The food that is probably the most emblematic of Japan in western consciousness. We’ve all had a California roll, dabbled in roe (fish egg) or the supremely sea salt-y uni (sea urchin), and established our stance on wasabi as a condiment. But, where does all that fish come from?
A bounty of sushi bowls.
Probably from Tsukiji Market, located in the heart of Tokyo since the early 20th century and featured in at least half a dozen documentaries in the last decade alone. Housed in a massive complex not far from Ginza on one side and Ueno on the other, even fish caught outside of Asian waters comes through Tsukiji. Six days a week, the grounds are utter calamity, motorized vehicles whizzing over puddles of fishy ice water, tourists and wholesalers and locals all scrambling for purchase on narrow paths, braving fish-scented winds and hungry seagulls to get their hands on the day’s best catch.
The daily tuna auction is the market’s most noteworthy feature and the line starts at 4 am to be among the 120 spectators let in.
Moving the market has been on Tokyo’s agenda for some time now, with multiple delays, but with the 2020 Olympics nearing the market will be moved in the fall. This leaves the fate of Tsukiji as a tourist spot, which it was never truly intended to be, uncertain, so I knew I had to see it now.
Friday night, my ever trusted companion Caroline and I set out on the last train out of our local station, somehow managing our journey seamlessly through two more transfers. The last train in Tokyo is always a transcendent experience, utterly different from every train before it and definitely worth experiencing. We arrived at 1 am or so, with a few hours to kill before we thought we had to be in position but after an hour or two we were anxious and headed over. This ended up being the right choice and we were the last of the last group to make it in.
Caroline circa 3 am; our guide
The auction was prefaced by a lengthy historical intro by several guides and then an even lengthier waiting period. I thought I was going to pass out and sleep through it at several points! But getting on the auction floor was a good a wake up call as anything!
So much energy with bids being shouted out, carcasses being rolled away, ice bucket after ice bucket being poured out to keep things fresh. Being dazed and focused on pictures, I have no idea how the pricing works but according to Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Thanks Netflix! Thanks mom and dad for paying for Netflix!) the very first tuna sold in the New Year can go for a million yen!
I felt deader than these tuna at the time but rather neglected compared to the attention they garnered.
Luckily, the outer market’s offerings weren’t nearly as pricy and we managed an excellent breakfast for under 2,000yen! You’ll see lots of online guides urging you to try non-sushi dishes in Tsukiji but having eaten enough fish to maybe, possibly, hopefully not have mercury poisoning since I’ve been in Tokyo, I can confidently say the market offering should not be missed!
Uni fresh from the shell! Tamagoyaki cooked in front of you!
Sushi bowls, called don-buri, kaisen-don, and chirashi, with minor differences, are my favorite way to feast on fish and much more filling than standard cuts/rolls due to the rise that comes with them. The one I had at Tsukiji was superb, melt in your mouth fatty tuna with minced tuna and lots of wasabi. (By diner’s choice, of course.)
If you’re in the neighborhood before October, I highly recommend a trip to Tsukiji. Hit the first onigiri/sushi shop across from the #3 parking lot, tell them I sent you for a confused look and an excellent sushi bowl!