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tsukiji market copyright Josh Berglund

Tsukiji Market, the World's Largest Seafood Emporium

By Annette Greene

Trolling for the Best © Josh Berglund

Trolling for the Best © Josh Berglund

“Oishi,” (delicious) said the Japanese man pointing to the fish swimming in the large tank.

“Totemo oishi, ” (even more delicious) said his wife, spotting a more colourful fish in the same tank.

This wouldn't have seemed like an unusual conversation even in Japan had it taken place in a seafood market or restaurant, but I overheard this couple admiring the fish in a Japanese aquarium.  

People in Japan love seafood and nothing is more quintessentially Japanese than fresh seafood—that which is eaten raw—sushi and sashimi. Downtown Tokyo is where we expect to find government buildings, offices of Japan's major corporations, as well as regal buildings such as the Imperial Palace, home to Japan's Royal Family. However, nestled in a few square blocks in this same downtown area near the Sumida River and the famous Ginza shopping area is Tsukiji Fish Market. Open at 5 a.m., six days a week, its buyers are looking for the finest and freshest ingredients that will make their way to stores and restaurants later that same day.

I had been living in Tokyo for a few years teaching English at a private language school but had never been to Tsukiji Market. When some visiting friends from Seattle insisted that this was on their list of “must-see” places in the city, I was happy to oblige. Waking up very early one morning, Jean, Hannah, and I boarded a train full of commuters and headed down to the market. We walked through the aisles, the auction having concluded an hour ago, and saw customers settling their accounts and arranging for the pickup of their goods. The large slabs pink toro (fatty tuna) were the most prized and fetched the highest prices while the hamachi (yellowtail) was more delicate and would be sliced thinly before being placed on an elongated rice ball, held in place with a strip of dried dark seaweed, and then offered to customers that evening.

Humans, at the top of the food chain, are great consumers of seafood, the best and priciest of which is offered at the Tsukiji Market. The floor of the market was wet so it was good that we all wore our thick, rubber-soled shoes. We passed table after table of metal and plastic bins full of colourful seafood: brown and white squid, pink octopus, milky clams and other crustaceans, as well as small aquarium tanks of live fish. These creatures had been swimming in the ocean less than 24 hours ago, unaware of their fate. Surprisingly, the market did not smell fishy in any way, no doubt owing to its cleanliness and the freshness of the goods on sale.

Tsukiji Fish Market Tuna Auction © Josh Berglund
Tsukiji Fish Market Tuna Auction © Josh Berglund

We wandered for an hour taking photos, and then it was time to eat. A quick morning meal in Tokyo usually means toast, an egg, and coffee at a local coffee shop, but today would be different. Next to the market were a few restaurants that sold sushi and sashimi, even at 7 a.m. Jean and I were quite willing to partake in this unusual breakfast; after all, we had just seen all of these delicacies in the market so didn't it make sense to sample some? However, Hannah looked rather wary of our decision.

“I don't like to eat fish, ” she explained.

We turned to her, our eyes widening in disbelief. Hannah had gotten up very early for an expedition to the famous market, yet she did not eat fish! We walked a block from the market and found a small sushi-ya with only ten tables. Two of us ordered a “breakfast set” which included six pieces of sushi and a bowl of miso soup. Accompanying this were slices of pink pickled ginger and a little mound of green wasabi to add to our soy-sauce-dipping dish. Luckily, Hannah was able to order some sushi rolls with egg and cucumber, so she did not go hungry that morning. Jean and I, having had our fill of some of the freshest raw fish we would ever be served, along with Hannah, were all in agreement that breakfast certainly had been “oishi”.

Visit Japan-guide.com for current information on how to see the tuna auction and Tsukiji Market when you are in Tokyo.

 

Annette Greene is a freelance writer and educator from Vancouver B.C. She lived in Asia for 18 years and currently lives in Washington D.C.She writes on a variety of topics including health and wellness, education, travel, and cross-cultural communication. All images © Josh Berglund; See more of Josh's images here.