They say there’s two things you can do in Tokyo. Buy used underwear from a vending machine and visit the famous Tsukiji fish market. This is about fish market, only about the fish market. As far as I’m concerned, no matter your reason for coming to Tokyo, be it the food, the robots, or the kitten petting cafes, you simply cannot skip the Tsukiji fish market experience of watching tuna being auctioned off at 5 am and then having some fresh sushi right after at one of the adjoining restaurants. As far as I’m further concerned, you simply cannot just go to the Tsukiji fish market without a purpose or a plan. There is a right way to do it and it begins the day before.
Step 1: Check The Calendar And Get Some Rest
Like anything worth experiencing, you will want to be well prepared and have your wits about you. First off, check when the market is open with this calendar and then get some sleep. I’m talking about a solid 2-3 hour nap. Your journey will start very early and you will want to be rested. I recommend checking out an onsen spa for a few hours that day.
Alternatively, you can just catch a few winks while waiting for a train.
Step 2: Eat A Pre-Game Meal Of Sushi
We started at 2 am in Roppongi and stopped by Sushi Zanmai because it was opened 24 hours. Why are we eating sushi before going to a fish market to eat sushi? You will want to whet your appetite and eat some above-average sushi so that you can fully appreciate how good the sushi will be at the market. Mind. Blown. Yet? We also chose Shibuya because it’s about 4 km away from the Tsukiji Market, a nice walking distance with plenty of time to digest while also avoiding the excessive taxi fare at night since the subways are not running during that time.
Step 3: Arrive At The Osakana Fukyu Center By 3 AM
We googled Tsukiji Fish Market and then stood around like idiots on a dark empty street because we didn’t know exactly where to line up. Luckily, we eventually found someone to pointed us to a building. I later learned that it’s called the Osakana Fukyu Center (it’s pronounced foo-kee-yoo, not fook-yoo). They allow 120 visitors a day to watch the fish auction. The first group of 60 goes in from 5:25 to 5:50 am and the second 60 goes in from 5:50 to 6:15 am. Arrive no later than 3:30 if you want to have a chance to be one of the lucky few (I’ve been told, you should try to get there at 2:30-3:00 am now). You’ll know if you have made it if you get one a snazzy reflective vest.
At this point, find a spot on the ground and make yourself comfortable. I brought gummy bears and a can of hot coffee.
Step 4: Enjoy The Fish Auction
When it’s your time to go in, you’ll walk through a fully operational market while dodging trucks and speeding forklifts. This is why they hand out the reflective vests.
Inside, you’ll see a bunch of Japanese guys walking around and picking at and tasting bits of frozen tuna.
You’ll wonder what the fuss is all about, until one of the guys gets up on a soapbox and starts yelling/screaming/singing/making animal noises while the other guys casually raise a finger to indicate that they are bidding on it. Each auctioneer has his own style of yellowing out the bid prices. I’m talking cadence, pitch and even tune. The way the guys are expressing interest (without any emotion) in the tuna, you’d they were buying a bag of crisps or something and not a fish that costs up to $20,000.
It’s cold in there, so bring a jacket. You’ll have plenty of chances to take photos (like everyone else), but you won’t be able to move around to avoid interfering with market operations. We caught two separate auctions during the 25 minute slot.
Step 5: Line Up For Sushi (Breakfast)
Don’t waste time wandering about aimlessly once you’ve returned the reflective vest. Make haste and get to one of the sushi restaurants. While you were watching the auction, those who couldn’t were already lining up.
The most popular place seems to be Sushi Dai. We couldn’t find it because everything was written in those squiggly characters they use in Japan. My plan was to avoid it anyway since it would have the longest line and find one with a more reasonable one. The place we ended up choosing was one of the highlights of the morning. This is pretty much as fresh as you can get, so I can’t imagine the quality would be that different between the different ones. The chef was a jolly old man that was surprised at how much we ordered.
While Sushi-Dai is meant to be the place to be, you’re looking at waiting at least 2-5 hours in line, and the set menu costs around 4000 yens (which is about $36). The prices at this place (can’t remember the name, squiggly characters and all), ran between 700-2000 yen ($6-$18), but the amount of food you get was ridiculous. We ended up ordering enough food for 4 people and our total bill for 2 people came out to somewhere around 5000 yen ($45).
These were just a few of the dishes we devoured. The quality and preparation was flawless and each piece melted in my mouth. I’ve eaten at some amazing sushi restaurants and I honestly believe that at some point, the fish is going to be as fresh as it gets. I’d like to think that the difference here is based on the guys who do the buying for all the restaurants each morning. Years of experience have honed their judgment, instincts and taste buds to know which tuna or salmon, or batch of sea urchin will yield the truest flavor of the fish. Even if you miss the fish auction, don’t skip out on having breakfast at the market if just for the experience of being there.
Step 6: Eye On The Prize
The market does not open to the public until 9 am and chances are, you will probably be done with breakfast before then. At this point, you can wander around the outside markets or try to sneak into the wholesale market. Let me tell you first what’s outside. You can buy overpriced sushi knives, overpriced tea, overpriced souvenirs. You get it. It’s overpriced because they know tourists love this stuff.
My friend and I decided to take our chance with the wholesale market. The plan was to walk in confidently, so we straightened up, looked serious and walked in, and then we were turned away. I used every single Japanese word I knew for all the different types of fish out there. The guard was not impressed, so I tried to mime a sea urchin. Undeterred, we simply walked to a different opening and tried again and again until no one stopped us.
Step 7: Buy Some Uni
Inside, I found the most beautiful tray of sea urchin (uni), which was the one thing I was looking to buy. When I asked how much, the guy just shook his head and said “No.” Seeing as there were no other tourists around and me not looking like a local buyer for a sushi restaurant, I didn’t hold it against him. Still undeterred, I walked around until I found another beautiful, glorious tray of uni and asked. This time the guy saw the desperate look in my eyes and asked if I wanted it. I might have cried. When he wrapped it up and handed it to me, I bowed and muttered something I learned from an anime. He looked confused and I walked away, giggling inside like a schoolgirl at the thought of all that fresh uni in my hands.
We continued around the market for another hour or so just watching the fish mongers at work. I didn’t find anything that unusual compared to other fish markets around the world, but the enormity of this place and knowing that it will soon be moved to a different location made it a very special experience.
Step 8: Enjoy Your Spoils
Back at the apartment, I took off my pants and slowly consumed every last piece of sea urchin, one at a time, curled up under my blanket. It was the most memorable meal I had in all of Japan. There are no photos of this. Separately, I could not find the vending machine that sold used girls underwear.