You will say, as you read this, that you’re not really a fish market kind of person. It’s not that you have anything against fish, but, well, you don’t need to be that close to your food. It’s enough that fresh fish is delivered to your restaurant of choice and prepared according to your needs. Then, around 4 or 5 a.m. on your first morning in Tokyo, you will rethink this stance. Suddenly, oddly, nothing seems like more fun than heading to the Tsukiji Fish Market.
Things that seem nonsensical while you’re reading tour books become quite viable when you’re wide awake in a sleeping city. We didn’t read enough Japanese to do much good, our spoken language skills were laughable, and we had some yen, but really no concept of its worth — so naturally it made sense for us to strike out from our hotel (stopping only to marvel at our first glimpse of a Japanese vending machine — beer, in this case; later, we would see all manner of soda and batteries and scotch) toward the train station. Somehow, we acquired train passes. The details remain foggy.
We don’t know how — neither of us is good with mornings to begin with — but we found the right train and ended up at the right stop. And then we found the fish market. In retrospect, there’s no way we could have missed it, but at the time, we were the walking definition of disoriented. It was an awesome accomplishment.
The Tsukiji Fish Market is huge. It services the Tokyo market, so just the little bit of fish we saw was a mere fraction of what passed through the the doors that day. We had no intention of purchasing fish, so we wandered the stalls and alleys that line the market. Breakfast became a priority, and while sushi and other local specialties rule, we were drawn to a small coffee shop — our Japanese being sufficient to read the word. We were greeted with Western-style forks and strong coffee. The forks because it was clear we were babes in the chopstick woods. Conversation was stilted, though we did manage to convey that Los Angeles is somewhere near Portland, Oregon. It’s a big planet, space is relative.
Once caffeinated, we were ready to tackle Tokyo in all its glory. Our guidebooks pointed us to a nearby park. From there, we wandered for hours. And hours. At four a.m., one does not always consider the importance of comfortable shoes. Consider this helpful advice. The best way to learn a city, even a city like Tokyo, is on foot.
The market is wide-open for tourists, though modern life has interrupted the traditional flow of trading. In what has to be one of the stranger recent developments, the Japan Guide notes:
A visit is most recommended in the early and busy morning hours before 9am. Note however, that the spectacular tuna auctions, held around 5am, have been closed to tourists as of May 2005 due to the interference caused by the sheer number of spectators and cases of misbehaving tourists (visitors touching tuna, obstructing people at work and causing distraction by flash photography).
If you find yourself suddenly craving the fish market experience, finding the sprawling facility is easy. Access the market from Tsukijishijo Station on the Subway Oedo Line or Tsukiji Station on the subway Hibiya Line (which was our approach).