A Taste of Tokyo: The Tsjukiji Fish Market
Words & images by Deborah Loeb Bohren
When I travel somewhere new, I like to immerse myself in the local cuisine to get my bearings. My preference is for small, out-of-the-way places without a tourist in sight. But in cities like Tokyo — with over 13 million residents, 1,000 train stations, and a myriad of unique neighborhoods each a small city in itself — finding “local” can be a challenge, especially for the first-time visitor. Enter the Tsukiji Fish Market: full of charm and chock full of stalls, shops and restaurants. It offers “one-stop shopping” for a crash course in Japanese cuisine and culture.
Created in 1923, Tsukiji’s roots as a market at that location go back another 300 hundred years to Japan’s Edo Period when enterprising villagers set up shops catering to the needs of the ruling shogun. Over the subsequent four centuries, the market has taken many shapes and forms. Today’s incarnation is lively, bustling, crowded, frenetic, and most importantly, fun.
Covering several square blocks, the main thoroughfares are laid out in an easy to navigate grid. Connected by meandering alleys that give new meaning to the word narrow, you can be sure that whichever way you turn you are guaranteed a unique culinary experience. With 400+ opportunities to eat and shop, discover purveyors of everything from seaweed, seafood and shellfish to iconic Wagyu beef, and from tea and sake to specialized fish knives, decorative chopstick sets and handmade pottery — along with anything else that is directly or remotely related to food. Tsukiji may be a pescatarian’s paradise but there is definitely something for everyone.
The food is served up in a myriad of ways including just caught seafood, meat or vegetables to cook at home and freshly prepared bites or plates to feast on right there. Peppered throughout Tsukiji you also will find tiny counters — with or without stools in front of an open kitchen — each serving up their own specialty across the full range of traditional Japanese cookery. There are restaurants with doors, tables and waiters too, so whatever your eating style, you will be able to satisfy it here.
I decided to eschew traditional restaurants and simply eat my way through the market. Some of my favorite tastes included a seriously crisp, piping hot croquette bursting with umami flavor that was stuffed with fish, chicken, pork and shrimp and topped with bonita flakes. I got hooked on tamagoyaki — a Japanese-style sweet omelet folded into a unique rectangular shape and served (at least here) on a popsicle stick. I devoured skewers of grilled scallops, squid, eel and shrimp; some freshly grilled tuna steak; steamed black pig dumplings; matcha and the special seasonal-only cherry blossom ice cream; and mochi — traditional Japanese sweet cakes made with rice flour and filled with classic red bean paste.
To quench my thirst I alternated between freshly brewed pour-over coffee (there seems to be a serious coffee culture happening in Tokyo), local saki and beer. The food at Tsukiji is also kind to the travel budget: at least to this New Yorker, the food throughout the market was surprisingly affordable.
I was surprised to discover that walking while eating — so common in most of the world —is frowned upon in Japan, even at a food market like Tsukiji. It is considered bad manners to eat and walk at the same time because it implies you are not giving the food the respect it is due. So be prepared to juggle your food and drink standing in front of a shop, against an adjacent wall or stack of market crates. Then again, that’s all part of the experience.
Every foodie should make at least one pilgrimage to Tsukiji (I made two). It’s open from 5:00 AM until 2:00 PM, Monday through Saturday and easily accessible by train from both the Tokyo Station and Shinjuku stations. My advice would be to arrive by about nine or 10 o’clock to give yourself time to get your bearings, build up an appetite, and indulge before the lines get too long.
Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York. Go to http://www.travelinglensphoto.com/ for info about her online photo workshops.