When we were invited to join a group tour, we willingly obliged and set our alarms earlier than usual to take in the sights, savor the tastes, and experience the lively atmosphere of the world’s largest wholesale market for fish and seafood, before its relocation this November.
While jetlagged, yet enthusiastic tourists were making their way to the famous market, our group of six introduced ourselves to each other in front of Tsukiji Hongan-ji temple, a Buddhist temple with an Indian architectural motif and our designated meeting place for the Tsukiji Fish Market Tour by Japan Wonder Travel. We met three other participants from Singapore and our friendly tour guide, Nori, who jokingly said we could call him ”Mr. Seaweed”. Originally from Osaka, he also teaches English to teens when he’s not leading tours.
Before entering the inner wholesale market, Nori emphasized three important rules: First, beware of turret trucks and its drivers who don’t observe any traffic rules. We encountered plenty of these motorized three-wheel trucks honking and speeding between stores carrying boxes of seafood and other goods in and out of the market. Second, don’t touch the fish (which is common sense). And third, avoid taking close-up shots of vendors, who are there to work and do business, not to put on a show.
Starting from the fruit and vegetable area, where truckloads of fresh produce arrive from all over the world every morning at 3AM, our guide also gave us a brief history of the market, which was moved from nearby Nihonbashi 80 years ago. Unfortunately, the inner wholesale market is set to be relocated to Toyosu this November to build a media center for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics, a controversial move that is expected to shut down about 20% of the wholesale fish and seafood operations.
We kicked off the food tour at Daisada, a small Japanese omelette shop where we had tamagoyaki on sticks that looked like sliced bricks of sweet scrambled eggs. The pungent smell of marine creatures filled our noses as we toured the inner market, where we witnessed a few men slicing a few remaining frozen slabs of tuna with an electric saw. There were countless varieties of fish and seafood, from baby sardines, king crabs, oysters, eels, and of course, more varieties of tuna. A friendly vendor released a small octopus from a blue net and even let us touch its clammy head and tentacles with tiny suction cups.
After a quick rest at Sui Jinja (Water Shrine), the fish market’s very own shrine that would also be moved to Toyosu, Nori led us to a hidden location atop an old building. We were greeted with sweeping views of the Sumida river, the Rainbow Bridge, and the whole of Tsukiji Market, which spans 408,000 square meters (or over twenty soccer pitches!).
Then we made our way to the dry, outer market, where we tried dried and smoked bonito flakes, commonly used in Japanese dishes like miso soup and takoyaki (octopus snack). The traditional store also sold tightly sealed packs of dried, fermented fish fillet or dried bonito that is apparently registered into the Guinness Book of Records as the hardest food in the world. Everywhere we looked, there were appetizing choices – grilled scallops, squid, shellfish, fried fish cakes, all sorts of dried snacks, and gourmet foods that would excite any passer-by looking to have a light snack or a hearty meal. We had a huge fresh raw oyster on a half shell splashed with vinegar, and the seafood’s natural briny taste and acidic flavor were the perfect match. Luckily, this part of the market won’t be relocated because it’s definitely a foodie’s paradise worth returning to.
After having our choice of fried fish cake on a stick, we walked through busy aisles of merchants to get to Jugetsudo, a renowned 160-year-old green tea shop and supplier of many Michelin restaurants in Tokyo. A gentleman in front of the shop prepared and poured us one of their signature green teas and what stood out was its lack of a bitter after-taste. Our next stop was Ishii Oribako, one of the long-running stores along Namiyoke-dori selling fine wooden saké sets and chopsticks, and also serves premium quality saké. We sampled one of the bottles in a square cup made of cedar wood called masu that we also got to take home as a keepsake. As the English-speaking staff poured our drinks, he asked us if we’ve ever tried saké in our home countries.
Our food tour culminated with a sushi lunch at the Sushi Cyoh Standing Sushi restaurant. Chefs prepared and served a sushi set consisting of tuna, salmon, albacore tuna, minced tuna, squid, and prawns in front of us. For its price and quality, the selection was satisfying, though we had to order a few more pieces and shell out some cash to satisfy our appetites. Before saying our goodbyes, we took a few group photos, wished the tourists an enjoyable trip, and thanked Nori for his hospitality.
As a market tour that lasted for three and a half hours, for us the highlights were the following: the saké, the fresh yet affordable sushi, the bird’s eye view of the entire 23-hectare market on reclaimed land next to the river, and last but not the least, our friendly tour guide who answered all our questions like an old friend we’ve known for years.