Tsukiji Market – The Tuna Auction

Jul 14th, 2009 | By Shane Sakata | Category: Shopping, Travel

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan Tuna Auction2A visit to the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market in Tokyo is much lauded in the tourist guidebooks to the city but after five years on living in Japan I still hadn’t been. That all changed when an enthusiastic friend arrived and wanted to make the trip.  I had read about controversy surrounding visits to the market and even the fact that market had been closed to tourists due to their bad behavior earlier this year was a concern.  I now understand why…

The Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market is a very busy place of business with narrow passageways and a lot of fast moving traffic on foot, on bicycle, via pull carts, and even small forklifts that whiz by precariously close to whoever and whatever is nearby.

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Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan3 Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan Forklift

We arrived just after 5AM to find the market full of people but not yet the hustle and bustle that would follow the tuna auction itself.  Not sure where exactly the tuna auction was held, we headed through the grid of pathways that cover the market.  The tuna auction itself is held in a warehouse structure where flash frozen tuna are laid out on wooden palates for inspection and later auction.

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan Tuna Auction

Each tuna is marked with a Japanese character (hiragana, I believe) in red paint, the tail is removed and a deep slice is cut just above the tail area so that prospective buyers can inspect the tuna before the bidding begins.

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan Tuna Auction6 Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan Tuna Auction1

Buyers use gaffs to extract a plugs of the tuna meat from the tail and manipulate it in their hands until it has thawed – presumably to test the texture of the meat and asses its fat content prior to making a bid.

The auction itself is a loud affair that is quickly over with the auctioneer chanting, waving his arms and recording sales on a clipboard (pictured top right).  It’s hard for the casual observer to follow it all it happens to fast!

After the auction, the freshly auction tuna are quickly taken by pull cart out of the auction and into the narrow pathways of the market just outside for cutting and distribution to your favorite Tokyo sushi restaurant later in the day.

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Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan Tuna Cutting

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan Tuna Cut

Tourists can view the tuna auction and the lead up to it from a long roped off area that spans the width of the warehouse.  Visitors are asked to stay for a maximum of 15 minutes and flash photography is not permitted.

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I spent a lot of my time in the market literally on my toes against the styrofoam containers that line the markets narrow thoroughfares.  A visit the the market is not for the feint of heart, the physically challenged (those requiring canes, walkers & wheelchairs especially), or small children.

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If you are planning to visit please take some time to read Is Tsukiji Wholesale Market Open to the Public? where Etsuko from Tokyofoodcast talks about the rules for visitors and the dilemma facing the Tokyo Metropolitan Government with respect to market access.

Am I glad I visited?  Yes, but with some reservations.  It really is hard to stay out of the way of the people who work at the market and it is quite a dangerous place to navigate even if you are quick on your feet.

Should a visit to the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market be on your list of things to see in Tokyo?  You need to decide for yourself but if you do go please remember that it is a place of business and be respectful of the fact that it is not a traditional “tourist attraction” that is set up for visitors.

Will I visit again?  I will not likely go to see the tuna auction again and but would enjoy another early morning visit to the shopping are that is located just outside the gates of the market itself.  Be sure to check out my report on the Tsukiji Morning Market that includes a slide show of the images from my visit to the area.

Image Credit:  Personal Collection

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6 comments
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  1. You survived Tsukiji! Thank you for this post with your take. I look forward to reading what you saw at the market.

  2. Another great article from The Nihon Sun! When I first heard about Tsukiji, my first thought was “It’s a fish market, what’s the big deal?” But the more I see and hear of it, the more I understand it’s appeal. It’s a fascinating look into the way people work and live.

  3. [...] is more to Tsukiji in the morning that just the tuna auction.  In fact a stroll through the streets outside the market can be as invigorating experience as the [...]

  4. [...] more images and learn more about my early morning adventures at the Tsukiji tuna auction and the Tsukiji morning market. Shane lives in Chiba Prefecture, about thirty minutes out side of [...]

  5. Ahi (tuna) is the very best sashimi. Here in 808 we LUV tuna! Be in Nihon some day.

  6. [...] Tsukiji Update: Photos and information about visiting the Tsukiji Morning Market & the Tsukiji Tuna Auction. [...]

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