Japan: What a tuna looks like and how to buy one. 2

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Unless you want to accidentally acquire a hundred grand’s worth of tuna, keep control of any fingers prone to waggling or wandering at the Tokyo Tuna Auction.

The Tsukiji fish market is the largest in the world. It’s estimated that 17% of the world’s caught fish pass through its gates. My cod! It has been operating at the same site since 1935. There’s been word for a while that it’s moving to new out of town premises in 2016, so if you want to experience an about-to-be unexperiencable part of Japanese  life you need to get down there soon.

Overhead picture of the fish market, just south of Tokyo Central station.

Overhead picture of the fish market, just south of Tokyo Central station.

The plan was hatched to book a taxi for 3.45 to go to the Fish Centre because I was wide awake jetlagged at 3am anyway. The subway doesn’t start running till 5.20am. In theory the registration for a visit to the auction starts at 5am but on the day I was there (and according to other reports) all places were full by 4.20am.

It’s a bit like queuing overnight for the January sales, except a bit fishier and more exciting.

Tourists on way to tuna auction

Forgive the blurryness but it was 3.45 in the morning.

It’s certainly the plaice to be. No sooner had the taxi stopped than a Western looking guy came up and said “You going to the fish auction too?” This was Gustav from Sweden who’s a chef. The last couple of hundred meters to the registration office was a bit like a movie, with an ever increasing number of foreign faces merging from side streets to form a moving mass of tuna fans heading for registration.

Tuna fish auction tourist registation

Nearly full and it’s only 4am. Nearly can’t contain excitement. Remind myself it’s fish.

We got there at just after 4am. There are 120 places for tourists. It was practically full. The green vest team were due to set off first, with their tour starting at 5.25am. The next 60, the blue team, were due to start at 5.50.  You have to be really dedicated to watching the sale of fish to be in the green team.

This gave us a couple of early morning hours to spare sat on the floor of a fish centre with strangers, so we got chatting. The guide suggests you get into mini subgroups of 5 to avoid large crowds getting in the way of what is after all a working fish market. We decided that Doy from the Philippines, a fireworks expert, would be our leader because he’d already managed to sneak into a restricted zone before arriving at the registration office. It was a little surreal chatting to other tuna tourists in the early hours of a Tokyo morning, all with varying degrees of sleep deprivation.

Not a single beam from the girl in yellow for the whole tour.

The girl in the one and only yellow vest at the back of the above picture was number 121. She must have arrived with number 120 and they didn’t want to say one could go and one couldn’t. She didn’t even look ECSTATIC. Or she hid it very well.

Tokyo tuna auction

You snooze, you lose.  Be there by 4 am at the latest.

Tuba fish auction

Watch out for the trucks.

The tour set off. Auction workers in police-like uniforms led us to the auction room, dodging in and out of speeding carts, forklifts and mini pallet truck things. He got awfully anxious if anyone stopped to take a picture, not because pictures are not allowed but because there was a very high risk of getting squished by a fish truck in so doing.

We noticed an unvested tourist amidst the bustle and Doy and the green gang gave her a respectful nod and a wink.

When we reached the fish room it was cold and so so quiet, and it didn’t smell of fish at all. Much better than my muggy hotel room.  In relation to the heat, not the fish smell (I can’t work the aircon machine). Why wasn’t there a cacophone of bidding and hammers and shouting?


They’re big not in a tin.

First a bit about tuna.  For a long time I thought that tuna were a bit like sardines because they came in the same size of tin. I did learn a while back that they are in fact pretty big – 1.5m+ long ish – but it was still a surprise to see them for real.  You get a lot of tuna for your tin.  They are overfished and some species are now endangered :(.   That, is sad.

Tuna can swim up to 60 miles an hour.

Each female spawns up to 30 million eggs in a breeding season, two (that’s two) of which, on average,  will mature into adults.  The lifespan of those two adults can be 15 years.

Tuna auction tokyo

Inspecting the tuna.

On the trading floor, there were clearly highly experienced tuna experts in welly boots poking sample tunas with spiky hooks. The tail is cut off and this exposed fleshy part is the bit under investigation. There’s also a flap cut just above the tail which gets flicked back and inspected for I’m not sure what. Fat? The consistency of the flesh?

Only the best of the best buyers are here. It’s a bit like a wellies stock exchange floor. From here the bought fish immediately goes into an intermediary auction for onward sale.

Tuna auction Tokyo

Keeping an eye on the tourists (I think possibly this one?)

Without much warning, after much prodding and poking, a little plastic stool appears near the fish and the welly-booted auctioneer climbs on top of it. He starts ringing a bell, slowly at first, and the silence is broken. The ringing gets faster and faster as auction time approaches and interested buyers with fast as lightening fingers gather round the lots. This is the point where you have to watch what your own fingers do, and flash photography is also forbidden to ensure the quick fingered bids can be seen.

Tuna auction Tokyo

The auction about to start.

The auctioneers does a little dance, shouts unintelligible things (even to Japanese people in our green team), and all of a sudden he doffs his baseball cap and the deal is done. Here’s a little clip, it’s something to behold.

Then, another little plastic stool appears, another auctioneer jumps on top, and the process starts again in another area of the room.

At 6.15 you are shepherded out by the fish police and led back along alleyways to the entrance.

You can, if you want stay in the cafe section of the market and enjoy some sushimi. Can’t get much fresher than that. Even at 6.15am it was delicious.

Tuna auction Tokyo sushimi


If you need any more information about the tuna auction, let minnow. Here’s a link to the Fish Centre.


By Jen

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