Tokyo, Japan – One o’clock a.m. Our alarm clock goes off. In a hotel room in Ginza, we wake up, take a shower, get dressed, and, rubbing our sleepy eyes, head out onto the dark and quiet streets of Tokyo.
Why get up so early?
Because the historical Tsukiji Fish Market is slated for closure. Reasons are that it’s too old, too decrepit, and too outdated. The Tokyo metropolitan government built a brand new, modernised facility in Toyosu. The grand move was scheduled for November 2016. But things didn’t work out as planned. Political battles ensued over why and how the decision to close and move the market had been made in the first place. November came and went. The world news organisations jumped on this controversy, so symbolic of the corrupt political plays and the good-and-bad of modernization.
And here’s an interesting phenomenon. Just because the closure of the Tsukiji Fish Market has been postponed, indefinitely at this time, this hasn’t stopped the tourists from rushing to see the fish market before it’s too late. On personal levels, when something as historical as this Tsukiji Fish Market has been sentenced to its deathbed, people are driven by their overwhelming desires to see what it’s all about before it’s gone.
Unfortunately, my wife, Sharon, and I are those curiosity-driven people. Hence, here we are walking in the dead of morning, headed to witness the highlight of the Tsukiji Fish Market – the “tuna auction.”
The Tsukiji Fish Market authorities allow only 120 people per day, split into two groups of 60, to visit the tuna auction. The first tour starts at 5:25 a.m.; the second, at 5:50 a.m. When we first decided to see the tuna auction, we thought if we’re there by 4:00 a.m., we’ll be good to go.
Not that easy.
The day before, we scoped out the area. According to a security guard manning the Kachidoki Gate, where the Tsukiji market’s Fish Information Center is located, visitors have been getting in line for the coveted 120-visitors-per-day access as early as 2 o’clock a.m. “If you’re here before 2:30 a.m., you should be okay,” the guard told us. “If you come later, I cannot promise you will be successful.”
So we heed to the guard’s advice. We arrive at the designated meeting place, right by the Kachidoki Gate, at around 2:15 a.m. We’re number 47 and 48 in the line. A security guard hands us yellowish-green vests, designating us to the first group of 60. The first 60 fills up quickly. Then come the other 60 visitors. They are given blue vests. By 3:05 a.m., all 120 slots are filled. Many unlucky, sleepy-eyed visitors are turned around. They don’t look happy.
Then comes the long wait. All 120 of us are corralled into a waiting room, where we sit on a hard, linoleum floor, immobilised in a crowded space, like tunas waiting to be auctioned off. None of us looks happy.
About an hour before the kick-off of the first tour, a tuna fish buyer comes to the waiting room. He tells us his name is Ko’osei. He speaks near perfect English. He tells us about the history of the Tokyo fish market and about the insights of his trade.
Ko’osei says he’s been in the tuna-buying business for about 20 years. When he first started, “jumbo” tunas – called jumbo because they are airfreighted by Jumbo jets from the northern Atlantic coast of the United States – came iced in large wooden crates, caught by sports fishermen from small boats manned by two or three crewmembers. Many of the tunas, Ko’osei says, were riddled with bullet or shotgun holes. The market demand for tunas in Japan quickly turned these sportsmen into full-time commercial fishermen. And it didn’t take them long to learn that tunas without gunshot holes demanded higher prices.
At 5:25 a.m., the first tour starts.
Several security guards escort us, primarily to keep us out of the path of motorised carts zipping around the market. They lead us to the tuna auction site, a large hangar-sized building with a low ceiling, lit by numerous florescent lights.
Inside the building is cold. We walk on cordoned path marked for visitors. On both sides of us, hundreds of frozen, frost-covered tunas line the damp concrete floor. The fish are chalk-marked by numbers, and their tailfins are cut off to expose the flesh. There’s no fishy smell. There’s hardly any noise. Just a spooky feeling as if we’re inside a morgue.
We stop to watch the silent action.
Fish buyers, with their market license plates attached to their ball caps, quietly walk around checking the quality of the fish. They bend over wielding handpicks. They pick off some frozen flesh from the tail section, rub the pieces of flesh between thumb and fingers to check the quality (fatty better than oily), and then they shine their flashlights on the tail section to check the color of the flesh (scarlet red better than pink). They take notes in small notebooks. Then they move on to the next fish, wiping their fingertips clean on folded paper or towels suspended from their belt.
Soon, an auctioneer stands on a low wooden pedestal in front of ten or so tunas he’s responsible for selling. The market is still quiet. Then he clangs a hand bell. Buyers gather. Their high pitched voices of selling and buying charge the air. It all happens quickly. And ends quickly. Another spell of quietness fills the market until the next auctioneer takes his stand.
The tuna auction is an amazing spectacle of Japanese efficiency. The auction is held for only an hour, from 5:30 to 6:30 a.m. And within that hour, an average of 1,000 tunas are sold and bought.
At near 5:50 a.m., the first group is promptly escorted out of the tuna auction area. The second group arrives. Security guards escort us to the exit of the Tsukiji Fish Market. There we return our vests and leave.
“So was it worth it?” I ask Sharon.
“It’s a check-in-the-box sort of thing,” she says. “Glad we did it. But never again will I wake up at one o’clock in the morning to go see some dead tunas.”
Tsukiji Fish Market Information
If you don’t want to get in line at 2:00 a.m. to see the tuna auction, you can still visit the market’s wholesale area after 10:00 a.m. when it opens to the public. Japan-guide.com is a good information source for the Tsukiji Fish Market. This site provides information about how to get to Tsukiji Fish Market via public transportation.
If you are ‘hardheaded’ like we are and must see the tuna auction, check out the TokyoCheapo site article: 10 Things You Should Know Before Visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market Tuna Auction. This is a well written, accurate, and comprehensive information source. Also, check out its well-made YouTube video about Tsukiji Fish Market.
If you visit the Tsukiji Fish Market (its tuna auction, or its wholesale area, or its public area with restaurants and shops), please tell us about your experience. Please write your thoughts and comments below.