You've probably heard about the pre-dawn tuna auctions at Tsukiji, the world's largest fish market, where scores of Tokyo restaurateurs shout out bids to buy huge, frozen fish carcasses. The freezing rooms, with high ceilings and screaming bidders all bundled up, are theatrical and worth seeing once, but unless you're in the market for 300 to 500 pounds of bluefin tuna, it's like sitting on the sidelines watching the big game.
Generations of vendors made famous in anthropologist Ted Bestor's marvelous book Tsukiji have fed millions for generations in this inner market. The fish and shellfish they sell is bought up by institutions of all kinds, from hotels and restaurants to hospitals and corporations. From about 4-7 a.m., it's seeming chaos, with one-man motorized carts zipping between stalls, shouts that are deafening to hawk the goods, and a few lucky tourists who are allowed to see the action.
All that will change in 2015, when the inner market of Tsukiji moves to a new location far from this centrally located piece of real estate. When that happens, only the outer market will remain. Over the past year, more vendors and restaurants have opened there, in the hopes of attracting both foreign and local customers who buy for single or small households.
More accessible than the inner market of Tsukiji, which frankly is no more than an abattoir, are the numerous retail food shops, tiny restaurants, and spectacular sushi and seafood joints of the outer market. It's here that you can stock up on beautiful ingredients, great cooking supplies, and have a fresh meal of first-rate sushi for under thirty dollars. As an added bonus, unlike in the inner market, where you need to show up no later than 5 a.m— and even then face the possibility of being turned away due to a limit on the number of visitors allowed in —you can meander to Tsukiji's outer market as late as 10 a.m.
"Ganbatte!" or "go for it," as they say in Japan.
Give yourself at least two hours. Its size is daunting, and few U.S. markets even come close to approaching its size. Set up in a haphazard grid of wide, parallel streets and narrower alleys, the quiet of the shopkeepers contrasts with the colorful food on display.
Start with a snack to power you through. Try a a tamagoyaki, a Japanese egg omelet shaped in a small rectangle, with a lovely sweet-savory contrast. Dozens of tamagoyaki stands dot the market.
For those who, like me, enjoy making miso soup from scratch at home, you'll find the world's finest and most varied supply of konbu (kelp) and bonita at Tsukiji's outer market. The chief reason this konbu is so special is because comes from the unpolluted waters off Hokkaido, Japan's most northern and pristine island, and is harvested and dried by hand. Each region of Hokkaido is said to imbue the kelp with distinctive terroir, and there are even konbu sommeliers who help restaurants choose what's best to use for stocks. For more on what to do with that konbu once you get it, check out Kenji's guide to making miso soup at home.
You can also buy toro (tuna belly) so perfectly shaped and dense in omega-3 fats that it looks like it is part of a display at The Museum of Modern Fish. It is expensive, but it's also so rich that four ounces will satisfy two people as long as you serve it with some vegetables and rice.
Speaking of which: Tsukiji is not just about the fish. Vendors have shops filled with goods of the season, and when I was there most recently I saw boxes of perfect matsutake mushrooms from China and British Columbia, Japanese pumpkins, and an array of small mountain vegetables. Toppings for rice (dried seaweed mixed with spices) were readily available, too, as well as pickled onions, carrots, and all sorts of greens.
You need not wait to get home to eat, and if the omelet has whet your appetite, you can pull up a chair and have a bowl of stewed beef, a plate of grilled eel, or first-rate sushi. Ten years ago, on my first trip to Japan, with chef Daniel Boulud, we ate sushi at a tiny stall in Tsukiji just after dawn, stuffing ourselves with raw tuna, cod sperm, and icy cold beer. The stall is still there, though as of about a year ago, it's in new hands, and now goes by the name Kaisen-Don Ohedo. Ownership aside, Kaisen-Don Ohedo carries on the tradition, and if you want a taste of Tsukiji on the fly, this is your place.
About the Author: Scott Haas is the author of Back of the House, a book about the psychology of being a chef and working in restaurants (Berkley/Penguin). His work appears in a variety of publications, including Wine Enthusiast, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, Sewasdee, and Gastronomica. He has a doctorate in clinical psychology and maintains an active consultative practice emphasizing diagnostic work in psychiatric hospitals and urban communities of color. He is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but can be found in Japan as often as possible.