Yes, it’s Tsukiji Fish Market! That mythical destination in Tokyo that is full of giant tuna, terrifying squid, and every other sort of edible sea creature–and on that note there are plenty of restaurants on site where you can taste today’s catch.
Seeing as this has absolutely nothing to do with comics, I decided to limit this entry to just 30 quick images. There’s a full gallery of pictures from this trip to the gallery over at my Flickr. I’ll include a direct link at the end of this message… if you’re still interested after seeing some of the delights on offer.
My thanks to my friends Derek Halliday and Jim Zubkavitch, who graciously shared some of their photos on this trip, and to Andrew Wheeler, whose photos I did not get around to sorting and filing but I was graciously offered his photos nonetheless.
Click to keep reading:
First and foremost: Tsukiji Fish Market is a place of business, and not intended for tourists. You are reminded of this frequently: when you realize there are no transit options to get here, really, and so you must hail a cab; when the whole thing starts at like 5am and is done by 6 or 7; when you get there and it’s a giant grey building, lots of little people on carts zipping to-and-fro at breakneck speeds and close-calls that feel… deliberate; when they sit you in a waiting room for like 45 goddamn minutes where they show you a DVD, in English, that tells you just how little that all involved want you there.
In short, it’s a neat experience, and I recommend it, but it is not for the easily discouraged nor the late-risers.
I am both easily discouraged and a late riser, so it took me three trips to Japan to finally make it to the market.
So after they keep you in the waiting room, standing in queue, for 45 minutes showing you a video about how they hate you, they give you hideous green safety vests and corral you in to see the tuna auction. You are placed in the center of the action, give or take, and the first thing I noticed were the thinly cut slices of tuna coming from the larger fish in the area, showing potential buyers just what’s going on inside the fish they’re buying… for a considerable amount of money.
Then you notice you’re in a cavernous room, filled with fish bigger than you have ever seen, and restauranteurs and/or their agents trying to decide which giant expensive frozen tuna to buy.
Sometimes, they catch fish that are not tuna, but they are still very big and so they go to the auction area.
Then, the man starts ringing the bell signifying that the auction is going to start. It is extremely loud, and honestly startling.
He rings the bell RIGHT NEXT TO HIS EAR. It is LUNACY. The man is either already deaf in that ear, or soon to be. It was loud from where WE were standing, 100 feet away.
The auction is ruthlessly quick, and it occurs while the auctions in the other areas of the auction house are about to start. They move quick. They yell, they bounce in place. Each auction lasts what, 5 seconds? 7?
Did I mention this is all happening at like, 5:30 in the morning?
The fish are painted with the names of the folks who’ve purchased them, after it’s all said and done. It’s truly unique and kind of exciting, but simultaneously mundane at the same time, if that follows. It’s a great experience.
Dudes with dollys or motorized carts come to take them all away. Some of them direct to restaurants, but some of them actually go into the marketplace area, adjacent to the auction. A place that we were told “was a place of business, and too busy for tourists. Don’t go.” Actually, they said we could go after 9am, after it was closed for the day.
Did I mention that by the time this was all done it was 6am, and we didn’t wanna hang around for 3 hours to follow that particular rule? Onward to the marketplace.
So the marketplace, it’s hard to get a feeling for the size of it, but essentially it’s several airplane hangars connected to one another, maybe 5 or 6, all with little stalls selling fresh fish (and produce in one section). It’s amazing, and awesome, and I actually neither felt in the way nor WAS in the way. Maybe it’s just Good Canadian Manners, but the ineffectual prohibition on tourists being in this area was… well, I disagree with it, to be polite.
This place is older, too, and the majority of the ground is made up of these cobblestones. It added a sort of an old-timey-flair to the proceedings, it was neat.
One of the first booths had some of the tuna from the auction, and as they thaw they expand and open… it’s neat too. And what do you use to slice a giant fish?
YOU USE A SWORD. I mean, sure, technically it’s a tuna knife that happens to be a metre long. But it’s a sword. All these dudes were precision carving giant pieces of tuna with swords. Bad. Ass.
As we moved through the space, we saw some of the remnants of butchery, and it was a welcome reminder of just what goes into food preparation. This is a minute or two after they finished–all of the spaces where the people had been done their fishmongering for the day and gone home were spotless, as I imagine this space would soon be.
Actually, on that note? It didn’t really smell fishy at all. Everything was fresh, and kept cold, and the whole place had a sort of an ‘ocean’ smell, but not like some of the markets I’ve been to in Toronto. It just smelled… fresh. It said a lot for their professionalism and ability.
The most thrilling part was the proximity to these creatures, recently (or still!) alive, that were so utterly alien.
Like I said… sometimes they were still alive. It’s freaky when they’re not moving. It’s outright disturbing when they’re moving in ways that don’t make any sense.
This was a GIANT tentacle. 7 inches across.
This was a scallop as big as Derek’s fist. Or a mussel. Or something that would be delicious with white wine and butter. Not the fist, the bivalve.
And at the end of the day, you can even find a bunch of stuff packaged up and ready to take home! $30 for 30 or 40 pieces of top notch salmon? Don’t mind if I do…! Oishiiiii…
And like I mentioned, there are all kinds of sushi restaurants adjacent to the market for you to try that morning’s catch. The best thing about these restaurants is that they add a sort of special sauce brushed onto several of the different pieces of the sushi. I think it’s called Nitsume, a sweetened brown sauce made from conger eel. Apparently it used to be brushed onto fish before serving, but now we mostly use soy sauce for that and so it’s rarely added to sushi, usually only cooked items. Old-Edo style sushi, pretty neat.
While you can get anything you want (the locals are grabbing some maki (rolls)), if you’re a tourist you’re KIND OF expected to get the omakase, or chef’s selection of nigiri sushi (the fish on top of the rice). It is also pricey as hell, but hey, you’re only going to eat sushi for breakfast at 8am once, right?
The first course was fatty tuna and… I forget the white one, with the nitsume. It was easily the best sushi I’ve ever had. Washed down with giant beer, of course.
Then there was egg, and of course the sea urchin. I have never eaten sea urchin. I did not care for the sea urchin, but I ate it. The texture was… disturbing.
Speaking of disturbing surprises: VEGETARIANS! NOTHING IN JAPAN IS VEGETARIAN, EVER. Take for example this miso soup, flavoured with tiny clams! It was delicious, and round-tasting, and awesome. But filled with tiny clams.
What you see here are two pieces of eel that my buddy Jim ordered, because he loves eel, and the one piece that came with the omakase was the greatest eel he had ever eaten and he needed more. It really was amazingly good, but I had hit my limit for sauced raw fish before 9am. He wolfed that down with enthusiasm though. WOLFED.
Thank you for delicious sushi sir! We greatly enjoyed your establishment and food!
Of course, no place in the country is complete without a random shrine. It really is quite pretty, check out the photos in the full gallery.
Then the traffic cop waved us on our way, and we headed out to find a subway (1.5km walk). We had a great time, but the 4am wake-up was really starting to take it’s toll and I needed a nap before the rest of whatever we thought we were going to do that Friday. Probably go shopping for nerd shit.
Thanks again to Andrew, Jim, and Derek for being such lovely companions and for the loan. It was a thing I’d always wanted to do in Japan, and I’m glad I finally had someone to kick me out of bed and do it.
For a selection of more than 100 photos from this visit to Tsukiji, head over to http://www.flickr.com/photos/comics212/sets/72157625774013276/.