Visiting the Tsukiji fish market tuna auction, Tokyo, Japan
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A visit to the world famous tuna auction in the iconic Tsukiji fish market is top of most guidebooks and must see lists for Tokyo, Japan. With only 120 visitors allowed to witness the tuna auction on any given day, together with plans for the entire fish market to relocate to a new location outside Tokyo in early 2017, demand for one of the 120 daily spots is at fever pitch with tourists trying to secure a visit to the historic auction ahead of the move.
Unfortunately the high demand means you have to get up early…really, really early. We made two attempts to secure an elusive visitors vest to the auction and were lucky to grab a ticket on the second effort. Don’t worry I didn’t leave Elaine minus a ticket, she decided against the early start! The experience was definitely unique and a highlight of my Tokyo itinerary. Read on to find out why a caffeine fuelled all night wait is worth it for a visit to the world famous Tsukiji fish market tuna auction!
Tsukiji Tuna Auction: Attempt 1!
Our first attempt to visit the market was met with failure! Despite a 2.30am wake-up our 3.15am arrival time was too late to secure a visitors vest on a Saturday morning. All was not lost though as we had a Plan B: we made our way over to Sushi Dai, a famous Tsukiji sushi restaurant, and joined the queue for one of the sushi breakfasts. A mere 5 hours later (!) this led to the best Sushi meal of our lives.
Best Hotels for the Tsukiji Fish Market
We highly recommend staying in a hotel close to the Tsukiji Fish Market if you plan to visit the Tuna Auction. The Tokyo Metro does not run at night and to guarantee a place in the queue before 3am you’ll need to stay close to the market. The best options are to stay either beside the market itself or in the nearby popular Ginza area. Demand is crazy for hotels in Tokyo and the best usually sell out months in advance to make sure to book in time. The best hotels that are a short walk from the Tsukiji Fish Market are:
- Courtyard by Marriott Tokyo Ginza An extremely central location and really comfortable and spacious rooms make this Marriott a perfect option for exploring the city and the Tsukiji market. Sushi Dai is less than a 10 minute walk from this hotel and the nearby Ginza metro station gives access to all the main parts of Tokyo. Check prices here!
- Millennium Mitsui Garden Hotel: A great alternative to the Marriott and a solid modern hotel. It’s also a 10 minute walk from the fish market but also really central for seeing the rest of the city. Check prices here!
- Tokyu Stay Tsukiji: The closest hotel to the Tsukiji fish market and is a great option for visiting Tuna Auction and Sushi Dai. You are literally across the street! Check prices here!
Second Time Lucky!
Visiting the auction was high on my Tokyo must-see so I returned solo 48 hours later on the Monday morning at a much earlier 2am! A stomach churning 1.30 am alarm and a brisk walk through the fresh Tokyo night air brought me to the entrance of the Fish Information Centre where the queue for visitor vests to the tuna auction already had around 20 people in it! Bear in mind this was 2am on a Monday morning, otherwise known as the middle of the night!
At around 2.30am, amid a scurry of activity from the security personnel, the door to the waiting room swung open and each of us received a yellow vest and a list of rules for vising the auction. We were shown to the waiting area, aka a room with a floor! The auction visitors are split into two groups: yellow vests for the first auction at 6 am and green vests for the second at 6.30am.
The waiting game
Like most good things in life the tuna auction is a hard earned reward. The time in the waiting room is definitely challenging: while it was fun chatting with other people in the queue and exchanging Japan stories we all felt the aches and pains of spending almost 3 hours on a floor in a waiting room.
The rules state that visitors are not allowed to lean against the walls in the waiting room and this results in a pretty uncomfortable wait upright on the floor for 3 hours!
I was fading fast and had to purchase some tasty iced coffee from the vending machines outside the door. Buy some before you head in, you can thank me later!
Shortly before the scheduled 5.25am departure time for our group who were attending the first tuna auction the outer doors swung open and we were greeted by a number of smartly dressed and smiling security men. These friendly guys guided the first yellow group from the waiting area to the tuna auction area.
Walking to the Tuna Auction
The route to the auction area is relatively easy and we were directed the entire way by the security guys.
Security led us in a line through the fish market which was already buzzing with action and they emphasized how important it was to be careful of our surroundings. Everyone was tired and the commercial market is in full swing with electric carts whizzing around. A collision with one of those carts would most definitely hurt!
After a short walk dodging the various machinery we arrived at the door to the famous tuna auction hall.
The Tuna Auction Buildup
Once we entered the auction building we were ushered into the relatively narrow viewing area which splits the auction room in the middle. With so many photographers in the group it was a little chaotic for a few minutes as we settled in to our preferred spots. Although there were tuna on both sides it was still difficult for all 60 of us to get a good view of the tuna.The frozen tuna, minus the gills, tails and guts, are laid out according to size in lines along wooden pallets.
The Tuna Assessment
Prior to the auction the tuna buyers test and assess the tuna to allow them to choose which fish they will bid on and at what price. The tail section of each tuna is cut and a small section is peeled back to expose the flesh of the fish. Buyers, armed with small fish hooks and flash lights, examine the tuna for determine the quality and hence the price they intend to pay for the tuna.
The buyers are meticulous and methodical as they move from one tuna to the next only pausing to draw back the exposed tail flesh and undertake a brief study of the meat under flash light. An occasional comment to the neighbouring buyer was usually met with a quick nod of acceptance before the process continued.
Occasionally the buyers would use their small hooks to draw some flesh from the end section of tuna, rolling it in their hand and expertly examining it under their flashlight.
A table was set up for the larger tuna with thin cross sections of the tuna laid out on cloth over ice blocks. The buyers also used these to assess the larger tuna, which varied in size from medium to absolutely massive!
Suddenly a bell rang and the auction started at a sprint like pace before we knew what was happening! Within 10 seconds the first fish was sold and the purchased fish was promptly hauled onto a trolley and whisked away into the deeper bowels of the market or straight onto the waiting trucks.
The bidding process for buyers in the tuna auction is complicated and frantic to witness. With the auction underway the auctioneer continues to shout out prices for each fish in turn while the buyers quickly twitch their fingers in the air to signal the price they wish to bid. This back and forth process takes seconds to complete and is fascinating to see. The buyers use hand signals to indicate their current bid and their gaze never leaves their notes on the tuna until the sale is confirmed with a shout from the auctioneer!
It only took 15 minutes for all the tuna in the first auction to be sold! The tuna were swiftly hauled onto trolleys and whisked into the fish market or onto the waiting trucks. Visitors don’t get to see this part as the market is closed to the public until 9am but it’s possible to still see some being prepared if you hurry in at 9am.
The tuna are cut up and prepared for the restaurants using extremely sharp and long knives one of which is called Maguro bōchō and could be mistaken for a sword!
Leaving the Auction
Once the auction was finished we were ushered out of the auction area on the opposite side to where we entered. The security guys were eager to get us out as the next auction was scheduled to start and the second group of visitors were due to arrive. They were patient enough to let us snap a few more photos before we headed out into the fish market.