Visit the Tsukiji Fish Market… But Not in Late December

by Sharon Stirling

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two of the ten biggest observations from my most recent trip. #1: Pillow Girlfriends Really Do Exist #2: Technologically Advanced Toilets But Sinks Dispense Water The Temperature of Melted Ice #3: Japanese Women Love High Heels But Can’t Walk in Them #4 It’s Possible to Order at a Restaurant in Japan Without Speaking or Reading a Lick of the Language #5 Unfortunately It Is Possible to Get a Bad Meal in Japan

If you love seafood and/or food markets you really can’t leave Tokyo without spending one of your mornings gawking at the dizzying display of colors, smells and sounds at Tsukiji fish market. It is one of the most famous fish markets in the world, and where most of the really good sushi restaurants—all over the globe—buy their fish. I visited Tsukiji on December 30th, the last business day of the year for this popular market. Do not follow my example.

Every time I travel abroad I visit the local markets and this was by far the busiest one I’d ever experienced. The public market (as opposed to the wholesale market which is wisely closed to the masses during the last couple of weeks of December) is rammed with shoppers hoping to purchase enough fresh seafood to last their families over the New Year’s holiday. No one is rude or aggressive, but there is consistent and intense physical pressure from all sides. Several times I had to steady myself against the pressure behind me to avoid crushing 4-foot tall Japanese grandmothers checking out the fish displays directly in front of me. Parts were so intense, even my husband who is easily twice the size of most people in the crowd couldn’t make any real forward progress.

But the market is so fascinating that we soldiered on, regrouping at the end of each alley to create some sort of game plan for making it through the next. These strategies never panned out. Shouting over the heads of the crowd around us my husband deftly summed up the experience, “I think we now know what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.”

Overlooking the wholesale market section

Shoppers checking out portioned and packaged fish

One of the larger and, believe it or not, more maneuverable alleys

Octopus waiting to be taken home

So sweet, so delicious, so expensive!

Mentaiko—marinated fish roe. Used in everything from Japanese rice balls to pasta

Fresh wasabi root 

Hungry diners hoping for a seat at one of the sushi spots next to the wholesale market

Sushi breakfast. The market drama was definitely worth it

About these ads