Tsukiji fish markets tuna auction, Tokyo: A great attraction gone forever

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.

I never did make it to the Tsukiji tuna auction. I planned to, twice. I had ideas of ridiculously early starts, of heading down bleary-eyed to one of the world's most famous markets and joining the queue to watch as the big fish were sold to the highest bidders.

Both times, however, I failed. I blame sake for the first one. Far too many drinks with far too many new friends at an Asakusa izakaya the night before cruelled my chances of getting up at 3am to go hang out with raw seafood.

The second time I really did give it a red hot go; however, this was back in the days of very murky information, when signs were posted on the walls at Tsukiji that didn't make a lot of sense, when I wasn't quite sure where I was supposed to be and when. I wandered aimlessly that morning from 4am until about 5.30 through Tokyo's labyrinthine fish market before realising I was too late even if I did find the queue, and that I might as well go grab a sushi breakfast and just chalk it up as a failure.

Plenty of tourists both before and after me, however, did not fail. A visit to Tsukiji has become the thing to do in Tokyo over the past decade or so, particularly to see the tuna auctions – an unlikely attraction that's up there with the Robot Restaurant and the Skytree in terms of popularity in the Japanese capital.

Tourists take organised tours of the facility, or they simply wander it themselves. They arrive at 3am – as I later found out, not 4am – to be one of the 120 people allowed each day to watch the tuna auction. They go later just to marvel at the array of seafood, the almost 2000 tonnes that goes on sale every day. They eat sushi at the busy restaurants that surround the working market. They shop for knives or other souvenirs. They duck and dodge through millions of visitors and workers, buyers and sellers.

Or at least, they did. Because the tuna auctions at Tsukiji are now finished, forever. The entire inner market, where the rest of the seafood is sold throughout the morning, will close to tourists this Sunday. The last of the private businesses will move out the following weekend.

Tsukiji Fish Market will soon be no more. It will move a few suburbs away to a spanking new facility in Toyosu. One of the world's most famous dedicated fresh produce markets, up there with La Boqueria in Barcelona, Borough Market in London, and the Chinatown Complex in Singapore, and it's about to close its doors for good.

"It's a big deal because it's historic," says Tyler Palma, the Tokyo office manager for Inside Japan Tours. "Even for restaurants, being able to say that your fish comes from Tsukiji means a lot. Plus people are quite nostalgic in Japan, and Tsukiji was a link to the past."

For visitors to Japan, Tsukiji wasn't just one of the great markets, but one of the great experiences. Sure, the seafood that was once sold at the original site will be sold at Toyosu, and the tuna auctions will eventually reopen to the public (though no details have been announced yet). But Toyosu won't have the rambling charm of Tsukiji. It also won't have the central location, so easily accessible from tourist hubs such as Ginza, Asakusa and Roppongi.


Will that make a difference to travellers?

"I've been out to Toyosu," says Tyler, "and it's quite grand in scale, but it's also very sanitary and new. And it's a little more separate there in terms of access. So it will be good for photos, but also good for people working in the market, because there's some separation there, some space for them to work. They've made an aim to still give visitors access, but not to impinge on the people working there."

Operators such as Inside Japan will still be running tours of Tsukiji, as well as the new location. "The thing you'll still have is the Tsukiji outer market, which will stay open – I've been taking people to Tsukiji for 15 years now, and a lot of times people come knowing about the tuna auctions, but their favourite part becomes that outer market area, with the knives, and the kitchen shops. I think there's still a lot of scope for Tsukiji as a place for tourists to visit, and it will also be interesting to go to Toyosu and see the scale of it."

Personally, I'll miss the old Tsukiji, though I doubt I would ever have returned. Two visits were enough.

I always felt like too much of an annoyance wandering the alleys of the working market, gawking at the seafood while wholesalers attempted to do business, and market workers tried to ferry the produce in and out. I was never much of a fan of the sushi bars surrounding the market either. They were always so crowded, and so expensive. You can get sushi that's just as good, if not far better, in any of the suburbs that surround Tsukiji.

I'm glad I saw the old market, and I'm sad, for those who never made it there, that this touristy rite of passage will no longer be the option that it once was.

But Toyosu might be even better. It will be cleaner, and easier to navigate. Given its location, there might be fewer tourists too. And the information will probably be clearer for those trying to attend the auctions for those most prized of fish, the tuna.

I might even make it through the post-sake haze of another Tokyo evening to see one.

Did you visit Tsukiji in Tokyo? Was it a good experience? Did you see the tuna auction? Do you think you'll visit the new market at Toyosu?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater 

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