Morning at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

My first night’s rest in Japan is about as restful as could be expected. At about 3:00 am I’m startled awake by lodgers coming in, the heavy door slamming, and rushing past my spot next to said door. I note the need to request a bed away from the door in the future…or to not stay in dorms as a grown-ass woman.

I lay in bed emailing with my love, the one redeeming quality of the time difference, before trying to pull myself out of my little wooden box pod bed. I gather my clothes and pack up my backpack: camera, wallet, rail pass, passport, journal, pen, snacks, and water, contents that remain the same for the next two weeks. I leave my bags at the front desk and go in search of the destination I know will make me fall for this place right away: the Tsukiji Fish Market.

At seven or so in the morning, the streets are filled with mostly businessmen. One of the most shocking things is how silent the streets are. The cars don’t honk, and the people walk quickly, quietly, without the accompaniment of cell-phone conversations. It is so different from any other city I’ve ever been to.

The fish market opens to visitors at 9:00 am, but I go early to explore the outer market and get a raw fish breakfast. I realize I’m in the right place as I see the infamous little trucks zipping through the side streets stocked with fish. The sun is shining and the outer market is alive with visitors. In my jet-lagged haze, I am so deliriously happy to be in a big city, wandering through the little market streets bursting with goods, coffee in hand.  The outer market of Tsukiji has everything: spices, kitchen supplies, knives, produce, and so much more. Though I am too absorbed in the atmosphere to buy anything.

I peek into the restaurants dotting each of the streets. Some have long lines of patrons–sitting patiently and respectably on chairs on the sidewalk, of course–and others are just gaining steam. I commit to not doing my typical lament of where to go and instead choose the most humble one with an owner who says hello and wave me in (after chasing off two non-English speakers…Not very nice but what can I say, I hadn’t eaten for a long time).

I sit down in the center of a little bar. The room is filled with news clippings about the restaurant and all manner of haphazard decoration. The owner writes out a mini-menu of what I can order, and I point to the bowl of rice topped with all sorts of raw fish. In moments I am handed a tea then a soup and minutes later a huge bowl filled with fish both recognizable and not.

He leaves me to my meal and I begin awkwardly lifting each piece with my chopsticks. The meal is such a sensual experience, the fish the freshest I’ve ever consumed and so artfully arranged it seems a shame to eat. I notice the owner still sitting in the owner doing what I assumed were bills. But he walks over and hands me the paper: a list of words and phrases to help me navigate my exchanges for the rest of the trip. I could have and should have hugged him. We practice a bit before I pay and leave, carefully crossing the road trying to avoid getting run over by the little trucks zipping to and fro.

 

A few minutes before nine, my stomach full, I join the line of people following a guard of sort who would allow us access to this Mecca of fish. Once we enter the market we’re let loose. And chaos of the very best kind ensues. Most of us spin around wondering which way to go first. It’s a labyrinth of little alleys filled with fish vendors. The most important tip I have is to stay alert and out of the way. Oh and be discreet with your picture taking as some vendors don’t allow it. I “shot from the hip” as much as possible and I’m happy with what I captured…arguably better than if I were to have planted myself in front of vendors. There are vendors hustling to and fro with huge hooks in their hands, vehicles jetting down the little alleys honking sporadically, and most importantly, business being conducted.

Being alone I am able to wander a little more freely. I witness the moments I was hoping for: neighbor vendors sitting together over a light meal, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths and chatting quietly. Some of the most talented fishmongers in the world slicing prize tuna ever-so-carefully. Large piles of shells from scallops sitting next to the carcasses of that tuna. As I describe it, I realize it’s not for the squeamish.

At about 10:30am, things start to wind down. The buckets of soap water are tossed freely on the bloody cobblestone walkways, and I hop back and forth to avoid its path. I take another loop before emerging from the market into the hot sun. Oh, how I’ve missed that feeling! I begin my walk back to the hostel, stopping at a bench in front of a massive temple to sip my coffee and bathe in the sun and imprint the whirlwind morning in my mind.

Tips for Visiting Tsukiji:

  • For now, the market is still at it’s amazing original location. Unfortunately, the fish market will be moved in the coming months (likely fall 2018), so get there while you can.
  • The fish market opens to visitors at 9:00 am Monday, Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday. It’s closed on Wednesdays, Sundays, and days indicated here.
  • To see the tuna auction, a line forms beginning at 3:00 am, so it’s essential that you arrive then. The first auction begins at 5:00am.
  • The outer market filled with shops and restaurants is a must-visit. The restaurants open at 5:00am, and most will feed you the freshest fish you can buy, right from the market. A bowl like the one pictured above is about 2,500 JPY, and worth every penny.

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