Tokyo: Two markets and a park: Tsukiji, Ameyoko and touches of Ueno

The Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market , widely known as Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場, Tsukiji Shijō), is a favorite attraction to foreign visitors of the Japanese capital. The market, which is among the largest  of its kind in the world, handles the distribution of fish, meat, produce and flowers in Metropolitan Tokyo. It is mostly popular, however, for its wholesale fish and seafood operations, and more precisely the famed ‘tuna auctions’. The uncanny interest of the public exists primarily because of the genuineness of the experience; the auctions are not a theater made for tourists, they are tense, emotional and are, above all, the setting for REAL business.

The first session starts at 5:25am,  giving a competitive advantage to those jetlagged tourists whose biological clock has awaken them no later than 3am and to a handful others with a fascination towards fishy business. It may not sound like a ton of people fit in those criteria, but the auction’s external spectators are limited to 120 per day (admitted in two shifts of 60), and my research of recent forum posts and websites related to Tsukiji, unanimously indicated that the ‘first come, first serve’ spots are quickly gone shortly after 5am. In fact, the tuna auctions have been so popular  that there were several occasions in the past years when the they had been banned to the public for month-long periods of time. That’s why, before you go, it is always best to check with Tsukiji’s website for the most current status on their accessibility.

Below is another map I borrowed from japan-guide.com, which well illustrates the areas within Tsukiji:Those who cannot make the cut to the tuna auctions are free to roam in the outer market with retail shops and sushi restaurants which cater to the public starting as early as 5am. The inner market consists of numerous stands in a large, crowded hall  with buyers and sellers incessantly moving along the narrow lanes with their carts and trucks. This area is buzzing with activity until 8am but only lets visitors in after 9am when business usually has wound down. This is done to minimize the stream of busybodies into the place, who can interfere with the activities of the professionals working there. During my research, however, I came across the website of an undercover Tsukiji market guide, who essentially claimed that there are no physical restriction to those willing to visit the inner market before 9am, as long as you follow a few general rules.

Before our trip, I spent a full day reading about Tsukiji. My ‘Trip Planner’ excel workbook was full of detail pertaining to the tuna auctions, as well as the other aspects of the market. I was getting excited; it was going to be, without a doubt, the highlight of my trip to Tokyo. Now, 3am is generally closer to my bedtime than  to my waking hour, but I quickly calculated jetlag would make things easier on me. I keep on referring to ‘me’ rather than ‘us’, because Hubs and Miss Z. were never meant to share in the experience. First because strollers (and babies for that matter) are a ‘no-no’ in the key areas of the market, and second, because jet-lag or not, Miss Z. needed to work on her beauty sleep during the hours before sunrise. Hubs did not object to keeping her company.

After such extensive planning what happened instead is rather unculminational. On that Monday, when I was supposed to visit Tsukiji, I woke up at 3am after four hours of sleep and sat at the edge of the bed with an enthusiasm level of ‘low’. I pondered…

…public transportation was non-operational at this hour. I needed to get a taxi. From Shinjuku to Tsukiji, we were talking about 4000yen (about 50USD), was Tsukiji really worth it?

…and what if I still didn’t make it on time for the tuna auctions? Registration began at 5am, but what if there was a line of  people already there (quite possible according to what I read) and I still didn’t get in?

…and what if I did get in, but was not allowed to use my camera? The information I found on the web was inconclusive; some claimed only flash photography was prohibited, others said any picture-taking was discouraged, and even prohibited.

