The spirit of old Tokyo: Our guide to the Tsukiji Fish Market

Feb 22, 2012


It’s big, it smells of fish and if you’re in Tokyo, you gotta go. The Tsukiji Wholesale Market, or Tokyo-to Chuo Oroshiuri Shijo, to give it its Sunday name, is the lifeblood of Tokyo’s communal digestive system, the pulsating heart that satisfies the voracious appetites of Greater Tokyo’s 35 million hungry citizens.

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The figures alone are mind-boggling. Its fish section shifts 4000 tonnes of aquamarine edibles every 24 hours. More than 60,000 workers punch their clocks there each morning and its yearly sales are stratospheric with around $A5,130,000,000’s worth of fish and veggies shipped through per annum. It is the world’s largest wholesale market and some seriously pricy fish pass through its portals.

World records are regularly broken here, but last January, Tsukiji Shijo, as locals oft truncate it, outdid itself. A single bluefin tuna from Oma in Aomori, Northern Japan went under the hammer at a cool AUD$711,864. That’s a brand spanking new Lamborghini Gallardo, with change to keep you in gourmet sushi from Sydney’s Tetsuya restaurant for the next decade or so.

But Tsukiji, is so much more than its figures. It is a slice of Japanese history writ large at the heart of a 21st century megacity. In a nutshell, the original Tokyo was a collection of villages atop a swampland that no-one bothered with too much, other than the locals, who made a living and ate well from the fish-filled river-fed bay at its door. That is, until political upheaval changed their fate forever.

In 1603 it was declared that the Emperor would no longer reside in Kyoto and a new capital was to be built. Its name would be Edo, later Tokyo, and it would require skilled artisans to build a castle and hard-as-nails working men to build the new city. And they would all need fish to eat.

Four centuries later, Tokyo is unquestionably one of the world’s greatest cities, a dizzying Blade Runner-meets-Manga-meets-Manhattan technopolis that never fails to amuse, bemuse and fascinate. So what happened to those humble, folk from the marshes? You guessed it. They run Tsukiji. Meet the Edokko, literally “The Sons of Edo”, the rough and ready, inimitably cheery, hardworking, hard-drinking, chain-smoking descendants of Tokyo’s physical founders.

Here, the wellington-booted, knife-wielding (for tuna slicing) Edokko shout and bawl their wares as they have for more than 400 years. They hurtle through the markets’ narrow lanes on electric-powered chariots known as “turret trucks”, delivering their wares from wholesaler to retailer and thus onward to the general public. It’s not a little dangerous and the market website offers this sage advice: “Vehicles have the right of way. Cars, trucks and turret trucks are used to transfer merchandise within the market. Please give them priority and stay out of their way. Your safety is our main concern. Please be extra careful when you are taking photos and watch out behind you.”

Tsukiji is split in two parts, the Inner Market, where the crack-of-dawn seri (tuna auctions) take place, and the Outer, where you can stroll at a leisurely pace, and where you’ll find the brilliant eateries.

The Iwasa Sushi restaurant is a humble joint on the edge of the Inner Market, run by the ebullient Ms Misae Iwata. The welcome is as warm as the sushi is fresh, and their ikuradon (rice topped with salmon roe) is to die for. This was reportedly Dennis Hopper’s favourite eatery and Benicio Del Toro and Tetsuya both drop in when in town.

As they say in these parts: Tanoshinde – enjoy!

Hotel Seiyo Ginza
1-11-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.
Ask nicely and you can accompany their star chef on his early morning foray into the market. He’ll also cook you what he bought.

Conrad Tokyo
1-9-1 Higashi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo.
Uber-cool, uber-arty and uber-luxurious, the Hilton’s Japanese flagship is a remarkable gem, set atop a skyscraper overlooking the bay. You may be in heaven, but you are just a stroll from the Edokko action

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