Step Inside the World's Most Legendary Fish Market
In the aisles of the Tsukiji market, very early in the morning. All photos by author.


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Step Inside the World's Most Legendary Fish Market

I managed to wake up at the crack of dawn in Tokyo to witness the frenzied fish sales inside the Tsukiji Fish Market, the world's largest seafood market and stuck around for one of the greatest meals of my life.

On my recent travels through Japan, I've been struck by the politeness of locals with their "domo" and "arigato gozaimas." But there is one place in this oasis of kindness and civility where there manners disappear. In the heart of Tokyo, the Tsukiji Fish Market is a frenzied mess of a place where one can expect to get elbowed repeatedly. A few hundred feet away from the chic neighborhood of Ginza, it's been the largest fish market in the world since 1923. Stepping inside the place is like a chaotic ballet where the vendors are like dancers in rubber boots who unload countless pounds of bluefin tuna, shark fin, and sea urchins. The numbers are dizzying: 1,900 tons of fish are sold here per year. It's basically its own local economy. People go early—around 5:30 AM—and it's best to be wide awake so you can avoid tares, the three-wheeled miniature carts that race past the multicolor stands manned by seasoned professionals, award-winning restaurateurs, tourists, and the freshest sushi in the world.


Yet this olfactory epicenter of Tokyo life already has one foot in the grave. Following the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011, the threat of radioactivity has caused a significant dip in sales. Worse still, in 2016, the market is due to relocate two miles away to Toyosu—an ordinary, modern space completely lacking in charm. After a stern battle with its wholesalers who latched on to Tsukiji like mussels to a rock, the managers pushed through with the move. Just like the Okura Hotel, a modernist marvel that was lost to the forces of real estate development, the fish market is also being forced to make way for the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games.

One more shot of iodine for the road?

Tuna heads in transit on a small cart used to transport fish cargo.

Tuna heads also pop up in restaurants that surround the market.

Here, you can stock up on fish in bulk, by the piece or specific cut.

Outside, restaurants cook up seafood from the market for a quick meal on the spot. Here, scallops and clams sizzle over an open flame.

A fishmonger takes a break to eat between two shifts.

Professionals and tourists mingle around the fish stalls.

Octopus sold by the piece. Here, it's referred to as "taco."

When tuna steaks are too large to cut by hand, they bring out the big guns: a giant saw.

Pieces of fatty tuna.

The ancestral technique of cutting tuna with a sword.

If you like, you can have your fish gutted on the spot.

As this fishmonger takes a smoke break after the 5:30 AM rush, it's time to do the accounting.

This guy's job is to cut large blocks of ice all day long

This guy's job is to cut large blocks of ice all day long

This article was originally published in October 2015.