Fishy Business – Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

December 15, 2007 2 Comments »

Frozen tuna lined up for inspection

Frozen tuna lined up for inspection

For all Tsukiji Market Photography – click here!

The alarm went off at 2:45AM – I got up disoriented and thought…why do I do this to myself? Yet as my eyes adjusted to the overhead light, and I got up off of my floor mat, I reminded myself that this was the whole purpose of my trip here…this early morning adventure. I know that the best experiences seems to happen in the dark, so I put on my warmest clothes, and my waterproof running shoes, armed myself with my cameras, lenses, flash and a backpack. Made sure that I had my little hand written note in Japanese to give to the cab driver, and I took off out of the Ryokan and out into the dark Tokyo streets to find a cab.

3:00AM: The sheet of paper worked it’s magic – the cab driver knew exactly where to go and he did just that – at the speed of light on the virtually empty Tokyo streets. I held on during the wild ride, becoming more coherent each time he slammed on the breaks. I watched the meter tick away Yen as if it were seconds on a digital clock. I made it to the corner in record time by 3:30AM, and slid out of the cab…”Arigato!” I made my over to the meeting spot, I was 30 minutes early so I decided to go upstairs and try to buy a cup of coffee without speaking Japanese which would most likely take at least 30 minutes. As I was halfway up the stairs I heard someone yell “Sherry-san!” . I stopped and looked and there he was – my fish guide for the morning, Nakamura-san.

shrimpNakamura-san had been providing weekly tours of the market for a number of years. He had a wonderful command of English, a degree in economics, and had spent 12 years working in the Fish market for one of the big wholesalers. I had hired him to show me the ins and outs of the ‘Wall Street of Fish’ – Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Sure – there are many places that do Tsukiji Market tours; however Nakamura-san offered a unique experience that the other tours didn’t – a real behind the scenes look at the business. Most tours start at 5:30 to see the tuna auction, however we started at 3:30, and spent 3 hours touring around the ground watching the unloading of the fish, the prep, inspection, auctions (fresh tuna, frozen tuna, sea urchins, and live fish), the middle men market, the butchering, and finally breakfast on the market grounds. As long as you were willing to get up early, you could see everything – and most importantly to me – you could photograph everything!

3:30AM: Since I was the only one touring with Nakamura that morning, we took off early and made our first stop at the temple outside of the entrance to the Fish Market. He explained the Japanese temple rituals to me and said a prayer for our safe tour. I thought this a bit odd at the time,it was simply a fish tour, it seemed pretty safe to me. However, once I set foot in the market, I understood why safety was something worth praying for…else I was going to end up as fish market road kill in the crazy vehicle traffic speeding around. He pointed out the large statues/monuments at the temple that were donated by some of the successful middle men – a long history of fish tradition. I kind of liken it to the bull statue outside the New York Stock Exchange – a symbol of finance, the Egg statue at the fish market temple was the symbol of Fish prosperity.

trafficWe entered the ground of Tsukiji Market and immediately I was on guard…one has to be extremely aware as you walk the grounds else you will get run over by one of the many speeding vehicles carrying fish – or at the very least yelled at in Japanese. I’m not a morning person, so luckily the my earlier speeding taxi ride prepared me for a bit of the chaos. There are trucks backing in to unload tuna, as well as a barrage of small, fast vehicles that seem like go-carts. Add to that bikes, and men pushing wheel barrels along the wet fish filled ‘roads’. No matter where you go – you always seem to be in the way. Tsukiji Market is a perfect example of vertical integration (I can’t even believe I remember this term from my Economics classes years ago!). It includes the suppliers, shippers, inspectors, middle-men (buyers), and customer. japanese knivesTo top it off near the outer ring of the fish market is the market that supplies the people who work in the market – they sell knives, fish hooks, rubber boots, and finally – sushi. This is a complete society around selling and moving fish. This market employs 6000 people, yet there are about 50,000 people in and out each morning. On average, 2,000 tons of fish are sold daily, and annually the market brings in aprox. 5.5 Billion US Dollars…yes – I told you it was big. It is the largest fish market in the world – which is probably why I felt dwarfed as I walked about it.

4:00AM: We first stopped in the shrimp market – they had just received shipments and the inspectors and middle-men were out looking at the product. Next we made our way to the tuna area in time to watch them unload trucks of frozen tuna into a staging area. The tuna looked like huge tuna popsicles to me. trafficThey were unloaded off the frozen truck by a man that kicked them out of the back of the truck where they would land 5 ft. below on a rubber tire to soften the blow. From there a man with a large handheld fishhook drug the tuna popsicle to the staging area where they were lined up in straight lines. The men inside all had hooks as they arranged the fish and methodically cut the tails off the fish so that the middle-men could see the quality of the meat. A man with a kettle of hot water would pour it over the frozen fish in order to thaw their outer skin so that people could survey the quality of the fish. The middle-men were stalking around looking at the day’s take and determining what they wanted to bid on and how much the tuna were worth.

fresh tuna inspectionNext we moved on over to the fresh tuna staging area. The tuna were massive, ranging from 400 to 500 pounds. I’ve never seen such huge tuna in all of my life. I watched at the men primp and ready the fish for the auction – as if it were in a pageant. Each had a number and some writing that provided information about what country the boat was from that caught it as well as what waters it was caught in, and the weight. Once again, the tail was cut off in order to see the quality of the meat while another man would go around and mark any imperfections on the fish with a red wax. I asked Nakamura-san why the country information mattered, and he indicated that the Japanese fishermen normally caught the fish that went for the highest prices. Conversly, the Chinese fishermen had lower quality fish. The whole thing just made me laugh as China continues their ‘poor quality’ reputation – even in fishing.

