes, 4 o’clock in the morning, people.

One reason for this absurdness is that although 120 people are allowed to witness the auction, there are divided into two groups. It’s first come first serve and you certainly want to be in the first group because there is some sort of hierarchy system and the serious buyers bid for the best tuna first. I’m supposing that the second group just gets to see the auction of a few minnows or something of the sort.

We decided to use our jetlag to our favor and rise and shine early the morning after we arrived in Tokyo. We took a reasonably priced taxi to the market and arrived at the market at about 4:10. Believe it or not, we were the last people in the first group, so my advice to you is to definitely get there early!

The worst apart about the early arrival time is the waiting time before the auction starts at 5:30. Once you’re in your group with designated vest color, you basically wait for another hour and a half before the auction begins. Bring a book or something because there’s really nothing to do. And you can’t wander around the market at that time. And the only thing to eat or drink is from a vending machine and everything is in Japanese. I bought a seaweed flavored hot chocolate drink by mistake. Yum.

Visit to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo
First arrivals get the yellow vests. Blue arrivals get the shaft.

Once they usher you into the auction area, the whole thing only lasts about 10 minutes. There are two or three auctioneers shouting and multiple people bidding. I really wish I could have understood the prices that were being paid for the tuna. Besides the auction itself, the most interesting part for me was watching the buyers inspect the tuna bodies, which were treated with the utmost respect.

No, I’m just kidding. They were treated like the expensive frozen slabs of fish they are. This is a huge business in Japan (The fist tuna of 2013 was bought for $1.7 million!), and despite the controversy of blue fin over fishing, it’s pretty clear from the solemn aura in the auction that there is no room for sentimentality here at Tsukiji. It’s all business.

Well, that or they just hate goofy tourists.

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

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A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo
Ummm…1 million or 2 today?
A Guide to the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo
Slim pickings after the first auction. If you go, try to get there early!

After the auction, a handful of restaurants open in the market. You’ll see Japanese people lining up at the best places so you might have to wait a bit. Have you ever eaten sushi at 6:30 in the morning? With a beer, to boot? Well, since we had woken up so early, it already seemed like lunch time at that hour and once we got seated at a little sushi restaurant, it was the most amazing sushi of my life.

I really wish I had taken photos of our sushi, but it always feel sort of rude to do that in an intimate restaurant, you know? So, I’m sorry for the lack of photos, but take my word for it: the sushi at the Tsukiji fish market is the best, ever, ever in the entire world. No other sushi I’ve ever had even comes close to the paradise I put in my mouth at that small, unassuming sushi bar. In fact, afterwards, I really had assumed that I would never eat sushi again; it was that good. But that idea only lasted until we got to Nara, where I had the most beautiful nigiris wrapped in persimmon leaves.

But, I’ll have to save that one for another day and another post!

Tsukiji Market Information:

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6 Responses to A Guide to the Tsukiji Market Tuna Auction, Tokyo

  1. Cassandra says:

    What a great experience, waking up at 3:30 has never been so glamorous ;)

    How did it sound in the market, was it echo-y? And–even more importantly–how did it smell in there??

    • Hamatha says:

      Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t be able to kick me awake at that hour, but thanks to jetlag, it wasn’t so bad! And no, the market wasn’t loud. The auction was in a closed room that was a little bit echo-y when they started the actual auction, but it goes by so fast,you hardly notice the noise. And same for the smell in the market – it wasn’t bad. Not overly fishy at all…

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