Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
The first thing to know about Tsukiji Fish Market is that it’s a real-life, honest-to-god market. Workers swarm through early each morning as the latest catches come in from port, and they’re not particularly happy about how hot of a tourist spot their workplace has become.
Auctions for the best tuna happen early, around 5:30AM. It’s possible to attend these auctions as an observer, but you must arrive by 4AM and hope you can receive one of the first 60 safety vests distributed to onlookers. After that, you must wait till either 5:30 or 6AM to view one of the two auction rounds.
The problem is subway service doesn’t commence until about 5AM in Tokyo, so if you are desperate to see the auction, you’re best off finding somewhere closer to stay than the Hyatt Regency in Shinjuku where I blissfully slept for another few hours.
Tourists Dream Of Jiro
The tuna auction and the market in general has exploded in popularity with foreigners since the release of Jiro Dreams Of Sushi in 2011. The movie follows the daily life and work on sushi master Jiro Ono, one of the world’s most renowned sushi chefs. Despite his advanced age – Jiro’s in his mid-80s – he still runs a sushi restaurant called Sukiyabashi Jiro located in a Tokyo subway station.
The restaurant is difficult to spot and has just 10 seats. Dinner can set you back $300 per person, but the reservation list is months long nonetheless. The restaurant was the first sushi purveyor to earn a 3-star rating by the all-important Michelin Guide. Barack Obama and Japan’s Prime Minister ate dinner here during a recent trade summit.
The documentary is surprisingly riveting. It displays the mastery and workmanship that can be gained by a person willing to dedicate their entire lives to a craft, and the cinematography of sushi being prepared and served is enough to make anyone hungry.
Part of the movie includes scenes from Tsukiji Fish Market, where Jiro’s son and coworkers buy the very best fish that come in each day. This is in great part what inspires so many people to visit the market today.
If they can’t get a reservation or afford to eat at Jiro’s restaurant, after all, perhaps they can at least glimpse the fish he uses and enjoy some world-class sushi from one of the on-site restaurants for a fraction of the price.
Making It To The Market
I wasn’t committed enough to catch a taxi to the market before 4 AM, which is what would have been necessary to see the auction, but I was interested enough to want to see the market and have a sushi breakfast at one of the nearby restaurants before checking out and heading to the airport on my last day in Tokyo.
I woke up with plans to be there by about 6:30 AM and took one of the first subway trains of the day to the market. It was a weekday morning, but only a handful of people were yet on the train, as I beat even the early-rising salarymen. However, when I got to the market, I realized I’d made a stupid mistake: I was all out of cash.
I use my cards as often as possible to pay for things – all the more points that way! – but was savvy enough to know any of the restaurants on site would almost certainly be cash only. However, Japanese ATMs aren’t universally compatible with US-issued debit cards. Most don’t support the Plus or Cirrus standards seen almost everywhere else. Only Citibank, 7/11 and Post Office locations in Japan can be reliably expected to accept US debit cards.
No matter: surely a 7/11 was close by. Distressingly, Google Maps only showed one about a 15 minute walk away. I headed in that direction, enjoying how quiet the city still was at this early hour and not worrying too much about my chances to get into one of the better restaurants and see the market still in action. When I arrived at my destination, there was no convenience store to be found. Google had parsed 7/11 as the beginning of some random street address and left me in the middle of nothing.
I searched on foot and found a Citibank, but it wasn’t set to open for another couple hours, doing me no good. Eventually, I tried Apple’s Maps program and was shocked that it pulled up nearly a dozen nearby 7/11s right away. Google’s maps are normally more reliable, but on this early morning, Apple’s alternative saved the day.
The Market, At Last
At last, I made it back to the market, nearly an hour later than I expected. The market had been active for hours at this point; crews begin work at dark o’clock surveying, filleting and packing fish. Much of the operation was clearly into the pack and ship phase by the time I arrived at around 7:30.
Tubes shot ice into styrofoam containers filled with fish.
Countless palette movers swarmed throughout the site. More than once, stern looking guards or frustrated workers caught my eye while I was still far away and motioned that visitors weren’t welcome there.
I did my best not to intrude, but when I was at one point fearful of getting clipped by one of many palette jacks moving swiftly in eight different directions, I realized it’s impossible to be on site at all without eventually getting in the way.
I made it away from the warehouse areas toward the small shops that sell fish directly to locals and restaurant buyers.
Everything from full fish and fillets to various squid-like creatures was for sale here.
Restaurants intermingled with these shops, and I eventually found one that looked like a good fit. I didn’t want to wait several hours to eat at one of the more well-known restaurants here like Sushi Dai. Instead, I wanted to see what the market could offer on short notice and for good value. I spotted a lone seat in a restaurant next door to Sushi Dai and made my way in.
I’m not an adventurous sushi eater. I like salmon, tuna and shrimp nigiri. I’ll try something a bit more exotic from time to time but more out of curiosity than some insatiable need to push some dietary limit. If that means you’ll hate me for ordering a simple plate of salmon and tuna nigiri, then so be it. I felt this was what I was best able to judge and wanted to know just how much better it would be, here at the source of sources, than at home.
I was surprised by how outstanding the miso soup and green tea were, served while the sushi was being prepared. My plate included both lean and fatty tunas. Each piece had just a dab of wasabi on the inside and looked to be delicious.
It was indeed. However, it wasn’t the world-changing experience I half-expected it to be. As much as anything, my meal at the fish market led me to appreciate some of the sushi I’ve had much closer to home, that might not have been quite as good but certainly came close. There’s bad sushi everywhere – look no further than the conveyor-belt restaurant I tried in Osaka for evidence of that – but maybe it’s possible to find good sushi closer to home than you might think. Perhaps that’ll do until your reservation at Sukiyabashi Jiro comes through.