If you’d asked me before I went to my last trip to Japan what I was most looking forward to, one of the things on my list would be the tour of Tsukiji Fish Market I had booked. Which is why it’s so surprising that, just a month later, I’m now writing a post suggesting you don’t bother visiting it. But let me explain…
Tsukiji Market is actually made up of two areas – there’s the lesser known Outer Market, a fantastic rabbit warren of streets packed with shops, stalls and restaurants selling all manner of epicurean excitement; which includes two new shiny three-storey buildings selling fresh fish to chefs and hungry tourists alike.
And then there’s the part most of us think of when we think of Tsukiji Fish Market, the wholesale fish market. The king of its kind, the biggest in the world,
Known as the Inner Market, it’s home to 900 stalls selling nearly 500 different types of fish and seafood.
For someone who loves markets, it should have been the highlight of my trip. And yet, it was actually the biggest disappointment.
Why I’d Say To Skip Tsukiji Inner Market
By now, I shouldn’t actually be able to write this post. In 2016, the inner market at Tsukiji should have upped sticks and moved to a new site at Toyosu, a few miles away.
Since the news of the move was announced however that date of departure has moved a few times – and the closer it gets to D-Day (currently scheduled for October 6, 2018) the more people want to see the market before it leaves. The result is that Tsukiji Inner Market has never been busier.
The problem is, this is a working fish market, and the tourists are seriously messing with business.
We’re getting in the way of sales, holding up the little carts that fly around the place and taking pictures of the stall holders while they work; and despite what you might think some of the work at Tsukiji is actually quite delicate, carving a piece of ridiculously expensive tuna into melt in your mouth slices takes a steady hand and an extremely sharp knife – and if you’re disturbed by a flash going off, it can get messy.
And so the stallholders – quite rightly – started to get fed up.
Gone were the days of the jovial cartoon signs I spotted on my first trip in 2012 – reminding you not to touch the fish or suggesting that anyone wandering in while still a bit merry from the night before might want to think again, Proper rules were put in place – no tourists before 10am, no photographs, no obvious guides taking you through the inner market – and then, as of June 15th, they got even more serious, now tourists cannot enter Tsukiji Inner Market until 11am.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame the stallholders for any of this, but if your time in Tokyo is short, chances are you don’t want to waste any of it – and frankly, by 11am there will be very little – if anything – to see in Tsukiji Inner Market.
I’m judging this by my trip to the market at 10am during my visit in May – even at 10am, there was already barely any fish left.
There were a few chunks of tuna being carved and some leftover whole fish – but mostly it was just a lot of bloody fish heads and guys in wellies standing around having a chat. As per the rules I didn’t take any pics so you’ll have to trust me on this.
It was still marginally interesting to walk around, but, to prevent making waves, our guide (who at this point morphed into the long lost friend we went to college with simply showing around her buddies as technically she wasn’t allowed to show us around) walked us fairly quickly through the market without wandering off or stopping to see what something is.
Even if you’re travelling guide free and able to meander where you like, those carts flying around really are taking no prisoners, so you have to stay alert. Even if there were heaps of interesting fish to see, you’d miss some of it trying not to get run over.
Judging by what was going on at 10am however, I’d guess by 11am it really will be completely devoid of anything interesting. Tellingly, a few of the guided tours of Tsujiki Market I’d investigated before my trip, are now saying they aren’t going to go into the Inner Market either.
So, should you avoid Tsukiji Market altogether?
No. No. No. No – repeat as many times as you possibly can until you realise how strongly I urge you to visit the less famous but way more fun, Tsukiji Outer Market.
Four times I’ve been to Tokyo, three times I’ve spent hours getting lost in the market (and the other time I only didn’t go as I had one day after a cruise and it was closed by the time I got off the ship) and every time visiting Tsukiji Outer Market has been one of the highlights of my trip.
Even when the Inner Market moves, the Outer Market is staying put and it will still be a Tokyo must-see.
From the stall selling dried fish that decorates its interior with giant taxidermied animals (why? what’s a massive bear got to do with fish, except they eat them too), to the oysters as big as your palm that cost just 700 yen, you’ll wander around Tsukiji Outer Market alternating between having your mouth open in awe and filling it full of amazing food.
You want to see tuna, they have it – in giant slabs, in tiny pieces or just heads – giant, shiny, silver heads (I particularly like that the blue sign below the tuna above says ‘this is recommended as a gift’ because nothing says I love you like a giant fish head).
I’ve eaten the most enormous snail I’ve ever seen here – the first bite was the stuff of legend. Earthy, meaty yet with a creamy taste I’ve never been able to replicate anywhere else – the last mouthful tasted more like dirt, but oh my goodness that first bite.
I’ve tried the freshest sashimi, the most incredible dashi that explains why miso tastes so bad when you make it at home, yet so utterly moreish when you have it in Japan.
I’ve watched guys make omelette, after omelette, after omelette to keep up with the never-ending queue of people in front of their stall. And I’ve met people working behind those stalls who are absolutely passionate about what they sell and why you should try it – unlike the Inner Market, here you get smiled at, not scowled at!
On this trip, I wanted to understand more about the things I was seeing. I booked a Tsujiki Fish Market Tour through Japan Wonder Tours and it was a great introduction to the market and the best it has to offer – particularly some of the areas that had been added since the last time I was here.
For a couple of hours we wandered the market learning about the items for sale and the stalls – we tasted that omelette and I learned that every stall has a secret recipe – and that many Japanese add sugar or sake to the mix.I had delicious fish cakes and those palm-sized oysters. I also learned that Fried Pond Smelt is not something I ever need to eat again – but that Fish Spines in toffee are quite the delicious snack.
I learned that Ninja’s used to eat dry soybeans to keep their energy up – and that I’d be crap Ninja as they make me cough (which is a shame as I got a bit of a taste for them) and that while the men do the hard work in the market itself, the women do the accounting and book-keeping and handle the money.
If you’ve come to Tsukiji to see fish, you also won’t be disappointed in the Tsujiki Outer Market, particularly the new buildings towards the Namiyoke Inari Jinja Shrine.
These now house the wholesalers who don’t want to move to the new market and, while they are still selling to locals and chefs, many stalls offer takeout of some of the freshest fish you’ll find anywhere which you can take up to the dining area on the 3rd floor of the building to consume.
Some stalls do have ‘no photo’ signs, others say photos are welcome but ask that you please make way for paying customers, but it’s a totally different atmosphere from the Inner Market. I could see these guys getting out the cartoon signs again to just reign in any over-enthusiastic fish touchers!
Okay so that might make it less authentic to some, but at least you’ll see something other than fish guts! And you don’t have to dodge the trolleys in here. It’s like another world.
So, don’t skip Tsukiji altogether, but maybe think about skipping your trip to the inner market and spending more time in the treasure trove of shops and stalls of the Outer Market outside.
The stallholders here will be happy, the inner market stallholders will be happy – and you might be happier too. Everyone wins – except the fish, but let’s not go there!
NB: The rule on tourists entering the market at 11am does not apply to the fish auction that takes place each morning around 5am. This is still on, but like the market, it’s never been busier so expect to get in line very early to get a ticket – the organised tours going to the auction are now meeting guests at 1am!
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