Before Dawn in Tokyo: The Tsukiji Fish Market Auction

In the dark of early morning, before the tourists have wakened – real life Tokyo begins. It’s not the glizzy lights of Ginza or the businessmen, bustling of Shinjuku. It’s the heart and soul of the city, where fish is bought and sold not just as commerce, but as a symbol of the Japanese people themselves. For fish to them is life…along with rice…and tea I guess.

Ok that was a bit deep, but seriously – if you travel to Japan, you will begin to understand the important place that food has in their culture.

I am a self-proclaimed foodie with a bit more than the average palate for a middleclass American (if that is saying anything) but I was eager to visit every market I came across, and sample every “strange” food that I could while in Japan.

Markets are found throughout the country, as the culture has retained this tool for trading fresh produce and fish to chefs of restaurants in every major town. Seasonal dishes are the norm here, not some “farm to table” trendy, modern movement that is seen as a competitive advantage in the States right now. Fresh fish is no different, so expect to sit down at any sushi restaurant and have no choice but to eat what the chef picked up from the market that day…no menus allowed.

After learning this, I was keen to see the action myself  in Tokyo– where buyers and chefs fervently select their fish for the day at the Tsukiji Market Auction.

It was 3:00am, and my eagerness to see the market was worn away by thoughts of staying in bed at least 3 more hours… but I agreed with my “tour guide” for the day, and I would never go back when giving my word to a Japanese person. (Another important social lesson here – be on time!)

It was dark outside my window, but I cracked the blinds to let in the twinkling lights of Rainbow Bridge, conveniently across the water from my hotel. Once emerging outside, to my surprise the rest of the city was not as picturesque. It was cold and foggy. But it had a peacefulness about it with the usual street traffic dimmed.

After a short cab ride we arrived at the cue line for the auction. In order to preserve the auction as a workplace, only 120 spectators are allowed in the viewing area each day in two shifts, which is why the 3:00am wake-up call was necessary to get in the queue.

We made it!…and now just 2 more hours of wait time. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I had a sushi breakfast in the market afterward to look forward to!

The Auction

At 5:25, we were admitted into the market. With our neon vests and our anticipation, we followed the leader to the auction building. Scurrying across a large lot and trying to keep up with the rest of the group, small carts weaved around giant mounds of empty Styrofoam containers. It was nuts! Total and complete chaos. I don’t know how the drivers navigated around without crashing into the white mountains of boxes…or us.

We finally arrived at the building, high on adrenaline. The tuna auction was already underway. On either side of the viewing ropes were rows and rows of large tuna lying on the warehouse floor. Buyers were walking up and down with clipboards and metal picks, pealing back scales toward the tail to examine the flesh underneath. They were all dressed in dark working attire – waders and dark coveralls. It was quiet and focused.

Then the tiny auctioneer rings the bell, ending in a crescendo as he stands up and yells in an animated way to start the bids! The buyers seemed to ignore him but the auction was proceeding quickly as they continued to examine the fish, waving their fingers for the bid.

What I found most interesting about the auction was not only the seriousness with which the whole thing was displayed (keeping true to the true Japanese style). I enjoyed watching the fellow spectators getting excited like little kids over something so simple – tuna.

The simplicity of fish and its love within Japan has not only inspired a worldwide cuisine (sushi), the large local trading post of Tsukiji Market has caused a cultural exchange to happen each morning at 5:25am and 5:50am when a small group of travelers are let in to examine.

For those of you who are lucky enough to experience it, take it in and try to understand the importance that food has on the culture. Then hire a guide to go dine with you so you can sample the menu as a local would, and ask questions along the way. I specifically recommend Mr. Nemo Glassman who is particularly connected with the chefs in Kyoto and Tokyo. He has been known to gain access to the fresh fish auction in Tsukiji as well (something I am still hoping to do). You can get in contact with him through his company +alpha Japan.

For those of you who may not get the chance to see Tsukiji at all or dine with Mr. Glassman in Japan, I hope these photos do some justice so you can experience it from home.

Going to Japan soon? Watch the movie Tampopo. It’s a Japanese classic movie with several vignettes about food. Very funny and a little strange.

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