Right in the Middle of a Big Fish Fry

My favorite thing to do in any foreign city is visit a food market. I never seem to tire of aimlessly wandering through spice isles, chilly fish markets, produce stalls, and more, looking at and often eating local delicacies, and, of course, people watching. Food markets are an excellent opportunity to see locals in action, whether they’re buying items for their family’s dinner, or working at the market, selling food and drink.

Our visit last winter to Japan afforded us the chance to see one of the world’s most famous markets, Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. The oldest fish market in the world, Tsukiji (pronounced “skee-jee”, sort of) has been operating for more than 80 years, and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tokyo. This was our second time visiting Tokyo and Tsukiji, and rather than wandering without any explanations or information, this time we booked a private tour, with Shinji Sakamoto, chef, former seafood buyer, and current tour guide. Shinji and his wife, Yukari Sakamoto, operate the website foodsaketokyo.com. Yukari has written a book about the food and drink of Tokyo, entitled Food Sake Tokyo, and she and Shinji, in addition to operating food tours, are very current with the Tokyo food scene.

Shinji met us early one morning for our two-hour tour. Now a word about “early” and the Tokyo fish market. A set number of tourists, just 120 per day, are allowed in to watch the famous tuna auction, which is held five days a week. However, no tickets are sold in advance. Instead, you must show up and hope you are one of the 120 allowed in. The auction begins just after 5am, and from everything we read ahead of time, one needs to show up several hours in advance to be guaranteed a spot, between 2 and 3 am, then stand in a freezing cold fish warehouse until the auction begins. During high season, people apparently begin queuing as early as 1am. Frankly, we just didn’t think this was worth it. Yes, amazingly large tunas are auctioned off, but come on, I’m too old to wait in line all night for just about anything, especially a tuna auction.

But back to our tour. Before it began we started with a bowl of ramen at Inoue Ramen, a legendary ramen street stall known by enthusiasts. Because if you’re going to look at food all morning, you should make sure you’re not hungry. It was fantastic. Then we walked around the fish market for two hours, looking at still alive and freshly dead fish of an amazing array of species, checking out unusual vegetables, and watching market workers do their thing. This included slicing wafer-thin pieces of raw tuna, packing fish into icy coolers, cleaning and gutting fish, sawing frozen tuna in half with a band saw, and more. It was a fascinating look at a huge industry. The market handles more than 450 types of seafood, and about 3.6 million pounds a day.

Tsukiji is scheduled to move to a new location in the fall of 2018, although the move has been delayed several times already. At the new location, tourists will not be allowed to freely walk through the market. Although this is very disappointing for us tourists, I do understand, because when we were walking around Tsukiji, we had to be on the lookout for forklifts, hoses, delivery trucks, ice and water, and more.

Shinji was an excellent guide. He explained Tsukiji’s inner workings and we learned a great deal about Japanese cooking techniques and tools. He even emailed us a recipe for dashi that we were interested in a few days after the tour. Japan’s cultures are so different from ours, and it was great to get an insider’s look at a fascinating industry. I’d highly recommend a food tour of any sort with Shinji and/or his wife Yukari.