First fish market in Tokyo was established in Edo Period by Ieyasu Tokugawa; who was the Commander in Chief. He invited fishermen from Osaka to Edo to provide fish to the castle. Tokyo was known as Edo till 1870’s. They used to sit near Nihonbashi Bridge till the Kanto earthquake in 1923. Earthquake devastated most of the central Tokyo. After which the fish market was relocated to Tsukiji. Officially the market started in 1935.
Fishermen during Edo period at Nihonbashi Bridge
Since the market is so old and huge it attracts large amount of crowed. More than 700,000 metric tones of seafood is handled every year; making this the world’s largest fish market. Living just across the Tsukiji bridge I always had the privilege to eat fresh tasty Sushi. Taking a stroll in the outer market is one of my favorite pastime on a jobless weekend.
The market is divided in mainly two parts. Inner Market which is a licensed wholesale market; this is where the popular tuna auction take place. And the Outer market which is mix of retail shops, small restaurants, shops which sell kitchen tools etc. In the outer market you may also find variety of souvenir shops, vegetables and fruit shops.
What drives many people to this place is the tuna auction. Tsukiji boasts free entrance for tourists to view this auction. Only 120 people can get in. Although the entry starts at 5 am people line up from 2:30. During peak season from 1:00!
1000 Tunas are sold everyday before sunrise. And don’t underestimate the efficiency and time management, this job is done in mere 40 minutes! Two sets of auctions take place and you can visit one of them.
We visited the auction during winter, so there were less tourists. We still had to go there at 02:30 in the morning to view 05:00 am auction. Initially I thought we will have to stand in a Que but instead we were allowed to sit in the waiting room. A professional auctioneer explained us how the auction takes place. He also talked about the history of Tsukiji. We were allowed to interact with him. He was so enthusiastic that we didn’t even realize how two and a half hours passed.
We were then taken to the inner market area. There are about 700 frozen and 300 fresh tunas that are sold in such a short amount of time. They are then distributed to the wholesale markets and later to different restaurants, supermarkets etc.
When we arrived at the market licensed market participants were inspecting the tunas, plucking at pieces of flesh that had been neatly cut open at the tail end, peering at them with flashlights, and rubbing the slices between their thumb and forefinger to gauge fat content.
After about twelve minutes cow bell rang and everyone was rushing towards the auctioneer. Auctioneer, holding a small pad was almost singing in a high pitched voice while the bidders were quietly giving the hand signals. The hand signals represent the numbers one to nine. Interesting fact is there is no sign for zero. Price determined per kilogram, the zeros to follow determined by experience and a tacit understanding between seller and buyer. In minutes auction was over!
Tsukiji sold world’s most expensive tuna; a pacific blue-fin tuna in 2013 January the price was massive $1.8 Million for 222-kilogram specimen.
After the auction we roamed around in the market for a while and had sushi for breakfast!
Did you know Sushi which is a delicacy now used to be type of a street food? It was sold on food stalls. And the fatty portion of tuna which is so popular and expensive today used to be thrown away and just the red meat was used.
Visiting one of the traditional Sushi restaurants in Tsukiji is a pleasant experience. Do you want to know if the fish is fresh? Just check the entrance of the restaurant. If they have purchased tuna recently, they would boast and put the head outside so people would know. Inside of the restaurant is very lively. Chefs and the staff welcome the customer with loud and friendly greeting. I would recommend a counter seat where your Sushi is made right in front of you! Watching the Chef slicing, carefully seasoning and serving that tiny masterpiece on a beautiful dish can only be compared to a stage performance. Food looks so gorgeous that anyone would take a moment, savor it with eyes first and then just dive into it. The lightly seasoned dish is a stunner.. and you also taste the experience of the chef! Most Sushi Chefs if not busy love to chat with the customers on the counter. So even if you go alone in one of these restaurants you won’t feel you’re alone, it is more like an experiencing the art and interacting with the artist situation.
I try to visit Tsukiji more often and just feel the hustle of wholesalers. Observe the enthusiastic tourists. Visit small shops and window shop a lot. It makes me sad because all of this is going to change.. the current market is in the central Tokyo and has occupied lot of space. Since the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are nearing Tsukiji is going to shift to another area called Toyosu. It feels like end of an era. Many people working in the market have been working from three to four generations. The government is supporting largely but I don’t know if the small shops will survive in this. The specialty of the restaurants in Tsukiji is that they buy fresh produce in the market.. I don’t know how that will work in the new place. Sigh..
There is a small shrine near the market. Statue of a fisherman’s god Ebisu is facing the shops. Will he miss being worshiped once the shops are moved? Only time will tell.
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