5:00 AM: We made our way to the sea urchin auction next. live fish auctionThese little slimy urchins are a big ticket item in Tokyo – a small 5 in by 7 inch box (about an 2 inches deep) will sell for about $150. They use the urchin to put on the top of sushi rolls – something that I’d never tried before, but would before I left Tokyo. I watched as the bell rang and all of the men yawned, got up and moved towards the bleachers prepared to bid. The auctioneers were on a pedestal, and seemed to be as animated as playing a game of charades. Next we made our way to the live fish auction – a very full and active auction. First we walked around and watched the fish being inspected. I was in awe of the men that could simply reach a hand into the water container and simply pull out a fish with his hands…this seemed to be a good talent to have! We came across a bin of live fugu, otherwise known as pufferfish- a deadly, toxic fish if prepared the wrong way. fugu fish and licensed preparerWe talked to one of the men standing by the fugu and he showed off his fugu preparation license to us – a license that is in high demand. Only people with a license can be allowed to prepare the rare and expenseive fugu, and there are only a few people that have a license. He said that he had to be re-certified every year. I chuckled as I thought about who in the world would want to be a certification judge – it quite possibly may be the worst job on the planet…think of all the people that don’t pass the fugu preparation test…deadly!

5:20AM: middlemenThe live fish auction was geared up and ready to go. Five auctioneers stood on a platform in front of wooden bleachers full of yawning men wearing baseball hats with blue placards on them. The blue placards indicated that they were approved middle men that worked in the market. The bidding began – of course I understood none of it in Japanese! However – I did understand the activities – hand signals, frantic writing on notepads, gavels hitting the platform – it was fast and furious!

5:30AM: It was about time for the grand-daddy of auctions to begin – the tuna. We rushed over to the fresh tuna auction. As I entered the big hanger, I realized that this was the first time I actually saw other tourists…they had just arrived now – and I had been there for 2 hours already photographing all of the prep and watching the inner workings of the market. I knew then, Nakamura’s tour was worth it. The fresh tuna was auctioned off by a walk around auction. fresh tuna auctioneerOne auctioneer followed by a bunch of middlemen carrying clipboards and flashlights (to better inspect the tuna). As you would expect, the auctioneer was animated in his actions, voice, and body language. I was mesmerized by his personality – it really looked like he enjoyed his job – often laughing and smiling…just another day at the office. Nakamura told me that the first fish sold (and presumably always the best fish) was sold for a mere $15,000 US. Yes – you heard that right. I stared at the expensive tuna and thought about how it cost me more than my first new car – a Ford Escort. I thought about how this was the middle man price – then it had to be cut up and sold in smaller chunks to restaurants and grocery stores, and by the time I paid for it – it was only a small piece of that $15,000. For any of you that wonder why sushi is so expensive – well – everyone needs their cut and if it already starts at $15,000 you do the math. I really don’t believe there is a ton of mark up on sushi any longer!

Video of the fresh Tuna ‘walk-around’ auction – click on arrow to view:

tuna #1 - $15000<loading tuna2loading tuna1loading tuna3
I watched the men as they loaded the 500 pound tuna on a wheel barrel type cart (click on photos above for detail). It took two large men to drag the dead, but expensive, weight onto the cart – back breaking work. We followed the cart into the wholesale market area where they butcher and sell the fish to restaurants, grocery stores, and other buyers. You may wonder – how do you go about butchering a 500 pound tuna …with a big sword/knife and about 4 men. The men all worked together in unison to quarter the fish and work around the bones, a true art. I looked around the busy stalls – everyone bringing back their goods from the auction and butchering, shucking, scaling, and preparing. butcheringIt dawned on me that this was the first time in the last 3 hours that I saw a female in the market. The females tended to be the bookkeepers and would do all of the money collection for the wholesale stand. I guess they know that women need their beauty sleep – or maybe pulling around 500 pound tunas isn’t considered women’s work – regardless – they definitely had the posh job in the market since they didn’t have to show up for work until 6AM!

6:30AM: We walked out of the wholesale area (pictured below) leaving all of the shucking and butchering behind. We crossed over the busy ‘highway’ of quickly moving vehicles busy loading outgoing trucks and ended up near a row of little sushi restaurants on the premises of the market. It was officially the end of my wonderful tour. Now it was time to eat breakfast…sushi. I love sushi, and there was no way I was leaving the largest fish market in the world, in a country that is the home of sushi, without eating some. I bid goodbye to Nakamura-san and sat down for a treat – the freshest sushi I had ever had in my life. For $18 I was able to enjoy soup, tea, 8 pieces of sushi (including that expensive sea urchin) and a tuna roll. I have no idea what half of the fish was that I was eating – but one thing was for sure – it was delivered, bought, and butchered only a few hours ago.

7:00AM After breakfast, I went back outside in the market and walked through the rubber boot vendors and knife vendors – salivating over the beautiful cutlery. I stood around and watched the trucks getting loaded for a while and then finally decided that I had seen the best of what there was to see. As I made my way out of the market complex dodging the vehicles, I saw many well-rested tourists coming into the market with their cameras. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them as they missed the best parts of the market – the part that happened in the dark of night.

The market is a must see in Tokyo – to learn more about Nakamura’s tours – visit his website at

Photos: Me at the Fish Market, eating sushi breakfast! (click on them for larger images)

me with the big boyssushi breakfast2sushi breakfast3sushi for breakfast

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