Into the Belly of the Beast: Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market

Jet lag is a cruel mistress, so even though Tony & I had been awake for something verging on 28 hours by the time we had checked into our hostel and settled into our bed, we only managed to get approximately 3.5 hours of sleep before we found ourselves wide awake.

Although we were certain we would sleep like the dead, it was definitely anything but a restful night’s sleep. Because of cost issues here in Tokyo, we opted to get beds in a 6-person dorm. This kind of communal sleeping arrangement is one I haven’t experienced since 2005 (and Tony has never done any kind of hostel living before), so both of us were really unaccustomed to and acutely aware that we were trying to sleep while surrounded by strangers. It was hard to let our guard down and initially relax, and to make matters worse, when we had drifted off into an uneasy sleep, a new roommate arrived at 3:30 am and loudly announced his presence, both in words & by turning on the very bright overhead light which startled us both awake. It was a rude awakening and we were never really able to get over it, so about an hour later, we decided that instead of lying in bed trying to sleep, we might as well slake our curiosity and excitement and start our first full day in Japan! And not to worry, we did so very quietly so as not to wake our fellow dormmates (we may be hostel newbies, but we do have some common sense!).

None of you will be surprised to hear that I had drafted up a rough itinerary for what to do on each of the three days while we are here in Tokyo, but given that we were rising with the sun, we decided the very best thing we could do was to throw the itinerary out the window and head to Tsukiji fish market and grab ourselves a sushi breakfast! Eating the freshest sushi in the world at the market was probably the thing we were both most excited to experience while in Tokyo, so we figured that our early start was the universe’s way of telling us not to delay and to start our trip off on the right foot. If eating raw fish (and sundry other aquatic lifeforms) for breakfast isn’t jumping into Japan with both feet then we don’t know what is!

To get to Tsukiji meant we needed to navigate the Tokyo subway system. Initially looking at the swath and swirls of colors on the map, you feel as though you are looking at a slightly more structured version of a 21st century Jackson Pollack painting. With two different operators manning the various lines and the abundance of Japanese characters, it’s daunting to say the least. However, as overwhelming as it seems at first, it is actually fairly easy to figure out and very user friendly. We have come to learn that the city of Tokyo definitely wants to do right by its tourists and the subway is no exception. If Tony & I can successfully make it to our intended destination on our first try after the travel day we had the day previously, anyone can do it!

The scene of our sushi breakfast. (Anyone out there who can read Japanese, we would love to know the name of this place!)

Successfully alighting at Tsukiji station, we found the correct exit gate and made our way up to the street. As an aside, exit gates are critical in Tokyo! Do not just take any exit willynilly! Take the time to find one of the maps that lists the various nearby tourist attractions and the optimal exit to take in order to reach that destination; some of the stations have upward of 40 exits, so taking the wrong one could really put you at a disadvantage when it comes to finding your intended destination. That was clearly what had happened to the bewildered foreigner we encountered as we exited the station, so we agreed to band together and make our way to the market. Safety in numbers and all that…

It’s little wonder that our newfound friend Javier had found himself in quite the pickle because for as easy as the subway is to navigate in Tokyo, the streets are a whole different issue. Namely, they are very rarely marked with names, so even with a map in hand, navigating is really more an exercise in guesswork than anything else. That said, we did make it to the market (following the various Japanese wearing rubber galoshes and carrying large baskets was a good tactic). Despite the early hour, we were actually latecomers when it comes to Tsukiji. We had actually missed the times when the tuna auctions are open to a limited number of tourists, but were still there too early to actually enter the market, as the actual wet market where the wheeling and dealing (and chopping and hacking) is done is not open to tourists until 9:00. Thankfully there is a small area adjacent to the market that is filled with tiny shops and many restaurants, which seemed like a perfect place to bide our time AND fill our bellies because by this point we were STARVING. We happened to stumble upon the line for the crowd-favorite, Sushi Dai, which seemed like a happy accident since this was the place we had been wanting to eat at. But after waiting for 30 minutes only to find that the wait would be another 2 hours at least, we decided to cut bait and find a new place to dine. We love sushi a lot, but we won’t kid ourselves by suggesting that we’re huge connoisseurs or anything like that, so we figured that anything in the area would be fresher and better than anything we had previously experienced. After peeking into a few shops, we found one that offered fixed price sushi meals that seemed to be quite popular with other Japanese diners, so following the cardinal rule of dining in foreign places (eat where the locals eat!), we entered the restaurant.

