48. Toyosu Fish Market, Tokyo (the ‘New Tsukiji’)

Toyosu market is the new Tsukiji… sort of, anyway.

Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market closed in October 2018 and was relocated to Toyosu – a man made island south-east of the old site – to free up development space ahead of the 2020 Olympics. Lots of controversy surrounded the move – not least because it was discovered that, as well as being over budget and over programme, the new site was heavily polluted with things like benzine, cyanide and arsenic… (For those interested in more details, check out: https://www.eater.com/2017/7/25/16019906/tokyo-tsukiji-toyosu-olympics-delay). However, against the odds, the new facility opened on 11th October 2018 and replaced the old market, which had always been a popular spot for tourists wanting to view the early morning tuna auctions. Tuna of up to nearly 500kg can be sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, the record being USD1.76 million!!! That’s a lot of sashimi. 

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A representation of one of the largest tuna to have been caught in Japanese waters and sold at Tsukiji market in 1986. 2.88m in length and 496kg!!

Tsukiji was hectic and bustling: forklift trucks sped around the narrow alleyways, the drivers shouting (with various degrees of politeness) to get out of the way, vendors selling their wares (you could buy direct from the stalls); you took your life in your hands as you wandered between the stalls and checked out the fish. When it was all over, you could walk a couple of hundred meters to the outer market and have sushi for breakfast among the discarded polystyrene ice packing boxes and general fish-related paraphernalia.

Toyosu is kind of the same… yet totally different. The timings are the same and you need to get there EARLY – I got the first metro at just after 5am, which got me to Toyosu around 5.45am (including the time it took me to walk when I got off at the wrong station… Note: Use Shijo-Mae station, not Toyosu…). It was already busy, so I headed straight to the auction area. You can still see the auctions, but you’re kept away from the heart of the action in an observation area on the first floor. You need to get a visitor pass (issued on a first-come, first-served basis, then it’s ‘one in, one out’, so you may have a short wait if you just miss out on one). There’s a new ground-floor viewing area opening on 15th January 2019, but for now, you’re limited to looking down on the action. Some people have been a bit derisive of the ‘lack of authenticity’ of the new facility, but the bonus of it is that you get a great view of the tuna all laid out on the floor, and you get to see the large scale hustle and bustle – there is literally always something going on to watch (also, it’s important to remember that this is a live fish auction and wholesale warehouse, rather than a tourist attraction, so let’s be honest… it’s a privilege rather than a right, that us tourists can view it in the first place). Tuna are being brought in, taken out, auctions are happening, inspections are happening etc – there is constant movement. There are also signs to explain the hand movements of the wholesalers buying the tuna, so if you’re really into it (and eagle-eyed) you can see which tuna go for which price!

A few of the restaurants from the old Tsukiji have relocated, but a lot still remain in the old outer market area. The new market has an unavoidably new feel, and it does all seem rather sanitised and slick in comparison. Which isn’t as bad as it may sound – it’s too early to be disparaging of the new facility from a tourist perspective: it’s a working market, not a tourist attraction. That said, it’s easy to forget that when it feels like you’re not really ‘in the thick of it’ like you used to be. There is plenty to see from the observation deck and, when the lower level viewing opens in January, you can get even closer to the action… You’ll even get to be at the same temperature as the auction floor (about 8 degrees Celsius)… Personally, since I can’t follow the action to too great a degree anyway, and I’d also rather be warm, the upstairs observation deck suited me just fine… The morning I was there, there was also a guy doing explanations – I’m not sure if he’s there all the time, or I just got lucky on the timing – but I felt I got more out of it listening to him than I would have done just wandering around on my own. For instance, the floors in the new market are green, so that the wholesalers (around 100 of whom are the ones authorised to buy direct from this market) can see the red flesh of the tuna (and thus the quality) better. 

I wandered through the fish market after the auction; again, there is plenty to see and wow over, and it feels slightly less hectic than the old market at Tsukiji, but to be totally honest, I didn’t spend that much time here. My priority had become eating, and the outer market area at the old site is still open… I wanted to go and explore there again and, since the sun was up by then, I walked over the wharf area and Sumida River in the morning sunrise to meet Jamie and Hugo for a sushi breakfast…. there is literally no better way to start the day than with some raw fish!!

We worked on the principle that nowhere was going to be awful, and picked the place with the friendliest person outside their restaurant, and we weren’t disappointed! The Tsukiji Sushi Sen lady was really friendly, and the sushi was really good! We went for two selections: a general one (prawn, tuna, salmon, salmon roe, scallop, tuna, and omelette) and a tuna one (fatty, belly, seared, and normal), then picked a few extras that we fancied (horse mackerel, sea urchin, and seared horse meat). We got a chawanmushi (savoury egg custard) and a prawn head miso soup to accompany.

Then it was off to explore the outer market. There’s plenty of street food, and plenty of samples. We tried less than we’d expected to, having over-indulged at breakfast, but did manage a few treats… The first – and yet hardest won of the day – was definitely a matcha green tea mochi (rice ball) stuffed with a fresh strawberry; I had to wait for three older ladies to negotiate their increasingly large orders of dried squid jerky… at one point one of them started to try the pickles that were also for sale and I considered letting my patience get the better of me…. but for once I didn’t, and managed to stick it out to get the mochi, but it definitely took longer to buy it than eat it…

A moment of silence for the mochi that triumphed over my impatience please…

There is plenty in the way of grilled fish on offer; scallops are our favourite, but eel, prawns, salmon and many others are also on every corner, as well as wagyu beef, the ubiquitous pickles and cured products, and desserts. The cool thing is that you get to see so much of it being prepared. You can see matcha being ground from green tea leaves, bonito flakes being shaved from the smoked fish fillet, oysters being shucked and grilled in front of you, and sushi rolls being made and – like the Nishiki market in Kyoto (45. Street Food Tour; Nishiki Market, Kyoto), it just adds an extra dimension to your snack.

There are also plenty of non-food items here – mainly knives, it has to be said…. And boy, do they have some knives!! One day… but not this trip. This trip, I settled for some matcha (powdered green tea) in a lovely tin!

We also stopped for a taste of sake; two different ones, in fact. A ‘raw’ one, and a ‘premium’ one. The premium one being made only with the very centre of the polished rice grain, the raw one being partially-fermented and cloudy in appearance; you could definitely taste the yeast, and I couldn’t help but compare the difference to a pilsner vs a wheat beer. And talking of beer, we also stopped to try some of the Asahi brewery’s offerings…

Anyway, the upshot of the early start was that it is still totally worth getting out of bed at a hideous hour to see the tuna auction – especially if you’ve never seen it – but equally, you should still head over to the old Tsukiji outer market for breakfast afterwards, you wont be disappointed!

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