On the final day of my last visit to Tokyo I had the amazing opportunity to visit Tokyo’s famed fish market – Tsukiji. The world’s largest and busiest fish market it has long been a popular destination for tourists, however recently it has been closed to the public and hence even though I had been in Japan for 6 weeks, I hadn’t managed to find a way to visit. That is of course until I met 3 Michelin star chef Ishikawa-san. After an amazing meal at his restaurant by the same name, where of course phenomenal seafood was served, our conversation led to Tsukiji, I mentioned that I hadn’t had a chance to visit and with only a few days left in town, it was an experience that would have to wait till my next visit. Totally unsatisfied with my ‘ill see it next time attitude’, Ishikawa-san offered to personally take me. How could I refuse?
Two days later I found myself standing on the corner of the outer market (jōgai-shijō) ready to head into the inner market (jōnai-shijō) and see what all this fish hype was about. Within moments of walking inside and almost being hit by a 300kg frozen tuna on fork lift being driven by a Japanese Schumacher, I understood immediately why they attempted to limit the number of tourists allowed inside. This is serious business. More than 700,000 metric tones of seafood pass through Tsukiji, with a total value in excess of 600 billion yen (approximately 5.9 billion US dollars). Ishikawa-san tells me that he rarely visits the market himself, as prefers to leave it to the professionals. Surely, I thought, as one of only twelve 3 Michelin Starred chefs in Japan, he would be regarded as a pro, but in Japan of course there is someone who specializes in everything at every level and at Tsukiji this would be the realm of the wholesalers and distributors.
The market opens most mornings (except Sundays and holidays) at 3:00 a.m. with the arrival of the produce by ship, truck and plane from all over the world. The auction houses (wholesalers known in Japanese as oroshi gyōsha) then estimate the value and prepare the incoming individual items for the auctions. The buyers (whom must be licensed to participate in the auctions) also inspect the fish to estimate what they would like to bid for and at which price.
The auctions start around 5:20 a.m. Bidding can only be done by licensed participants. These bidders include intermediate wholesalers (nakaoroshi gyōsha) who operate stalls in the marketplace and other licensed buyers who are agents for restaurants, food processing companies, and large retailers.
The auctions usually end around 7:00 a.m. Afterward, the purchased fish is either loaded onto trucks to be shipped to the next destination or on small carts and moved to the many shops inside the market. We arrived at about this time and let me tell you, the energy inside was frenetic. We walked the aisles of the market – which was a maze of styrofoam boxes each brimming with every kind of seafood imaginable – you name it, if it had gills, fins or scales and could live underwater it was there in abundance. It was mid-December, so being winter the items in abundance were Yellowfin Tuna, which is more fatty and particularily good in over the colder months, snow crab, scallops but more interestingly monkfish liver known as ‘Ankimo’ and sperm ‘Shirako’ of puffer fish ‘Fugu’ and Cod ‘Tara’ both regarded as delicacies in Japan – I’ll leave you to make your own mind up on the last two ingredients!
The activity declines significantly around 8am and the shops start to close at 11am. It’s been said that no visit to Tsukiji is complete without a sushi breakfast and hence it was time to eat some of this delicious seafood we had been gawking at all morning There are plenty of sushi counters, but to find the best ones, you need to wind your way to the restaurant area near the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, just inside the main gate off Shin-Ohashi Street. Look for the lines, this will immediately tell you what sushi is worth waiting for. I have to say the memory of eating sushi and sashimi whilst drinking sake and beer for breakfast with Ishikawa-san, two of his restaurant team and one of my good friends is one that I wont forget soon. The owner of the restaurant we went to was an elderly woman reminiscent of the soup-nazi from Seinfeld, but I guess when you are serving fish that fresh and good, there’s no need to be nice.
Our final stop before I had to head back to the hotel to pack my bags was right on the outer edge of the market for a bowl of steaming hot udon noodles with the most delicious tempura I had ever had, the perfect end to our winter morning at Tsukiji.
I later learnt it was lucky that Ishikawa–san did insist I visit on this trip, as there are plans to relocate the market to Toyosu in 2015. Apparently a retail market, roughly a quarter of the current operation will still be maintained ay Tsukiji, however the remaining area of the market will be redeveloped as it currently occupies some of the most valuable real estate in central Tokyo. The market has already survived one move, 1923, post The Great Kantö earthquake when it was relocated from its original Nihonbashi location to the Tsukiji district, I am positive it will endure the next and I look forward to visiting again.
Arigato Ishikawa-san and your awesome team, for gifting me with one of my most amazing Japanese experiences.
To book a table at Ishikawa in Tokyo go to www.kagurazaka-ishikawa.co.jp