Now, I have already said that we were SUPER EXCITED for this meal, and having read so many raves about sushi in Japan in general and at the fish market specifically, to say that we had sky-high expectations is probably an understatement. So is it any surprise that given our (likely unrealistic) expectations, Tony and I found ourselves a little bit underwhelmed by the meal we had? Don’t get me wrong: it certainly was not bad, not by any stretch of the imagination! In fact it was all generally very good, and we did get to have some “sushi firsts” we had been waiting for a very long time to have, specifically uni (sea urchin) & toro (fatty tuna). The uni was MUCH better than the iteration I had experienced in Naples, Florida (hardly surprising… and also why I still considered myself to have never really tried uni before), but the toro was disappointing. I had expected it to be buttery and unctuous, but it was very firm (and even had a piece of chewy connective tissue in it!) and if I’m completely honest, it didn’t have tons of flavor. Personally, the highlight of the meal was probably the tamago (egg) sushi, which was had a pronounced sweetness that is definitely lacking in the U.S. & Canada. In any other situation, we would be hard-pressed to find fault with the meal, but our expectations being what they were, we walked away mildly disappointed. I wanted life-changing sushi; sushi that the heavens (or the seas!) would part for, and this wasn’t that. Apart from our ridiculous expectations, we think several other factors could have combined to result in our relatively lackluster experience:

Left: Sushi Omikase Set; Right: Chef’s Selection
  1. As Tony rightly points out, just because locals are eating somewhere, that isn’t proof that the restaurant is any good. I mean, if you came to the U.S., you would probably assume that Taco Bell and McDonald’s are where it’s at… so maybe we picked a place that was good but not great.
  2. Tony and I may legitimately have sucky sushi palates and even if we had been dining at Jiro’s sushi joint itself, we may not have the tastebuds required to tell phenomenal sushi from average sushi. I mean, when it comes to wine, Tony and I can’t tell a $9 bottle from a $50 one, so the same may be true for sushi as well.
  3. Maybe we have just been really lucky and have eaten some really excellent sushi while in the U.S.

In the end, we paid 6100Y for our sushi breakfast experience at Tsukiji. We ordered one chef’s recommendation plate (10 pieces of sushi, 2500Y) and one special omakase set (12 pieces of sushi, 3600Y). Both meals came with green tea and a bowl of miso soup. While it did sting a bit to pay over $70USD for a meal we didn’t love, those prices are pretty much fixed in the market area, and you’d be hard-pressed to eat for any cheaper if this is something you want to do. We had always planned for this to be a relative splurge in our budget, but we still had a bit of sticker shock, perhaps because the meal hadn’t lived up to the hype. It’s not an experience we are sad we had—if we hadn’t done it, we always would have wondered!—but it’s not one we feel we need to have again. It also will not be the last time we have sushi in Japan, but we plan to do so in a much more budget-friendly way in the future. And yes, hopefully this experience will teach us to try to keep our expectations in check, because it is rare that reality lives up to what we build in our own minds when we let our imagination run wild!

Inside the belly of the beast: Tsukiji Fish Market

Having fueled up, we were now ready to see the place where the ingredients for our meal had been purchased. I wish I could say that Tsukiji itself managed overcome our ambivalent introduction to Japan, but unfortunately it only heightened the mixed feelings we were experiencing. There is no denying that Tsukiji is a sight to behold, a real force to be reckoned with. Nor can I argue that I didn’t appreciate being able to witness a completely unvarnished slice of authentic Japanese life occurring before my very eyes; Tsukiji is a working market that operates despite tourism rather than because of it. And I think therein lies the crux of our discomfort at being there: it is a place of business where countless Japanese are toiling at their livelihood and given the sheer volume of people and products, no matter how conscientious you are, how hard you attempt to remain inconspicuous, the fact is that you will be in someone’s way. As cool as it was to marvel at the sights, sounds & smells, we HATED feeling like we were possibly impeding the stall owners’ ability to conduct their business. As tourists cannot purchase anything from the stalls (nor do we pay anything to visit the market), the vendors do not benefit in the slightest from having us there. Without question, by being there, we are nuisances. While we wandered around the restaurant district prior to entering Tsukiji proper, we saw an ad for a book that referred to Tsukiji as an “involuntary tourist destination”. At first I thought this might have been one of those funny “lost in translation” moments, but having stepped into the market myself, I think that phrase pretty much gets at the heart of the matter.

