Hurry Before It's Gone

TSUKIJI FISH MARKET is slated for the chopping block. At one o’clock a.m., our alarm blares. We wake up in a hotel room in Ginza. We take a quick shower, get dressed, and, rubbing our sleepy eyes, head out into the dark, quiet, sleeping streets of Tokyo.

Why get up so early?

Because the Tsukiji Fish Market will soon be gone, forever. The historical landmark will become a mere page in a history book. And getting up at 1 a.m. is the only way to see it before it’s too late. Can’t miss it, can we?

Tsukiji Fish Market – Why Will It Close?

Reasons are that the fish market’s too old, too decrepit, and too outdated. The Tokyo metropolitan government built a brand new, modernized facility in Toyosu. The grand move was scheduled for November 2016.

But things didn’t work out as planned. Political battles ensued. Why and how was the decision to close and move the fish market made in the first place? November 2016 came and went. The world news organizations jumped on this controversy. The story was so symbolic of the corrupt political plays and the controversial debate over the good-and-bad of modernization.

And here’s the interesting human phenomenon. The news sparked a great interest in this Tokyo’s historical landmark. Tourists marked down ‘Tsukiji Fish Market’ as a must-see destination. Thus the tourist rush kicked off. They came in hoards. When something as historical as the Tsukiji Fish Market has been sentenced to its deathbed, people became driven by their overwhelming desires to see what it’s all about before it’s gone.

Unfortunately, I’m one of those curiosity driven people.

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo
Woodblock Picture of Hiroshige's Naniwa Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market – In the Wee Hours Here We Come

Hence, here we are walking in the dead of morning, headed to witness the highlight of the Tsukiji Fish Market – the “tuna auction.”

I did the research beforehand. The Tsukiji Fish Market authorities allow only 120 people per day, split in 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, I thought if we’re there by 4:00 a.m., we’ll be good to go.

Not that easy.

The day before, after checking into the hotel in Ginza, we went to scope out the market. According to a security guard manning the Kachidoki Gate, where the Tsukiji market’s Fish Information Center is located, visitors (mostly foreigners) 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.

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo
The Tuna Buyer, Ko'osei, Speaks about the Tuna Auction

Tsukiji Fish Market – A Long Wait and A Little History

Then comes the long wait. All 120 of us are corralled into a waiting room, where we sit on a hard, linoleum floor, immobilized in a crowded space, like tunas waiting to be auctioned off. None of us look happy.

About an hour before the kickoff 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 were air freighted by Jumbo jets from the northern Atlantic coast of the United States – came iced in large wooden crates. They were caught by sports fishermen from small boats manned by two or three crew members. 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.

Tsukiji Fish Market – The Famous Tuna Auction

At 5:25 a.m., the first tour starts.

Several security guards escort us, primarily to keep us out of the path of motorized 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 tail fins 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 swatch the silent action.

The Tuna Auction

Tsukiji Fish Market – The Auctioneers in Action

The 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 their 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.

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market Tuna Auction

What Am I Doing Here?

Sometimes, I’m driven by an insatiable curiosity to do things only for that checkmark on that box of ‘been-there-done-that list.’ Yes, I’m a hypocrite. I rave against the stupidity of the ‘bucket list’ of places to see and things to do. Our life is not a list of things to do. Yet, here I am engaged in that very touristy venture.

At the end of the tour, we return our vests to the security guards at the exit of the Tsukiji Fish Market. Leaving the market area, I turn to my wife. “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 listen to you and wake up at one o’clock in the morning to go see some dead tunas.”

“Really?” I’m now full of shame. The verdict is out – “guilty as charged.” Here, I dragged my wife to a hotel in Tokyo, stayed the night only to get up in the wee hours of the morning, for what? So that I can say, “Yep, I’ve seen the tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market. Saw it before it closed.”

Tsukiji Fish Market – A Smarter Option?

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 I am and must see the tuna auction, check out the TokyoCheapo site article: A Guide for Visitors. 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. Your thoughts and comments are welcome.  

Categories: Japan

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