Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market

The action is starting to wind down at Tsukiji fish market. It’s around 7:30 a.m.

Not winding down, really,  just morphing into a new style of frenzied mojo.

Catches of anything imaginable aquatic – from cuttlefish to sea cucumber – have arrived three hours earlier, been auctioned off and now merchants in the cavernous girder-latticed warehouse are packing up product for existing buyers or talking up their wares to potential ones.

Its delivery time, now. There are so many deliveries being conducted in such a rush that a police officer mounts a built-in platform to whistle order to the seemingly free-wheeling jitneys, delivery trucks, bicycles, scooters and handcarts that are transporting fish to their final destinations.

Is Tsukiji the world’s largest fish market? It gives every impression, under every condition. The warehouse is so huge the far end is in shadow, like the home of the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones flick.

In Tsukiji, however, items aren’t packed in crates. They’re mainly housed in six inch deep, one-foot by two-foot Styrofoam boxes.  A tractor tries to bring order to a mountain of thousands of used containers outside the warehouse.

Tsukiji is in constant motion. Countless jitneys speed through its tight confines, whisking Styrofoam boxes of fish to waiting Nissan and Suzuki vans. The flat-bed jitneys have a motor mounted on the front about the size of a large beer keg with a wide steering wheel on top. In Tsukiji’s wider pathways, two barely fit abreast. Optimistic drivers appear to see three. 

While visitors may be welcome at the market, they navigate it at their own peril. Fish have the right of way, at all times.

Like driving in Rome, dodging the Tsukiji jitneys is worthy of a video game. The drivers aren’t predatory, merely pugnacious. Although slower moving, another hazard is the occasional forklift holding aloft four headless, several-hundred—pounds-a-piece frozen tuna carcasses. Another danger is long handcarts which trundle through the market’s pathways. Sometimes their speed, or lack thereof, vexes the jitney drivers.

It’s largely a man’s world at Tsukiji. Women are present but mainly handle the cash box in small metal boxes behind the day’s wares.

There are grizzled men. One  with a stubble of gray hair, reflective eyes and a white towel wound around his head looks like he’s been at Tsukiji for decades, perhaps inheriting the trade from his father.

His eyes betray no judgment or emotion but he must marvel at how things – even the venerable institutions of Tsukiji, Tokyo and Japan — have changed and keep changing.

Younger men are here too. There are new generations of jitney drivers and fish sellers and fish buyers with small notebooks, jotting down orders. During the infinitesimal periods of down time, these new fishmongers sit and communicate on their cell phones.

Young or old, there is a brotherhood. It’s obvious in the camaraderie, the shared sense of purpose and knowledge that everyone in Tsukiji lives the same life. The sign of the brotherhood is the black hip boots. All wear them regardless of age or experience.

To carve up the torpedo-like tuna torsos, sellers of big fish use powerful jigsaws and long, hand-held spear-like knives. Buckets overflow with hollow, eyeless tuna heads.

At booth after booth after booth the open Styrofoam containers display the seemingly limitless bounty of the ocean.

Red fish. Blue fish. Blowfish. Cuttlefish. Octopus. Eels — some still writhing, awaiting their turn with the executioner.

Clams. Oysters.  Gooey duck. Scallops. Tiger prawns. Seaweed.

The stone floors are slick with water. Some things need to be washed away.  Good that the floor can be accommodating.

A stooped older woman enters the warehouse carrying a rectangular plate with three cups of steaming tea. Probably for the boys manning her family’s spot. Maybe a cup for her daughter in the cash box. 

Narrow lanes of shops surround the market. Some sell vegetables. Others hawk fish, knives, candy. Sushi joints with a counter, a dozen stools and little else ring the market most of them angling for tourist trade. The fare is fresh.

It’s odd to breakfast on raw fish. But even more arresting to be whipsawed by a mighty sushi belch at 10 a.m.



Filed under: Trip to Tokyo


  1. Well — this is ALMOST as good as being there. Can you bring us all home one of those 300 lb fishes — too much? I can taste the whole experience. We have been dying to go there and you are making it harder then ever. Hope you guys enjoy all of the sights and sounds.

    Comment by Gale Kaufman — 6.10.2009 @ 8:30 am

  2. A few more posts like this, and I can toss my Lonely Planet guide to Japan.

    Comment by Rick Pratt — 6.10.2009 @ 9:14 am

  3. Please tell me what the relevance of the Tokyo fish market is to “Californias Capitol”?

    Comment by California Taxpayer — 6.10.2009 @ 3:21 pm

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