Japan: inside Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

When you tell people you're going to Tokyo, most people will insist that "You have to go to the fish market,"  especially if you're like us and are known for a chronic obsession with markets of all varieties.

Living in Philadelphia, we both dwelled in the shadow of South Philadelphia's 9th Street Italian Market, which has recently gone through a profound transformation with the growing Latin American and Asian influences of the neighborhood's evolving constituency.  Philadelphia is also famously graced with the Reading Terminal Market - a foodie's dream shrouded in the halls of a former train terminal.  Not to mention the Night Market courtesy of The Food Trust: a roving pop-up event full of up-scale food trucks that bring lucky host neighborhoods to life, drawing massive crowds.  A market city, indeed.  We miss you, Philadelphia.

We've also both had the fortune of visiting London's Borough Market, located beneath an elevated train line, where you can score everything from pastries to paella.  It's a must-see if you're ever in London and need a vacation from your Big Ben/Parliament sightseeing vacation. (Addie note - Be prepared to eat here.  Free samples are thrust at you from every direction.  I have no good photographs of this place because I had one hand for my walking mulled wine and another hand for my donuts and zero hands for cameras.)

Two summers ago after a hot tip from a French friend (thanks, Yann!), we stumbled upon the Apt Market in Provence, France, which is the oldest running outdoor market in the country.   For hundreds of years, every Saturday morning, street after street after street fills with vendors hawking the finest in produce, meats, flowers, wine and just about everything Europe's bread basket has to offer.  Its setting within the town of Apt is downright stunning and even a few euros let's you walk away with a taste of the best this Mediterranean climate has to offer. Starting to see a pattern here?

So, when people said "You have to go to the fish market", we were certainly game, but we truly had no idea what we were in for. We hopped the subway to find out...

It's just a ten minute walk southwest from the Tsukiji Metro station to the start of the fish market. Basically, you can't miss it.  You'll wander just past the Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple (beautiful, by the way) and shortly after you'll find that the sidewalk is jammed with both locals and tourists looking for exotics and bargains at the stands lining the market's corridors.  Given that we weren't really set up for cooking at the Air BnB, we were there just out of curiosity and a quest for interesting snacks.  We tried some dumplings on offer for merely a couple hundred yen, as well as a mochi (strawberry and chocolate confection) to satisfy the morning's sweet tooth.  

If you want to buy a week's worth of  groceries, a set of high-end knives or eat a breakfast consisting of what is ostensibly sushi in a bowl the Tsukiji market is the spot for you.  Make sure you're there before noon because things start winding down around then.

But this part is only the outer market.  This is where the regular folks shop.  We wanted to see where the professionals go.  Because the Tsukiji Fish Market is not only the largest fish market in the entire world, it's the largest wholesale market of any kind on the planet.

We were too early in our jet lag to make the tourist lottery to get in to see the real fish auction in action.  Recommended arrival time to get into the two-slot queue is 3am - getting ourselves up and out this early in our trip would've been devastating for our body clocks, so we took our chances at arriving closer to 9:30.  Turned out to be fine.  We hit the wholesale floor as the vendors were finishing sales, packing up leftovers and rigorously cleaning down their work stations - rigorous cleaning being key when working with raw fish - and security waved us straight through, warning us against any flash photography.

The texture of the space is impossible to put into words and perhaps these pictures can provide some sense of what we experienced.  Mind you, tourists were scarce and though security was happy to let us advance into the space, it's certainly not visited by a lot of sightseers. Frankly, it felt voyeuristic. Borderline fetishistic.  It was like looking through some timeless pane of glass where, once the days' deals had been set, thousands of Japanese workers breakdown and package the fish for an entire country (and likely beyond).  For them it's rigorous daily labor paired with exceptional craft, while for us it made a concrete connection to what goes into sourcing our food. The cobbled floors are covered with generations of fish cleaning run-off.  Each stall is equal parts efficiency and haphazard makeshift design.  Herein is a subculture we couldn't begin to understand, but the humanity in bringing product to market is palpable.  

The Tsukiji Market is moving to a new space in November of 2016. Too mush business, not enough infrastructure.  It's been in this location since 1935. We were lucky to have seen its inner workings and its beauty while still in its 20th century home.  Respect, Tsukiji.  

--  Addie & Andy