Tokyo: The tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market

The tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

If you ask my taste buds about the best area in Tokyo, they would answer with a big, roaring “Tsukiji!!” The fish market and the streets surrounding it is a foodie paradise packed with affordable sushi restaurants, and with a rustic, slightly chaotic vibe, that you don’t really find anywhere else in the city.

I went to see the tuna auctions a couple of times more than 10 years ago, but these days, I usually avoid the trading area at the inner fish market and stick to the small restaurants at the outer market.

The fish market wasn’t made for tourists and most of the people working there, selling and buying fish, seem really annoyed with the tourists. No matter how careful you are, there’s no doubt that you’re in the way, and even though you get a very refreshing insight in how the Japanese can also be (no polite bowing here), I’d rather stay out of the way and stick to the sushi restaurants instead.

For many years, there have been more and more substantial rumors that the market was moving to another site, and now it seems inevitable that market will in fact be moving late 2016, so I thought that I should go and see the auction one last time.

One Sunday morning in April, I therefore set the alarm to 1:30am for Mission: Tuna Auction. The registration officially starts at 5am, but people start lining up already around 2:00. I arrived at 2:20am and I was number 9 in the queue in front of the registration building. I know that other websites say that showing up at 4am would be fine, but I wouldn’t dare to wait that long. The day I was there, the last visitor pass, in the shape of a yellow vest, was handed out at 3:10am.

At 3am we were allowed to enter a heated room in the registration building, but there’s no furniture, so you just sit on the floor and wait for the time to pass. I was in the first group, and at 5:20 we were told to follow the staff to the auction site. From a designated area we could see the tuna buyers walking around looking at the frozen tunas. The tip of the tail was cut off, so you could see the meat inside, and some of the buyers also had a taste of the frozen meat to assess the quality. Getting superior tuna is crucial to the upscale sushi restaurants, and the ability to pick the right tuna requires skills and experience.

O-toro or fatty tuna is the fatty part of the belly and the most expensive cut of the tuna. It’s extremely delicious and one of the 3 things I would bring if I were stranded on a deserted island.

At the tuna auction site, I felt like the lion from the Madagascar movie, because I didn’t really see the dead fish, but just mountains of otoro sushi and sashimi. Can you imagine how much sushi you can make from just one tuna? *drooling*

The auction took less than a minute, but it was fun to watch. I made a short movie, which you can watch below.

The wholesale fish market at Tsukiji has moved to a new location and is now called Toyosu Market. Read my guide to other fun things to do in Tokyo

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