Tokyo: Deciphering the Fish Market

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The Tokyo  (“Tsukiji”) Fish Market is one of “those” things that comes up in every discussion about a trip to Tokyo.  I knew virtually nothing about Tokyo before this trip…but I knew of the fish market.  Which is why I struggled with how to best go there without letting this one activity dominate our quick (and we were hoping, relaxing) vacation.

The trick about the big attraction – the fish auction – is that it starts early.  Really early.  Like leave-your-hotel-at-4am early.  Our guidebooks and friends who knew the city emphasized the importance of getting there right when it opens because the city now limits the number of visitors.  The early start though, is only part of the trouble.  The market is closed to visitors on certain days, with no discernible (at least to this girl) schedule.  A 4am start on a winter morning with no certainty that there would be anything to see was enough to convince me to stay curled up in a warm bed.

At a more civilized hour, having filled ourselves with piping hot miso soup (I had it for breakfast every day), we headed over.

Arriving at the Tsukiji rail stop at 10am, we were faced with signs in English indicating that the indoor market (where the auctions are held) was closed that day.  Phew – thank goodness we hadn’t risked it!

But honestly, it didn’t matter, because I am happy to report that the part of Tsukiji market that is open at much more regular hours was so fantastically interesting that I didn’t even miss seeing the auction.  All around the outside of the market are small streets filled with shop after shop of fresh fish, prepared foods, and…cooking supplies!  It was hard to even take it all in, but here’s how the morning went for Frank and I.

First, we had to sample the snacks.  Not speaking a word of Japanese, I found some things about Tokyo to be mystifying, but there was one message that came through loud and clear – tasty food.  If there was a line, Frank and I got in it.  This proved to be the most fun recommendation that I would give to anyone going to Tokyo.  People in Tokyo love good food, and they have no problem waiting for it.  Most of the time we didn’t know what we were waiting for until halfway to the front, but it was always cheap and unlike anything I’d ever had before.  We started with these rectangular egg “pops”.  The line called to us, and the result was…well…curious.  The pressed egg was fluffy and a bit sweet.  But the topping was salty and fishy.  When he handed it to Frank, the vendor clearly tried to tell him that it was a “Japanese specialty”.  The crowds standing around devouring the stuff agreed.

Then we wandered through the streets admiring shops with seafood, both raw and prepared.  Everything was beautiful, clean, and the dishes being cooked smelled fantastic in the crisp air.  Many dishes were being prepared on grills right in front of the stalls, including shellfish grilled in their shell and devoured on the spot.

It didn’t take long before we started getting hungry, but selecting a lunch spot here is the ultimate test for a tourist trying not to seem clueless.  The most tempting shops have only a few stools and are hidden down alleys that are so small that only one person can squeeze through at a time.  By the time we realized that we needed a spot for lunch there were lines stretching out every last restaurant.


We decided to pick a slightly larger spot, where there would be more opportunity to observe our neighbors’ proper sushi-eating example.  We jumped in the line at Sushizanmai and, 30 minutes later we were at the counter, watching the antics of a team of chefs.  We pointed to a sushi set, and got ready to dive in.

At several points the chefs pulled a fish out of the holding tank behind the counter and took it straight into the kitchen.  That’s  how fresh this fish was.  I can be most certain that everything we ate was swimming around within hours of reaching our chopsticks…if not minutes.

It’s safe to say that the sushi experience in Tsukiji not for the faint-of-heart.  I consider myself to be a pretty experienced sushi fan, but this was definitely unlike anything I’ve ever had.  Each piece of fish had its own unique rich flavor, texture, and (ahem) mouth feel.  One piece actually left my mouth with a hint of the puckered feeling that comes after biting a bit of lime.

It was something I will never forget, and the chance to wander in and out of tiny streets to ogle at food that I will likely never see again in such a pristine state was one of the highlights of our trip.

In the end, I loved everything about our day at the fish market.

And all the more because it didn’t start with  a 3am wake-up call.


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About Jess Smith

Jess is the recipe creator and photographer at She spent nearly a decade as the Chief Recipe Developer for the award-winning meal planning app Cook Smarts. Her colorful, healthyish recipes have been featured in popular online publications including Parade, Hallmark, and HuffPost.

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  1. Thank you for virtually taking me to the fish market! This is a trip I want to do and after reading about your sushi exprrience, I definetly want to go. Have a good start in 2012! Greetings from Tuscany. Marina.

  2. I’d say you probably enjoyed it a lot more with the later start. Much better to taste all the wonderful foods after a nice sleep in. Those egg sticks looks rather tasty!