Tsukiji fish market and tuna auction [Tokyo]

Article updated on May 25, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The fish market and tuna auction moved from Tsukiji to its new and sterile Toyosu location. However, there are still over 300 stores and restaurants in Tsukiji that has retained its character. Take a peek at what Tsukiji was like & make sure you visit while in Tokyo…

2:35 a.m. A soft knock followed by “hello, good morning”. I slowly emerge from my capsule. It is quite early for a morning! But this is what it takes to get a chance to attend the famous tuna auction of the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the biggest fish market in the world.

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Old Japanese woman with white apron cooking a large bowl of soup in the early morning, Japan.

Well picked, the capsule hotel is only a 10-minute walk from the fish information centre of the market. Streets are full with taxis buzzing around and passers by. It is already busy at the centre slightly before 3 a.m. Allowed in, I am handed a yellow jacket meaning that I am among the first 60 lucky visitors. Not even 5 minutes later, it is a blue jacket being handed: second group. At 3:10 a.m., there are no more jackets to be handed and people are sent away. The yellow and blue spectators get as comfy as possible on the floor for a 2-hour+ wait: the auction starts at 5:25 a.m. This is when we walk to the wholesale area being guided by the police, giving strong instructions. I suddenly understand why when I almost get run over by one of the many forklift trucks driven through the market place by maniac workers! The Sun is slowly rising and the place is very active and busy.

Then, we enter a warehouse. About a hundred tunas sorted out by sizes are lying on the floor, emptied and filled with ice. Men in thick rubber boots are bending over them to check their quality: looking at the texture of a thin sample slice, using a hook to asses their density, observing the colour of their flesh with a flash light, … This is very serious business: after about 15 minutes of observing the tunas meticulously, the start of the auction is announced by a ringing bell. Shortly after, puzzled, I hear chanting: the man in charge is animating the bidding process and a bizarre choreography of raised hands starts. This ritual is hard to understand for the non-professional. This is how tunas are auctioned off, sometimes reaching unbelievable prices: the most expensive tuna to date was a bluefin one sold here to the sushi restaurant owner of the sushi chain Sushizanmai for $1.2 million!

After 25 minutes, we have to clear the space for the blue group. It is time to enjoy a sushi breakfast on the market in one of the many shacks scattered around while waiting for the intermediate wholesale area to open to the public at 9am.

After a delicious breakfast, I wander through the narrow alleys around Tsukiji: dried algae, chop sticks, ceramic dishes, Japanese knives, pickled vegetables, fish powder, dried fish, beans… Everything one can dream of to make sushi‘s is here!

I eventually reach the wholesale area: the warehouse seems to never end. I see creatures I have never seen before, experienced professionals slicing and preparing the fish with the ultimate precision, brokers dealing their precious acquisitions on the phone, delivery boys picking up orders, others cleaning the floors so well that only a slight scent of fish hovers despite the temperature in the high 30°C…

The Tsukiji fish market is one of a kind. Despite the apparent chaos, this well-oiled machine handles almost 500 kinds of fish representing a daily average of more than 2,000 tons. Seeing it function is a rare privilege.

Travel tips:

  • Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

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Old Japanese woman with white apron cooking a large bowl of soup in the early morning, Japan.

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5 thoughts on “Tsukiji fish market and tuna auction [Tokyo]

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