Turning Japanese Again, Tsukiji Market

Why had I gone to Shinagawa to kill time? Simply put, it was far enough away from Tsukiji that walking alone would eat up some time, but not so far that I would be exhausted by the time I got to my destination. I had originally thought Shibuya, but a quick glance at a map ruled it out immediately.

To add to my time getting to Tsukiji, I also planned to walk to Tokyo Tower for some night photographs. Beyond that, I was making up everything as I went. That wasn’t too hard, considering I didn’t really know where I was going. I wasn’t looking at a map, I was just using my sense of direction (usually very reliable) and certain landmarks to know where I was.

It’s almost creepy to think that I’ve been in Tokyo long enough (this year and last) that I know actual landmarks.

The streets of downtown Tokyo are rather interesting at night. Despite what movies have shown, the majority of Tokyo is quiet. Areas such as Shibuya will be raucous most of the night, but areas like the one I was walking through are surprisingly desolate. Aside from bursts of traffic, 24 hour convenience stores, drunk people either stumbling down the road or urinating in planters, and the odd bicyclist, the streets are very serene. There is a strange, almost zen-like quality about Tokyo at night.

I found Tokyo Tower rather easily. (I stopped along the way only once, at a 7-11 to get a Coke and a salmon onigiri to keep my energy up.) Not by looking at a map, but because it’s very easy to see at a distance. The lights stay on all night, so make for an ideal photography subject. I know this because I wasn’t the only one taking pictures of it. It’s wonderful to observe not only at a distance but also close-up. It would be even nicer to go directly underneath, as you can with the Eiffel Tower (which Tokyo Tower is modelled after), but someone decided to put a rather large building right underneath the tower, ruining a chance of that.

Tokyo Tower at night, Japan, 9 April 2004

Leaving three drunk Japanese men taking strange photos of themselves in front of the tower with a keitai, I continued my walk to Tsukiji.

Quite poorly, I might add.

Not really thinking about which direction I’d been going in (I cut through Shibya Park, pausing to take photos at the shrine in the dark), I ended up accidentally doubling back on part of my route. I cursed myself when I realized that I’d done. But at least I’d still had a good walk and used more time.

I found my way back to the World Trade Center Building, and continued down to Hama-Rikyu Gardens, which is wedged between Hammamatsucho and Tsukiji. I walked along the north side of Hama-Rikyu, trying to avoid the plethora of construction that seemed to run every few hundred metres. I can only assume Tokyo runs their road construction crews at night as not to interfere with traffic during the day.

Construction crews in Tokyo, and probably over the parts of Japan that we saw, are models of people-use. There are always two to three people (almost always men — I only ever saw one woman on the crews) who direct pedestrians. One at either end of the construction zone, and one in the middle, if the zone is quite long. There’s usually at least one foreman, and a number of workers, depending on what’s happening. All wear safety vests (those near vehicular traffic have vests with blinking lights) and hardhats.

The roads leading into Tsukiji were already lined with trucks, delivering produce, waiting to pick up produce, or in the process of being loaded. (The market is so busy and overloaded that the roads immediately next to the market are filled with loading equipment in the wee hours of the morning.)

Inside the market, the level of activity was far beyond anything I’d ever expected. Beehives aren’t this busy. Forklifts carry large flats of crates, smaller three-wheeled carts whizz around (often haphazardly) with all manners of cargo. I really had to watch where I was going as not to be hit by anything.

That’s the first rule when visiting Tsukiji market: Your presence is tolerated, though not necessarily welcome. Reality: This is a place of business, no different than your office building or construction site. These people aren’t a Disney show, this is the real thing. If you go there, you stay out of their way. Those who bring Tsukiji to life do not have the time for mindless tourists who want to get in the way because they are tourists. Imagine if they got in the way of you trying to do your job…

Despite the activity, the market was only just starting to come to life. Most of the vendors hadn’t yet arrived, and the buyers would be behind them. Already, however, tuna was beginning to be laid out for the auction. The frozen tuna, each weighing a couple hundred pounds or more, were dumped unceremoniously on the floor, almost as one would dump a cord of wood. Frozen completely stiff, you had to look hard to realize that this was fish, and not something else.

Tuna ready for auction, Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, Japan, 9 April 2004

The pre-packaged area was already well underway, the massive stacks of styrofoam containers being arranged and rearranged, full of almost every conceivable (and edible) seafood, ready to be sent to stores for sale. These were mostly uninteresting to me. I was more for the tuna auction, and the live (or recently alive, but not processed) produce.

I wandered around until almost 4:00, at which point the sheer insanity of the whizzing carts and constant dodging of people finally sent me out of the market in search of a bit of rest. A nearby Lawson’s provided a quick snack and a Coke for a much-needed caffeine burst.

The bustle outside Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, Japan, 9 April 2004

In the scant half-hour that I was gone, most of the fishmongers had arrived and were in operation. Live fish were being sorted and crated, cut and filleted, and packaged for shipping. Ice vendors were chewing up huge blocks (at nearly CDN$27 per block, from what I could tell), and the fresh tuna was laid out for inspection. Also arrived were tourists, bussed in for the auction.

I felt oddly superior. I had been there since earlier that morning, had stayed up late so I could experience this. The rest came with tour groups. Most blatantly ignored the signs that forebade entry into the auction warehouses without permission (it was quite easy to see through the door).

On the auction floor, the fish had been prepared for inspection. The frozen tuna had portions cut open so buyers could inspect for quality. The fresh tuna had slices cut off the end for inspection, and the tails (previously cut off, but kept) were available to check the quality of the meat.

