After the demise last year of one of the world’s best-loved wholesale fish markets at Tsukiji in Tokyo (and its relocation across the river to a soulless, gleaming building at Toyosu), the biggest surprise has been the continuing appeal – for tourists and locals alike — of the myriad shops and restaurants tucked in the narrow lanes that comprise Tsukiji’s old “outer market.”
The specialty shops and stalls here initially sprang up to cater to the culinary needs of wholesalers, middlemen, chefs and other shoppers who came to Tsukiji to buy fish, while the restaurants found early demand from hungry fishmongers and wholesalers who worked in the main “inner market.” Useful details and background can be found at the “Welcome to Tsukiji” website.
Stretching back from the now-abandoned ramshackle inner-market buildings, the outer market still seethes with shoppers and diners, seeking everything from kitchen implements like katsuobushi (dried bonito) shaving-boxes and high-end knives to cut-price ceramic ware and traditional souvenirs. We thought this was the right time for snapshots that capture the mood of the area, thanks to our colleague and Tsukiji “local,” Dean Napolitano.
Fishmongers are still doing a brisk business and restaurants in the area, which had been bracing for a decline in business, are booming – from ramen noodle joints and gourmet coffee bars to upscale fugu (blowfish) and kaiseki (traditional multi-course meal) establishments and of course, still-ubiquitous sushi bars.
Among the more interesting and newer places is a small stand bar which sells one thing: uni, or sea urchin.
Here, laid out on beds of crushed ice you find fresh cut, large spiky globular shells containing the golden, creamy segments. You either love or hate the briny taste and smooth texture.
A tiny place on a corner close to the old market, you can find this popular uni bar amongst the lanes around the outer market. Look for the uni poster.
Devoted uni-lovers can gulp a few mouthfuls of the best, fresh uni for just Y500 to Y1,000, but don’t expect fancy service – this is for purists.
If you want a more upmarket experience, where you can pay Y15,000 for a special uni course, try Uni Bar Kai Issho Shutoku which has both an à la carte menu and a choice of four set courses.
Whether you come to eat or just to wander, it is heartening to see that “old Tsukiji” as people now call it, still has life and vigor – more, perhaps, than the fish market’s heyday. Locals attribute the strong interest to the continuing tourist influx as well as enduring loyalty of their long-standing customers.
Catering to this still-robust interest in Tsukiji and its vendor culture, and to curiosity about the new Toyosu market as well as a lesser-known traditional Tokyo fish market, our favorite Tsukiji “sensei” Naoto Nakamura, a veteran guide and former fish trader, is now offering bespoke tours for small groups.
First is a combined Toyosu /Tsukiji tour.
This kicks off at 5 a.m. and lasts until about 7.30 a.m. After meeting at the main gate (south) of Toyosu market, which opened last year after Tsukiji fish market closed down, you go inside to watch the fish auctions, although it’s all regulated – visitors can watch from a designated observation deck in the multi-storied building.
You can then tour the vegetables and fruits sections of the market, which is worth seeing if you’re interested in the ins and outs of Japanese market culture, and then visit the stall area where middlemen and wholesalers prepare the fish. There are also some well-known restaurants and sushi bars that migrated from the old Tsukiji, and a merchants’ area.
From there, the tour moves to Tsukiji, to investigate the best-known shops and lanes adjacent to the old market, and its famous local shrine, Namiyoke Inari Jinja. The name “namiyoke” means “protection from waves,” and is venerated by locals as a guardian for Tsukiji.
Alternatively, there is a tour of Adachi fish market, in the northeastern area of old “Shitamachi,” or downtown, Tokyo. The Adachi market is one of 64 central wholesale markets operating in 40 large Japanese cities and has been going since 1945, for decades trading in vegetables and fruit as well as fish. In 1979, the vegetable and fruit section moved to a new market, leaving Adachi market specializing in fish.
The only drawback is the early start – so you can catch the beginning of the fish sales including tuna auctions. The tour starts at 4am and participants are asked to meet at Senjuōhashi station of the Keisei (main) line, although you will have to take a taxi as it’s too early to catch a train there.
Nakamura-san is a font of fascinating information and historical insights into Tokyo’s fish-vending areas, and speaks fluent English.
His tours are limited to four to six people per tour and cost Y7,500 per person for the Adachi tour, and Y10,000 per person for the Toyosu/Tsukiji tour (incuding transfer between the two markets) – cash only. Reservations must be made three days in advance.
See his website here:
or email Nakamura-san at firstname.lastname@example.org