Like the sushi breakfast, visiting the market isn’t something that either Tony or I regret having done, nor is it our intention to dissuade you from visiting. It really was an interesting place and offered a glimpse into a part of Japan that you likely won’t get anywhere else. However, I think it’s important to try our best to be responsible tourists, and in all the reading I had done on Tsukiji, never once did I read anyone speak about it as anything more than a fun attraction. Guidebooks encourage people to visit and I understand the appeal, but please be mindful when you visit, not just about your actions (obviously, don’t touch or lick(!) any of the merchandise!) but about the amount of time you spend there. Also, as we would later discover, there are actually tons of markets in Tokyo, many that rival the vibrancy of Tsukiji, but are definitely more tourist friendly, so in the end, we don’t feel that Tsukiji needs to be the be-all end-all of your Tokyo market tourism. For Tony & myself, having a “cool” experience at the expense of people just trying to do their jobs is not worth it, so we were in and out in under 30 minutes.

So, within a few hours of exploring Tokyo, we were unsettled and overwhelmed… and it wasn’t even noon yet! Stay tuned for our next post, in which we talk about the rest of our day… After this rocky start, things can only improve, right?

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25 comments Leave a comment

  1. Laura

    So I remember minimal hiragana but I think the sign says ‘wakame’? Which means seaweed. Hmmm…don’t quote me on this. Hopefully one of your blog readers actually knows Japanese.

    Too bad Tsukiji didn’t live up to your expectations. There was never an ‘opening’ time before so I guess that’s new. I know they had closed it to tourists a while back unless you were on an actual tour. When I was there most employees were friendly and the tuna slicing guys were even hamming it up for the camera!

    Was your restaurant really close to the market? I ate at one that was a few streets away (closer ones were too busy) and it was fabulous! Also, yours seems a bit on the expensive side. Maybe because you were really close to the market? Or maybe the cost has just gone up in the last 5 years.

    Oh well, check out the other end of the sushi spectrum and try kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi!) where you can stack your plates and then feed them into a slot to find out how much your meal cost (it’ll be less than your meal above)! Also, any place where sushi and cake travel by in front of you is good in my books.

    One last thing – did you actually see someone lick something in the market??? Or was that something you read about in a guidebook? gross.

    Glad to hear you arrived safely. Can’t wait to read the next instalment! Oyasumi! (g’night!)

    Aug. 11 2012 @ 10:26 pm
    1. Laura

      I think that Tsukiji has changed a lot in the past few years – in addition to the opening time thing, they apparently will no longer allow tour groups to come to the market at all and explicitly say that groups of 3+ people are not allowed to come in! And the “licking” thing was in reference to the fact that a while back they shut down the tuna auctions to tourists because apparently tourists could not refrain from touching the tuna and one actually did lick a tuna…So. Gross.

      Yes, our restaurant was really close the market (stone’s throw away) and was in the area that was open to tourists when the rest of the market wasn’t so, it’s possible it was a tourist trap of some kind. But to be fair, we wandered the streets in that district quite a bit and the pricing was on par with everywhere else, so in that respect, I think the price was fine. I mean, obviously sushi right near the market is more $$$ than elsewhere, but I suppose you’re paying for the atmosphere/location to some extent!

      And we will absolutely check out conveyer belt sushi! Honestly, anything where I can just point and/or take what I want sounds right up my alley at this point in time… 😉

      Aug. 12 2012 @ 7:32 am
  2. That’s a real shame to hear. Some of the sushi I had over there was amazing, but it wasnt anywhere near as extoritionate as yours. I found that anywhere near tourist attractions produced the most expensive but underwhelming meals.