Inside the massive rooms were hundreds of people: buyers, sellers, and what I can only assume were the officials that kept the whole thing running. Buyers were easy to spot — they wear hats with blue cards that denote who they are buying for. I don’t believe the tuna purchased at Tsukiji is destined for canning, I think most is destined for processing of some kind — especially the fresh tuna (much of that is bought for sushi restaurants). Admittedly, though, I’m not really sure where it all goes. Other than it goes very quickly.

The auctions begin at 5:20 in almost all the four warehouses (three frozen, one fresh). Tuna is on the ground floor, and I gather other kinds are bought and sold in rooms above. The tuna auctions are fast. One of the sellers rings a bell (most sellers have a unique bell ring) that signifies selling is about to being. Those buyers wishing to engage in the sale all come over, and the fish are sold individually, and very rapidly. A single sale might take five seconds or less. Larger fish fetch high prices (one massive beast was hungrily viewed by five or six business men, dressed in their finest).

Frozen tuna, Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, Japan, 9 April 2004

Unfortunately, tourists here tend to get in the way. Once sales are complete, carts immediately appear to whisk the tuna away. (Frozen tuna is often carted to one of the fishmonger stalls, many of which are equipped with bandsaws for the sole purpose of cutting up tuna.) One particular putz was oblivious to the work going on around him, while talking on this cellphone. I wanted to go over and smack him, because one of the fishmongers was almost yelling at him to get out of the way.


Auctions over, I wandered around the market, now in full swing. Fish of almost every variety was in sight, much of it still alive. I watched in amazement, becaue I knew that all of it would be gone within six hours. That kind of efficiency in a place so small is unknown in North America. Tsukiji is huge, make no mistake, but it could easily be twice the size to handle all the needs. That’s what fascinates me so much about it — unique in the world for the role it fulfills, and few people ever really think about what it does for life in Japan.

Tsukiji Market, Tokyo, Japan, 9 April 2004

I found my way to the sushi restaurant Chris and I had gone to last year for a bit of breakfast. Although you can get good sushi no matter where you are in Tsukiji (including a couple of 24 hour sushi sens in the Outer Market), this particular place I rather liked. Not only were the staff very kind and pleasant, I really liked the green tea and especially the miso soup.

And not knowing Japanese isn’t a problem. They know enough English to offer you a set (definitely the best way to get it), and tell you the price. (They’ll also tell you which pieces don’t need soy sauce.) Although small for what I’ve been known to eat for sushi, it was exactly what I needed to have for a meal.

With that, I bade Tsukiji farewell, and headed towards Tokyo station. It was still early, so I wasn’t going to head back to Yotsukaido right away. First, I thought I’d kill some time at the Imperial Palace, specifically the East Gardens.

I hadn’t planned to go to the main gate with the double-bridge. But the light from the rising sun and the relative clarity of the skies (Japan seems to be hugged with perpetual smog, no matter where you go), that I couldn’t pass up a few photos of things I had taken pictures of last year.

Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan, 9 April 2004

As I wandered around to the gate for the East Gardens, I realized that it was Friday. The Gardens, sadly, are closed on Mondays and Fridays, meaning that I would have to wait until the next time I come to Japan to see them. One day, perhaps.

With that, I returned to the station and boarded a train for Chiba. I fell asleep even before the train had left the underground portion of the line. Switching to a local train in Chiba, I almost didn’t wake up in time for Yotsukaido. I didn’t take a bus back to the apartment, deciding to save some yen and walk the way back. It gave me my third wind.

Chris was awake when I got to the apartment. We talked a bit about the things I’d seen and done. Kaz soon came out and the three of us chatted. Kaz made rice and miso soup for breakfast. I could hardly pass up the chance to eat a little more. The activity of the day so far had taken a lot out o me. Finally, Jen woke up and proceeded to shower. Chris tortured me with a taped episode of the live-action Sailor Moon TV show. It you thought the animated version was bad, check out the live action one.

I pray it never comes to North America.

Shortly afterwards, I went to bed. It was just after noon, and I really needed some sleep. I set my alarm and dropped off…

…awaking to a loud clatter of doors, bags, and voices. At first, I had no idea where I was. For a brief moment, I wasn’t even sure who I was. But it came back very quickly, like a wave rolling onto the shore. Jen and Kaz were returning from what sounded like shopping. But it was already dark outside … I’d only planned to sleep for a couple of hours.

I’d slept for over five.

We were going to Chiba that night, to dinner with friends. I showered to prepare. I told Kaz to tell Chris we’d meet him at the station for 20:00 (you have to do that with him). We caught a bus, met up with Chris, and the four of us headed to Chiba.

Shinichiro had called ahead and reserved a table for six at the couches upstairs. Although a bit warm up there, it was more comfortable for eating and chatting. We were quite early, though, and would have to wait for Shinichiro and Riku to arrive. That gave us time to order some drinks, have an appetizer or two, and chat.

Soon, all six of us had assembled, and we were in full chatting and eating modes. Laughter, jokes, and a few English and Japanese lessons flew around. Naome joined us about an hour later, and the seven of us cajoled until well after midnight.

I had only barely known Shinichiro before Chris’ wedding, having met him the first night I was in Japan. Now, he was a friend, as much as Kaz or Naome had become. People I would be more than happen to open my home to, should they decide to ever visit Canada. I will miss them.

We returned by taxi, and I went right to bed. Long nap or not, I needed rest.