Such heavy thoughts so early in the morning, not good for the soul… In the end, I chose my pillow and reunited with the bed for another four hours of sleep. At 9ish in the morning, armed with newfound enthusiasm, I headed out to Tsukiji. While the market is most easily accessed directly from Shinjuku by the Oedo Subway Line, I felt more comfortable using the Yamanote Line train and getting off Shimbashi for a 15 min stroll to Tsukiji (you can see the market on the map here).The area around Shimbashi looked very different from our visit from Sunday night – it streets were conquered by office workers; it was ‘men in a white shirt’ galore.I walked through the Tsukiji’s main gate at about 10:30am (I bet no-one has ever written an article about Tsukiji after 10am). I quickly passed through what looked like a tunnel along a covered area, where a mix of seasonal fruit and vegetables, kitchen utensils and kitchenware, beans, spices, meat, knives and others were displayed for purchase. But I took no interest as I was looking for ‘the fish’… the big ones that were being cut by some serious fishmongers using meter-long knives. I walked around. No fish in sight, big or small. The guide books were correct – by 11am the wholesale area of Tsukiji had finished its business for the day.   Some workers on carts were still tending to final errands though. They were zipping back and forth with a speed, much higher than what I would consider ‘safe’. Online articles forewarned that carts had the ‘right of way’ in Tsukiji and I diligently followed their advice of sticking to pedestrian areas. I did try to snap a couple of photos; my lens mostly met with indifference, with an occasional wink.It’s been said that no visit to Tsukiji is complete without trying out one of the sushi restaurants inside the market. While all are believed to have the advantage of buying the freshest fish directly from the wholesale section nearby, some restaurants are better than others. Sushi Dai and Daiwa- Zushi were the names of a couple of places which I had come across over and over while researching Tsukiji. I didn’t need help finding them, as there was a long lines of visitors outside their doorsteps. Unfortunately, there was no option of getting sushi ‘to go’ and the line I was standing on was moving slow because each group of people needed to be sat down and served. Just as I was wondering how long of a wait I was looking at, I realized the menu had sashimi pictures only.I asked for sushi and the hostess told me the restaurant next door served sushi. There was no line there, hooray! I walked into the tiny place with bar-like seating for 8 people or so and took the last empty stool. I was given an English menu, complete with pictures of the different sushi pieces offered here and I chose their most expansive set – 13 different pieces with two kinds of fatty tuna for over 3000yen (40USD). Oh, I have no words to describe the heavenly fresh texture of each piece on my wooden tray, it was so good, it literally melted in my mouth. Not only my taste buds were in heaven, my senses were in heaven too. And, don’t get me wrong, having lived in the sushi-rich New York City area for many years, I know the taste of great sushi. Tsukiji’s sushi goes beyond that. I remembered to snap a photo of my meal only when I ate half of it. So I apologize for the messy tray. What’s left on is a piece of egg omelette (yellow), shrimp (orange), eel (brownish), sea urchin (seaweed wrapped), sea bass (white), salmon (silverish), as well as two pieces of fatty tuna. You would notice that the tuna pieces have a much different look than the bright red version served in the US. The ‘pale-red’ tuna is tuna meat with higher content of fat; the higher the fat content, the higher (and more expensive) grade of sushi it is.

When I walked out of this place, I felt genuinely sorry for Hubs not being able to share into my gluttonous Tsukiji experience. After my visit to the market, I headed back to the hotel, where the rest of the family were awaiting my return.

This afternoon we were going to visit Ueno, one of Tokyo’s large parks, located right across from JR’s Ueno Station. I expected to see a version of Manhattan’s Central park, but I found out there was no resemblance. Granted, we didn’t spend much time walking around, and visited none of the park’s multiple temples, shrines and museums, but I though Ueno was rather uninspiring. My impression was only fortified by a number of homeless people who had found a refuge in the park; there were entire areas with ‘settlings’ of  ‘huts’ made of nylon and cardboard. I saw nothing that would make me take out my camera, so I have no pictures to show, except for the couple below, which I took in the area of Shinobazu Pond at the southern end of the park.Bentendo is an octagonal temple dedicated to Benten, the goddess of good fortune, wealth, music and knowledge. The lotuses of the Shinobazu Pond, fully grown in summer, covered the entire surface of the water, hiding it almost completely. The water, where you could see it, was boiling with fish.

A very short distance from Ueno’s southern exit is Ameyoko arcade, a stretch of street, lined with open-air stalls along the Yamanote Line tracks between Okachimachi and Ueno Stations. Ameyoko is one of Tokyo’s few open air bazaars.This was the intersection right outside the park with a large game center across the street. I noticed game centers were quite popular in Tokyo.

A further walk to the right of the building led us into a tiny street which quickly flowed into Ameyoko arcade. As expected, lots and lots of people trickling through the narrow street, some were legitimate shoppers and others, like ourselves, were merely browsing the selection of goodies sold. Various products were on display – from clothes, bags, cosmetics to fresh sushi-grade fish, dried food and spices. Fancy some dried jelly-fish? Now you know where to get some.

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1 comment
  1. zhen said:

    Kato vidia sushi ili sushena riba i mi potichat ligite i kak strashno zavidiax za tozi restorant:) Chudno mi e kak si gi zapomnila vsichkite zavurtiani imena na gradove, ulici i mesta, neshto mi e zor da gi procheta.

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