    When I was in Japan, the market was one of the few things in my guide I missed. I wasn’t too sorry to be fair because there are so many other incredible things to see, but it does prove to visit with as little expectation to avoid underwhelming.

    Anyway, onwards and upwards they say!

    Aug. 12 2012 @ 4:37 am
    1. Marco Fiori author

      Don’t worry, we have not given up on sushi yet! We love it and are determined to give it a fair trial in Japan! And yes, the fact that Tsukiji is now considered a major tourist attraction probably has something to do with diminishing quality in the area! The key is that we need to keep an open-mind but not let our expectations inflate too high!

      Aug. 12 2012 @ 7:34 am
  3. I’ve been waiting to hear your account of the fish market – and you wasted no time! I’ve been on the fence as to whether going would be a good idea or not and we’re definitely leaning towards the ‘not’ after reading this. I don’t like the idea of jacked up tourist prices and I really don’t like the idea of feeling in the way. Not to mention trying to get Jason up and out at that time of day is difficult! I think, like you say, there are plenty of other markets to visit that may not have the size and fame of Tsukiji but that would be interesting and much more relaxed. Can’t wait to hear about the rest of your day!

    Aug. 12 2012 @ 10:06 am
    1. Gillian @OneGiantStep author

      I think that if you just walked a little farther away from the market, it wouldn’t be too hard to find sushi at a slightly more reasonable price (even if you wanted to splurge a bit). In our next post, we mention a little market area right near Tsukiji (not 5 minutes away), where there were plenty of restaurants and I believe we saw several places that did sushi. I do think, though, that so long as you are in the vicinity, the prices there will be somewhat inflated. But as you will see, we saw and did a lot of other things in Tokyo that didn’t give us mixed feelings, so if Tsukiji wasn’t originally at the top of your sightseeing list for Tokyo, I wouldn’t bump it up there, personally.

      As for getting Jason up early, you never know what jetlag might do! Tony & I were both having a hard time getting out of bed prior to 11 am before we landed in Japan and now we are up by 6:30 am every day!

      Aug. 14 2012 @ 3:58 am
  4. I love reading your travelogue posts! (although the first picture kind of grosses me out! LOL) And licking the tuna… um… That was too bad about what happened to you all at the hostel, but I still admire you for giving it a go. I think I would sacrifice almost any other purchase to have money to stay in a private place!

    Aug. 12 2012 @ 12:10 pm
    1. rhapsodyinbooks author

      For us, we always want to save our money for food, so we are willing to sacrifice in other areas! It’s a shame that when you are in a dorm that one bad apple can ruin the experience, but we did also meet a really nice, fun guy from Ireland (who was similarly disgruntled by some of our other roommates lack of manners), so it certainly wasn’t all bad! Will definitely be nice to have a private room in a few days time, though! 🙂

      Aug. 14 2012 @ 4:00 am
  5. Yay for an update! I appreciate the unvarnished version of events. Interesting fact about the market. I feel like that in markets in France sometimes; it’s not quite the same thing but most people are there to get in and out with their daily produce and I’m just there to take in the atmosphere and maybe buy some strawberries. 🙂 Hope that the report on the rest of your day will include the news that you got some decent rest. That will probably make a difference too.

    Aug. 12 2012 @ 1:08 pm
    1. trisha author

      Sometimes I worry that my take on things might be a bit snarky/grumpy, but I figure I’ve gotta keep it real! No point lying about something just for the sake of appearances…

      And yes, the first few days were certainly a bit rocky emotionally speaking because of jetlag, I am sure. You will have to wait to see, but things do get better! 🙂

      Aug. 14 2012 @ 4:02 am
  6. Super Excited to see your first day of RTW Post! And what a GREAT destination to be in – but WOW – that $70 breakfast sure would sting! But I adored the sushi in Japan, it was an experience I will NEVER forget. Also – that hostel problem – invest in two eye masks, it will cost you $5, but it means that you will NEVER be woken by the lights around you. The noise – thats another problem, but atleast the eye mask protects you from the lights on busses, trains, planes, and hostels!! Can’t wait to see what else you get up to in Japan!

