Featured on countless “Top Ten Things to do in Tokyo” lists, Tsukiji is a must see for any Tokyo itinerary. Centrally located near shopping district Ginza, this wholesale fish and seafood market is the largest in the world. It’s divided into two parts. The outer market houses restaurants and shops selling restaurant wares like knives and plates, and the inner market is where the seafood is sold. Both are well worth a visit.
Tsukiji is most famous for its daily tuna auction. Tourists are permitted to watch, but numbers are limited to two shifts of sixty people, one at 5:25 am and another at 5:50 am. The distribution of free tickets starts at 5 am, but it’s first come first serve, so people start lining up hours before. Unless your hotel is nearby, or you’ve been out all night in the area anyway, you’re looking at a pretty serious cab fee, followed by hours and hours of waiting. If that’s not your scene, I’ll share my favorite way to experience Tsukuji that doesn’t involve losing a full night of sleep or emptying your wallet.
The outer market is where the restaurants and restaurant supply stores are. Unless you’re looking to open up a restaurant in Tokyo on your vacation, you’re probably more interested in the former. This one is a crowd pleaser because most people who come to Japan want to try real sushi, and it doesn’t get much better than Tsukiji. Fish literally straight off the boat prepared by top notch chefs makes for a high-class experience at a fraction of the price. Sure, it’s more expensive than your standard conveyor belt place, but you’d be hard-pressed to find the same melt-in-your-mouth high-quality sushi for under 10,000 yen anywhere else in the city.
The restaurants are open from about 5:00 am, and the early bird gets the worm, as you’re not the only one in Tokyo looking for an amazing sushi breakfast. I’ve gotten sushi as late as 7:30 before, but I had to wait for over an hour to get in. You’re going to have to wait a bit no matter what, but you can minimize the time spent in line by taking the earliest train. Fortunately, it’s a pretty quick walk from Tsukiji Station. Once you arrive, walk around and pick a restaurant that’s to your liking! One of my favorites is Oedo (大江戸), but it’s hard to go wrong. If you’re willing to wait, the one with the longest line is likely to have a good reputation.
Once you get inside, have a seat at the counter. Most of the places are pretty small, so these are probably the only seats available. You may get an English menu, but you may not. If you know some Japanese now’s a great time to try it out. If not, you can leave your meal to the fates and order the “omakase set”, which means chef’s choice. This is what I often do anyway since the chef is far more of a sushi expert than I am.
Once you’ve eaten your fill, it’s time to head to where the real action is, the inner market. It opens to the general public around 9 am, but be careful. This is a real working seafood marketplace and was not designed with tourists in mind. As a result, cars and scooters are constantly whizzing by on the large roads that divide the outer part from the inner part. Even in the narrow aisles of the interior, merchants are constantly bustling about, sometimes carrying large fish, and sometimes pushing or pulling large carts.
Keep your wits about you and do your best not to interfere with people doing their jobs. That being said, there’s some amazing stuff to be seen here. Giant tuna getting cut up, king crabs, scallops, oysters, flounders, salmon, and a dozen other fish and shellfish I don’t know the name for in Japanese or English.
And that’s it! If you’re looking for an fun way to kill some time nearby, I recommend the walk through Ginza to Tokyo Station, followed by a visit to the Imperial Gardens in the center of the city. Also, in preparation for the 2020 Olympics the market is planning to relocate to Toyoso, a different part of the city, in November of 2016, so if you want the classic Tsukiji experience, visit soon!