See Tokyo's biggest attraction while you still can

The world's biggest fish markets

A glimpse into a morning at Tokyo's bustling Tsujiki fish markets where the famous tuna auctions have seen a single fish sell for more than $1.5 million.

If there's one thing worse than getting up at 3.45am on a very, very cold, dark Tokyo morning to see the world's most famous live tuna auction, it is arriving at Tsukiji Fish Market 10 minutes before the auction is due to start...

And finding you're already too late!

Now, it's true I got lost a couple of times walking in the dark from my hotel. But I was still there at Tsukiji's​ fish information centre inside the Kachidoki​ Gate at 4.50am.

Really. Do I look a complete slacker?

My guide book had made it clear that only 120 visitors are allowed each day to watch the tuna sale – in two batches of 60, the first at 5.25am and the second at 5.55am.

But how was I to know there were another 120 losers who were prepared to get up even earlier than me? Some didn't even look as if they had been to bed, so excited were they by the thrill of seeing giant porcine-like dead fish auctioned in a foreign tongue.

At 4.55am I did a quick head count. It seemed I was 121st in line. Surely the guys in the fish information centre would take pity and relent?

But no, their eyes were as lifeless as I imagined the tuna they would soon be selling would be.

Perhaps I could dob in one of the people in front of me for wearing "inappropriate footwear" which (the signs say) is strictly forbidden? Unfortunately no-one this morning has turned up in ugg boots or high heels.

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Sadly, then, the only way I can describe Tokyo's famous tuna auction is by recommending a Youtube clip.

You'll see the auction is ...well, more than slightly odd: as baffling in its rituals (that bell-waving, the ceremonial removal of the baseball caps?) as it is in its result (how do you know when a tuna has actually been sold? Or whether it has gone for a good price or not?).

However what I can tell you is that you'll have to get to the Tsukiji Fish Market pretty soon (as well as pretty early) if you want to see the tuna auction in its traditional location.

In November 2016 the world's largest fish market is due to move to its new venue in Toyosu​, a man-made island closer to many existing tourism drawcards. But don't hold your breath. The move has been much delayed, and may be again.

Tsukiji Fish Market is a mess. A stinking, shoddy, unlovely mess, and I'm not just saying that just because I didn't get in to see the tuna auction. But then Tsukiji is a working market, an industrial precinct, a desperately outdated piece of communal infrastructure that sometimes seems the antithesis of the sparkling, ultra modern universe that is the rest of inner city Tokyo.

And, of course, that makes it all the more fascinating.

Every year Tsukiji handles more than 685,000 tonnes of fresh fish and seafood, some 450 different varieties – more, it is said, than any other fish market in the world (Tsukiji also sells vegetables and fruit).

Tourists aren't really encouraged. Yet over the past 20 years or so, Tsukiji has become a magnet for overseas visitors wanting to experience an authentic part of Japanese culture that also happens to be free.

Obviously most of those visitors aren't among the 120 each day to see the tuna auction itself, so what is the attraction?

Basically, the restaurants, sushi bars, noodle bars, fish stalls, shellfish stalls, things-you've-never-seen-before stalls. Plus the scruffy, industrial-scale process that puts a premium on the freshest possible produce.

To be honest, the best time to visit Tsukiji isn't for the tuna auction, but between say 6am and 9am when you can just stand back and observe a piece of everyday Tokyo culture.

Be aware that everything will start packing up around 9.30am. So plan to get there between 6am and 7am, spend an hour or so wandering around the market and then find somewhere you like in the warren of side alleys to have a seafood breakfast.

In their inner market, there was seafood on some of the slabs as good as anything I've ever seen. On others, things that seemed to have been caught on a different planet.

By around 8am I'm feeling hungry (well, I've been up since 3.45am!) so I start selecting where to have my signature breakfast.

To me, most of the side alley eateries look the same. Yet some have long queues outside them, while others have empty tables inside. What to do? Eventually I choose an unpretentious little establishment where everyone else seems to be Japanese.

Typically, the restaurants open at 5am and close around midday. I choose some tuna sashimi (well you have to, don't you?), a bowl of seafood donburi kaisen-don, and some of those gyoza dumplings that always fill a hole – all for around $25. Delicious.

Now fed, there is time to explore some of the shops in the outer market. This is the place to come if you're looking to buy Japanese knives or cooking implements.

So how long has Tsukiji been Tokyo's largest seafood market? Since the 16th Century when the first riverside fish markets began in Japan during the Edo period?

No. Tsukiji was created in 1923 when 20 or so of Tokyo's private markets – including the Nihonbashi fish market – were destroyed by an immense earthquake.

There is talk of retaining a small fish market at Tsukiji after the main operation relocates. But get to see it before November 2016 if you can.

See also: Four reasons Tokyo really is the world's most liveable city
See also: Move over Melbourne: Tokyo has the world's best small bars

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

tsukiji-market.or.jp/

GETTING THERE

Qantas, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Malaysia, Thai and Singapore Airlines all fly regularly between Tokyo and major Australian airports.

TRAVELLING THERE

Tsukiji Fish Market is located near both Tsukijishijo station and Tsukiji station.

The writer travelled at his own expense.

FIVE OTHER FOREIGN FISH MARKETS WORTH CATCHING

MARCHE INTERNATIONAL DE RUNGIS, PARIS:

It's true that Rungis​ doesn't have the romance of Les Halles​, its predecessor. However it not only sells around 145,000 tons of fish and seafood annually, but since its fresh fish pavilion was opened in 2004 it has been credited with improving French cuisine. Now that takes a bit of beating!

MERCADO LA NUEVA VIGA​, MEXICO CITY:

Like Madrid's Mercamadrid, Mexico's most famous fish market is both a long way from the sea and claims to be the world's second biggest fish market after Tsukiji. But it has one major tourist advantage - unlike Mercamadrid, it is open to the public. Most of the fish sold is from the Gulf of Mexico, but all Mexican waters are represented.

THE NEW FULTON FISH MARKET AT HUNTS POINT, NEW YORK:

It has been a decade since New York's famous fish market moved from Manhattan where it had been since 1822 to the Bronx. Today the market handles around 100,000 tons of fish and seafood annually. Each day up to 300 varieties of fish are offered for sale – including up to 20 species of shrimp.

BUSAN COOPERATIVE FISH MARKET, SOUTH KOREA:

Busan? Where's Busan? And why would this be one of the world's great fish markets when it it is less than a decade old? It is ideally placed between the North and South Pacific fishing zones, and can sell on its produce to nearby Japan, China, Taiwan and Russia as well as South Korea?

FESKERKORKA, GOTHENBURG​:

In Swedish, the name means 'fish church', which is exactly what the building by architect Victor von Gegerfelt​ was hoping for when it opened in 1874. It has no claims to be one of the world's largest fish markets, but it is undoubtedly one of the most beloved by tourists. Apart from the market itself, there is a fish and seafood restaurant on the premises.

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