Big in Japan: Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo’s top tourist attraction, is limiting access

No trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to Tsukiji Market (????????, Tsukiji shij?), the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. According to estimates, over 2000 tons of fish worth over US$15 million are sold here daily – that’s a total of 616,000 tons of fish worth over US$4.25 billion each year!

If it comes from the ocean, then chance are that you’ll find in at the Central Fish Market, which is literally home to acres upon acres of commercial vendors. Of course, the highlight for both foreign and domestic tourists has always been the daily tuna auctions, where hulking 600 pound behemoths can fetch prices of up to several thousand dollars per head.

If you’ve never had the privilege of watching Tsukiji’s famed tuna auction, the action commences around 5am when buyers are admitted onto the showroom floor. Here, rows upon rows of frozen tuna are meticulously poked and prodded by expert hands in search of the highest quality meat. Soon after, the scene erupts into a frenzy of calls and responses as buyers seek to outbid one another for the choicest fish.

Sadly, tourist access to this incredible scene is being restricted following increasing complaints by fish traders that tourists were distracting them from their work.

As of April 1, 2008, tourists will only be able to watch the tuna auctions from a designated area, and entry times are also being restricted from 0500 to 0615. Depending on how successful these new regulations are in curbing distractions, there is a chance that stricter regulations may be implemented in the near future.

According to Ihei Sugita, who works at the Central Fish Market, foreign visitors were taking to the habit of touching and photographing fish that came from their home countries. “At a place that auctions several hundred tunas in a day, this is affecting our business. We do feel bad to completely turn them down since they are visiting all the way from abroad, so that’s why we are keeping this window of time that will affect us the least.”

In the past, the daily tuna auctions at Tsukiji were only attracting a handful of in-the-know foreign visitors each day. However, in recent years the popularity of the event has surged, especially sincemore and more world travelers have becoming increasingly more curious as to the humble origins of their favorite sushi.

Since there is a good chance that the tuna auctions may become completely closed off in the years to come, it’s probably worth trying to catch a glimpse of this wholly unique event while you still can. If you happen to find yourself out at night in Tokyo, our recommendation is simply to party hard in Roppongi until the sun rises, and then hop a quick cab to Tsukiji. True, an impending hangover and the smell of raw fish are anything but a wise combination, but trust us – being in the middle of the auction madness is worth the risk!

** All photos were snapped by yours truly at a time when foreign visitors to Tsukiji were still permitted to get up close to the action. **