Staying Up All Night for the Tsukiji Fish Market

It’s 1:00 a.m. and Taylor and I are sitting inside a Denny’s in Tokyo. Now, when I think of amazing Japanese establishments where you can enjoy a meal, the American diner chain doesn’t exactly spring to mind. But you see, it’s the only place that’s open 24 hours and is within walking distance of the famed Tsukiji tuna auction.

Unless you’re staying nearby in the pricey Ginza neighborhood (which is about 100x over our budget), waiting up all night is the only way to gain entry to the auction. Trains in Tokyo stop running shortly after midnight, so if you’re not where you need to be by 12:30 a.m., you’ll either need to pay for a cab or miss out on the weird seafood-filled shenanigans.

We sip on our mediocre coffee and watch as the minute hand ticks by — only one-and-a-half more hours until we can line up to witness the fishy spectacle. By 2:30 a.m. our eyes are drooping and our hands are jittery from too much coffee, but we excitedly cross the street and expect to be some of the first people in line. Nope! Turns out we’re about the 90th and 91st people in the building, but luckily we still manage to snag the coveted blue vests that allow free admission into the auction.

Every morning the market allows 120 visitors into the auction, free of charge. People begin lining up as early as 2:00 a.m. although the action doesn’t begin until 5:30 in the morning. We clutch our vests like Charlie’s golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s factory and try not to think about how tired we are.

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Three a.m. passes, and I begin to feel delusional. Why are we here again? Are all these other people in vests also insane? Did the Tsukiji fish auction pull off the greatest tourist heist of all time by convincing us this was a good idea?!

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At 4:00 a.m., one of the market’s tuna graders comes inside to give us more background into the auction’s history. His English is polished and he jokes around with us, causing the 120 people in the room to perk up. We learn that tuna auctions are a serious business and just over 1,000 tuna are sold five days a week at the massive Tsukiji warehouse (the auction is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays). He also shares with us that the most expensive tuna ever bought at auction sold for $7,000/kg and totaled in at $1.5 million for the entire fish. Holy mackerel, is what I say to that.

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Finally, FINALLY it’s 5:30 in the morning and our group is allowed to walk through the grounds toward the auction. There are tons of people (pretty much all men, tbh) zipping around on carts and hauling styrofoam boxes full of fishy treats around.

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As we entered the auction, I realized how absurd this entire thing was. Look at this group of people, standing around like paparazzi, waiting to see dead fish!

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Although it was quite silly, we still enjoyed ourselves. The large Dutch man behind us was not so amused with our fish faces, though.

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Things started off slowly, as tuna graders walked around the warehouse with large hooks. When they inspect the meat, they assess the fishes’ shape, color, and fat content. Everyone moves quickly and quietly and nonsense is not tolerated.

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The auctioneer moved row by row through the lines of tuna and called out in Japanese for bids. The graders use hand signals instead of bidder numbers.

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And just like that the auction was over.

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We quickly filed out of the warehouse. I snapped a few pics of the men at work as the sun rose in Tokyo.

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While traveling through Japan, it’s easy to notice the societal importance that’s placed on recycling. There are 4-5 bins in every convenience store or chain restaurant that designate what type of mterial they’re for (paper, plastic, aluminum, etc).

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Nonetheless, it was pretty jarring to see the mountains of garbage outside the market that morning. The tuna has to make its way there somehow, though (half of the fish is frozen and imported from different parts of the world). Here’s to hoping it’s all disposed of properly.

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By the time we walked outside it was only 6:10 a.m. The actual Tsukiji wholesale market doesn’t begin until 10:00 a.m. Although we hadn’t slept all night, we persevered and walked around Ginza for the next four hours. Admittedly, there was more coffee consumed and a 40 minute nap taken inside a local cafe until a distressed Japanese woman wearing an apron kicked us out.

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All our shenanigans were worth it. By the time 10:00 a.m. rolled around we had a newfound spring in our step and wandered happily through aisles of seafood, produce, and crafts.

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This man was less than enthused about Tay jumping in for a picture alongside his tuna head.

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One major foodie highlight of the market was seeing all the different types of uni. From bright orange to chestnut colored, there were a multitude of uni types available that vary in flavor, too. We ended up eating some and it was so decadent and delicious that it was reminiscent of ocean flavored ice cream.

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After staying awake all night and seeing all this savory seafood up close, we decided to treat ourselves to a satisfying sushi breakfast. When in Japan…

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Here’s the nigiri sampler I ordered that would make a baby angel cry tears of sweet unbridled joy.

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Finally, we couldn’t go to the most famous place to buy tuna in the world without buying some otoro. Otoro is the piece of tuna belly that’s highest in fat content, making it the most lip-smacking, tender cut of fish available. These bad boys were better than a premium cut of filet mignon — no lie.

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By 1:00 p.m. I thought I was going to fall asleep standing up. We headed back to our Couchsurfing host’s house on the train and immediately fell asleep for about three hours before heading back out to explore Tokyo. The Tsukiji fish auction was interesting to witness, but I think one fishy all nighter is probably enough to last me a lifetime.

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