It’s an ungodly hour in Tokyo but the fish market is alive and buzzing. We get there at 3:30am but barely make the cut into the second group to view the tuna auction. We walk through the door and given vests. The first group is bright green. We, the second group, put on blue ones. The room looks like a pretty big storage room cleaned out and turned into a waiting room. Hard concrete floors, bright halogen lights and white walls makes the room more reminiscent of a looney bin. I am the only Japanese and almost feel like a refugee waiting for Japanese immigration to give me permission to enter the country. It is not a pleasant experience.
Apparently, I texted a friend this photo who kindly sent it back to me. Sort of hilarious this is the only photo I have after my big, sad ordeal. We’ve been sitting around this room for hours and finally the first group goes out into the auction room. We stand around for a few more minutes and it’s our turn.
Being the only Japanese is a bit of a blessing and a curse. The workers are shocked a Japanese national is actually participating in the auction viewing but more so, I learn things I perhaps would rather not know. There are the things I learned.
Heads up: this may take the magic out of the experience if you are planning to go so I’m putting it behind a jump.
- The tuna auction open to the public is of frozen tuna that are caught in countries outside of Japan. Mainly India and Chinese tuna that are processed through the fish market and distributed around the world. These are the tuna you most likely see in sushi restaurants in the U.S. and Europe. (There are proxy buyers representing distributors outside of Japan.) Restaurants can write ‘Tsukiji Tuna’ on their menus and technically, it is the truth as most tuna caught around the globe see Tsukiji first before they end up in your favorite restaurants. Takeaway: just because something is labeled ‘Tsukiji’, it does not mean it is of the highest quality or grade. Although we did see several frozen tunas sold at over $100k USD.
- Raw tuna auction is where the Japanese tuna are sold. That auction is closed off to the public (well, the guys told me to come back if I really want to see and someone will take me — only because I’m Japanese. This is favoritism at its finest.) Japanese tuna are prioritized for Japanese merchants. This is to ensure the highest grade tuna is sold to restaurants in Japan first.
- One piece of good news! Everything I learned at the tuna breakdown holds true. The tuna’s tails are cut off like in the photo above. The tail indicates the quality of the actual fish. From the meat of the tail one can tell the marbling and amount of fat each tuna has. The more fatty the tuna, the higher the price because of the higher quantity of toro, chū toro, etc. I took an up close photo that I lost but the tail is a big chunk of round meat and there is a separator that evenly cuts the tail meat into three parts — kind of like a peace sign. Nature is a wondrous thing. One of the workers let me touch the tail meat. There was no purpose of touching it, I just wanted to to see how it felt. It was cold and soft.
After the auction viewing where everyone is piled on top of the other elbowing the other to get photos and reaching above people’s heads to get overhead shots, we file out and end up in the inner market. The inner market is the market that will move by November 2016. Then the tour is over and the crowd heads to Sushi Dai or Daiwa to eat sushi.
Sushi Dai is the first choice but even before 6am, the line was already a 4-5 hour wait. This is on a Monday. Sushi Daiwa (two doors down) is the next choice. Their line moves faster, where the wait time clocks in at 1.5 hours.
Since I know the market inside-out, after about an hour and a half wait at Sushi Dai, I took my friend to the outer market, where there is just as delicious sushi at just as reasonable prices. We had the super deluxe omakase that was around 5,400 yen (around $50) but the meal would’ve easily been worth $200 back in the States or in Europe. I also ordered extra pieces of the rare or super delicious ones. Since I don’t have the photos anymore, I can’t remember what we exactly had, but the highlight definitely was the tiger prawn’s tail that kept moving after we ate the shrimp. Insanity.
This is definitely a once in a lifetime experience. I don’t think I will ever do the tuna auction again.
The hidden sushi bar where had breakfast is tucked inside of a back alley. I would recommend it but I do not, as the sushi chefs were unfriendly towards foreigners and super nice to me (Japanese speaker). Not cool. But at Tsukiji, get lost. Explore. Go into the alleys. Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa aren’t the only places to eat sushi breakfasts!
By the way, the rain was so horrible when we were there. Naveen and I were drenched from head to toe. Not sure if you can tell from his photo but, check out the puddles ↓ Gross.