    Aug. 12 2012 @ 4:31 pm
    1. Chrystal McKay author

      We will definitely have sushi again… just not $70 sushi! 😉

      And I actually did purchase an eyemask prior to the trip… I’m just still in the disheveled/disorganized phase and keep forgetting the stuff I need until it’s too late! Thankfully I’m a pretty heavy sleeper once I’m asleep so noise generally isn’t an issue for me, but I may have to give the earplugs that came with my mask to Tony because he is more finicky about that stuff!

      Aug. 14 2012 @ 4:04 am
  7. I love your analyse of your sushi disappointment, and I’ll be curious to know if, whenever you eat more sushi, you’ll enjoy the experience more! Could it also be that, maybe, the usual sushi in the US (or Canada) is different in some way from the one in Japan?

    I do hope you managed to get more rest later – without the horrible waking up to the light and noises of another roommate!

    Aug. 12 2012 @ 10:20 pm
    1. kay @ Infiniteshelf author

      I definitely think that there is a difference in the way sushi is approached in Japan vs. North America. Namely, it seems like on our side of the pond, sushi rolls are really elaborate and filled with punchy flavors, whereas I think the Japanese take on it is a lot more subtle and “pure”. Could be that Tony and I just don’t have enough experience with that style of sushi to appreciate the subtle nuances to the flavor.

      Aug. 14 2012 @ 4:08 am
  8. You made it! Sorry, I’m behind, on vacation these last two weeks, marked everything read in GR, but I’m glad to see I didn’t miss much of your posts! An interesting experience for your first morning. I’ve generally had good hostel experiences, but every once in awhile, there’s one like you mentioned, which is no fun! I hope future nights are better! And future sushi!

    Aug. 13 2012 @ 11:23 am
    1. Amanda author

      We have been having a hard time updating the blog becuase we have been SO BUSY, but I have been taking notes and we will get posts up!

      And I was a bit disappointed with this hostel experience, mostly because it made me feel old! I felt so cranky about how inconsiderate some of our dormmates were, but that’s really just the luck of the draw. We did wind up meeting a really nice guy in our dorm who we had some good chats with, so it certainly wasn’t all bad. I have hope that we’ll get better roommates in the future!

      Aug. 14 2012 @ 4:10 am
  9. Being a vegetarian, I happily skipped this. Interesting to learn about your dorm experience.

    Aug. 13 2012 @ 10:36 pm
    1. Arti author

      Yes, I can definitely see how this would hold no appeal to a vegetarian! 🙂

      Aug. 14 2012 @ 4:11 am
  10. I worked near Tsukiji one day a week when I lived in Tokyo an I found a little sushi place that had only one counter, with no seats, but they only charged 70 yen per piece of excellent sushi. I have no idea what it was called though, so I’m pretty much useless for advice, but I think if you look around the area a bit, you can find other, similar places. Basically, you’ll save a lot of money (and probably get better food) if you avoid the places in the fish market that are clearly meant for tourists. All the people who work at the market eat somewhere and they definitely do not pay $70 for a meal.

    Aug. 14 2012 @ 5:01 am
    1. Daniel McBane author

      I definitely know the rule of thumb about avoiding restaurants that are closely clustered near tourist traps, but for some reason, I never considered that this might extend to Tsukiji! We’re no longer in Tokyo, but I will keep your price of 70Y in mind for when we search out a la carte sushi throughout the rest of Japan!

      Aug. 14 2012 @ 6:33 am
  11. I adore Japan’s transportation and food. Hit a revolving sushi restaurant YES! It’s so much cheaper than that $70, OUCH! If there’s something you want and you don’t see it on the conveyor belt, yell the fish (in Japanese) to the chef. He’ll usually prepare it for you on the fly. My favorite was scallop or hotate. It was never on the belt but I’d always have it very quickly when I half shouted it to the sushi chef. If you make it to Osaka you must try the tacoyaki or octopus balls, YUM!

    Aug. 14 2012 @ 7:06 pm
    1. EarthDrifter author

      I have had scallop nigiri back in the States and it was delightful, so I will definitely try to find some here in Japan (and thanks for the actual Japanese word!).
      And we will be in Osaka and do plan to hit up takoyaki while there!

      Aug. 16 2012 @ 12:08 am

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