Reeled in by Tsukiji fish market

by Denise_Tench

For a backpacker arriving in Tokyo, there is nothing like a visit to Tsukiji fish market for getting to know Japanese culture. Bloody, frenetic, vast and confusing, it is an essential rite of passage

Everyone says the only time to visit Tsukiji market is 5.30am. This is when you will see the focal point of the action – the auctioning of freshly-slaughtered, eye-wateringly expensive bluefin tuna – on every market day without fail, despite this fish's endangered status.

For backpackers, travellers and tourists whose body clock does not do 5am, there is still plenty going on around seven or eight o'clock in the morning - which is when we chose to visit.

So, to bypass rush hour Tokyo, which is an unmissable, adrenalin-pumped, squashed-up experience best reserved for days when you have no pressing appointments, my travelling companion and I spent our last morning in Tokyo at Tsukiji market.

It was a sad goodbye - it's easy to become attached to Bakpak Tokyo Hostel and having stayed there three times before, the common room-cum-kitchen has never failed to throw up some memorable and amazingly fun characters from all over.

Leaving the humble but quirky hostel, we walked ten minutes through the quiet streets to Minowa Station and took the all-serving, snaking grey Hibiya Line south nine stops to Tsukiji.

Unwisely, we visited with rucksacks, out of necessity rather than choice, something I really wouldn't recommend if it can be helped.

Approaching from the main road, the market's corrugated-iron sheds seem unspectacular at first. It's hard to believe this is where 450 different kinds of fish, amounting to 2,000 tonnes a day, change hands to feed the city's 12 million residents and stock its 80,000-plus restaurants.

As we spotted the opening to the market, well-used motorised carts darted ruthlessly from every direction, meaning you really have to keep your wits about you.

We eventually managed to penetrate the intimate clusters of streets, increasingly dotted with stacks of crates - wooden, polystyrene and cardboard jetsam - lying empty, damp and pungent. As we wandered further inwards, a network of tight paths stretched out before us under one vast roof. Market stalls, vendors and a satisfying chaos occupied every inch of space. Uniform sales plots and the underlying sense of routine somehow lent it all an air of order.

Workers, mostly men, shouted to, across and over one another, some dashing and darting or gracefully negotiating their way past our inconvenient figures. Others gazed with blank expressions from behind their stalls, made up of nothing but rickety tables and mounds of boxes. 

Inside the countless containers, silver fish were layered, huddled together, faces fixed with their final gapes and glazed eyes staring at nothing. Any spare floor space was taken up with odd buckets here and there - a quick peer inside revealed large sawn-off fish heads, their cavernous necks exposing rows of bones and shiny raw throats.

Shocked crabs clambered over one another, struggling to escape as bubbles rippled through tubes into their water. Prawns danced on their sides, unknowingly adding to the bustle. A quivering slab of raw, red-eye tuna lay on a vendor's chopping block, tender, glistening and ruby-red.

Thigh-high rubber boots squeaked and shone. Stray cubes of ice whizzed and melted. A pair of decent shoes is essential for Tsukiji market - I spotted more than one flipflopped tourist with filthy feet and regretful frowns.

Razor clams, mussels, crabs, scallops, oysters and every type of crustacean imaginable lay immersed in unfamiliar water. Some were made examples of and prised open, their glistening guts exposed as an advert. The stink of fresh slaughter mixed with the icy air and the lingering smells of the days, months and years gone by.

Each time one cramped path ended, another began in every direction. Navigating Tsukiji market is like negotiating a life-sized circuit board. As we stumbled out of the close, strong air and shadows under the market's half-rainbow-shaped roof, the sharp March outdoors stunned us.

In the surrounding streets, we passed yet more crates, this time filled to bursting with grapefruit, leafy vegetables, onions and tomatoes. Tsukiji is a place characterised by the temporary - nothing stays in the same place for more than a few hours, efficiency and speed ensure every fixture is cleaned and removed by the afternoon. Yet at the same time, Tsukiji's permanence is integral to the city it nourishes. This relied-upon, daily institute provides a hub of community activity and is the artery of Tokyo's restaurant culture. 

After surviving the bustle of Tsukiji market, the custom is to sample some of the best sushi and sashimi the world has to offer in the side streets close by. Numerous small stalls and eateries offer the chance to do just this, but don’t be put off if some places seem a bit too intimate and local. In Japan, there is nothing that can't be solved by a smile and some pointing.