I had my doubts when an appointment was made for me to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market (www.tsukiji-market.or.jp/tukiji_e.htm) at 5:30 a.m on my first day in Tokyo. I was told not to worry—I'd be so jet-lagged I'd be awake at two.
That turned out to be true. I had no problem meeting Lloyd Nakano, managing director of the Hotel Seiyo Ginza (www.seiyo-ginza.com), at the appointed time. The Hotel Seiyo Ginza is a five-star boutique Rosewood property in the center of Tokyo's upscale Ginza District. Since it's only 12 stories high, and its 77 rooms are on floors seven through 12, city views aren't its selling point. Service is what sets it apart, and according to Lloyd, it's the only butler hotel in Japan. There are nice touches throughout Hotel Seiyo Ginza. I especially liked the live plants in the guest rooms, and the orchid displays in the lobby that Lloyd oversees personally.
The fish market was only minutes away by cab. A note about taxis: If the red light in the lower left corner of a taxi's windshield is lit, then the cab is available. It's a good idea to have your destination written down in both English and Japanese. Taxis are a little different in Japan—the left rear door is opened and closed automatically from within by the driver, so watch your hands.
During the ride, Lloyd filled me in on basic Tsukiji Fish Market etiquette. "These guys are here to do business, so you have to stay out of their way," said Lloyd. "It's all right to take pictures, but don't use a flash, especially during the tuna auction."
A Fish Tale
The Tsukiji Fish Market has been in operation since 1935 and is by far the largest in the world with 17,000 stalls. It's not a tourist attraction. The pace is brisk and the turret trucks—kind of a Japanese version of a warehouse forklift—definitely have the right of way as they hurtle down the narrow lanes between the stalls. I asked Lloyd if anyone ever gets run over. "Every day," he replied.
Armed with this information, I wouldn't advise groups visiting Tsukiji, although I did see a tourist group from Taiwan in the street outside the market. I think it would even be hard to navigate the close quarters of the market with more than two people. Also, wear casual clothes that you don't mind soiling—you'll get slimed more than once.
We headed directly to the open warehouse where the tuna auction was already in progress. Rock-solid frozen tuna lay tagged on the floor, ready for auction. Lloyd bent and read the tags covered with Japanese characters. "This one's from Tanzania...that one's from South Africa...Ireland...the Philippines." Potential buyers knelt to inspect the carcasses, some even chopping off a tiny piece of frozen flesh to pop into their mouths, to gauge the quality. The auctioneers each had their own style; one chubby auctioneer had a soothing melodic delivery, while only steps away another barked like a dog.
Out on the selling floor, we maneuvered past a stunning array of sea creatures, some still alive and squirming in their trays. Freshly caught tuna was on display, being carved by a team of three workers. Halfway through the process, the head honcho of the team picked up a knife as long as a samurai sword and made one long, slow cut, slicing the fish into two equal parts.
If you're squeamish, you're bound to have some difficult moments in Tsukiji. I watched a worker methodically clean live eels by first poking their heads through a nail on a board, slicing them open in one long cut, scraping their guts out with the same knife, and then severing the twisting body from the head and tossing the cleaned eel in a plastic tub. The whole process probably took 15 seconds. Later during my trip I met three young guys from Manchester, England—a city known for its toughness. They said that after visiting Tsukiji, they couldn't eat sushi for days.
Luckily, I didn't have any such qualms. I followed Lloyd outside the market, where the surrounding streets are lined with shops and sushi restaurants. It was only 7 a.m., but when we sat down at the counter of a tiny restaurant the little plates of sushi kept coming. It was the best I've ever had. The piping hot sake and the companionship of Lloyd made it a great first morning in Tokyo.