tuna auction at tokyo’s tsukiji market

the past, the present and something about the future

two freshly sold tuna prepared to be moved to the buyer’s transport

two freshly sold tuna prepared to be moved to the buyer’s transport

Once branded as the single, most important, fish auction in the world, the morning tuna auction at Tsukiji market at the Tokyo docks is certainly absolutely amazing. True, it is hard to get into, it is very regimented and highly controlled, it is not very conducive to photography but it is an absolutely must-do for any adventurous traveller and certainly for any photographer. With all the trickiness involved in visiting the auction, it is surprisingly easy to get to - if you don’t mind skipping some sleep, sitting on the floor and, well, walking through a wet and freezing seafood market. But let me explain:

first of all, some history:

The Tsukiji market is the main seafood market in Tokyo and the largest wholesale seafood market in the world, and one of its main features - and a massive tourist attraction - is the daily tuna auction where some of the most expensive tuna in the world is sold. Restaurants from as far as New York and LA contract buyers in Tokyo to source their sushi tuna from there, often paying up to 20,000 USD per fish!

The market was established as far back as the Edo period to provide food for the imperial castle in Tokyo, but was essentially given its structure in the early 1900s when the government intervened to regulate the provision, sourcing and selling of food stuffs across Japan, following the Rice Riots of 1918. The market in its today form was established in 1923 - so it’s almost 100 years old and still operating as in day 1 (even after its relocation to its current spot following the destruction of the original site in the earthquake which struck it the very first year of its operation (talk about bad omen ey?)

The market is separated into two main areas: the inner market (containing the auction area and over 900 sellers selling anything from rare crabs, all kinds of fish and shellfish and any manner of crustaceans you can think of) and the outer market containing restaurants, utensil shops and other food-related items, including vegetables (even though those are actually located outside the main fenced market area).

so, what happens today?

And now we come to today and what is involved in a visit. First things first: timing. There are two auctions every morning, one at 6:00 and another at 6:30 (but please, check these timings as things may change) and visitors are allowed on the auction floor in both of them. It is the manner in which these visits are organised however where the complexity lies. Because while visitors are indeed allowed (and for free as well!), only 120 of them (60 on each group) are allowed each day, no exceptions. And visitors are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning if you show up late(r) you simply be turned away and will have to repeat the task the following day (if you are so brave!) You see, the doors to the visitor centre open around 3 or 3:30am (yes, that’s in the morning!) and most nights, visitors are already lining the sidewalk waiting to be allowed in. Sounds crazy? Maybe, but hey, for anyone wanting to see the action, this is what needs to be done. By 4:30 almost all 120 slots are filled (I’m sure some days this happens earlier if a large group shows up - in our visit there was a group of around 20 or so Italians!) and the waiting begins.

each tuna has its tail end defrosted enough to cut a cross-section slice and, in addition to that, another, thinner slice is cut along the rear 20cm of the body to show the meat density, the thickness of the fat layers and the colour of the fish. all these are used by the buyers can judge the quality of the tuna.

each tuna has its tail end defrosted enough to cut a cross-section slice and, in addition to that, another, thinner slice is cut along the rear 20cm of the body to show the meat density, the thickness of the fat layers and the colour of the fish. all these are used by the buyers can judge the quality of the tuna.

Visitors are grouped into two large groups and shown into the waiting area where there are no seats! Nothing! This means you get to sit on the, admittedly spotless, floor among everyone else to spend the next 90’ or so (depending on when you arrived) waiting. There is nothing to do that you have not brought with you (a book, video, whatever) but, of course, you may be lucky and end up sitting next to interesting people and chat for a while. Still, 90’ or whatever is a long time to wait sitting on the floor, so please, be prepared for this. About 20’ before the first auction a worker who speaks English will actually come in, welcome you and explain the process, what you are and not allowed to do, the protocol you’re supposed to follow. You can ask any question you may want there and then, as there will be no opportunity to do so after you leave the waiting room! At the end of the briefing, each group is given a different coloured vest (if I remember well, it’s blue and red) and once everyone has their vest on (and yes, this is Japan, so everyone means everyone!) and then, at 10’ before the first auction is due to begin, the first group is quietly led through the chaos of the market (please, be sure to stay close to your guide and heed his every advice as the route between the visitor and the auction areas is actually quite dangerous (there are forklifts and other mechanised vehicles criss-crossing the area at great speeds - please remember that this is a working market and people still need to perform their tasks, so don’t get in their way!)

To the photographers among you, a few words of caution and advice: first, try to be among the first people behind the guide. As you will be herded into the auction area, the people at the front will be in the best possible position to capture the best images. Second, during your walk you will see about a thousand things you’d like to stop and shoot - trust me, you will! Don’t stop as nobody will wait for you and you will miss the main event. If you have your camera ready and see if you can capture something very quickly - I got two of my favourite shots while walking to the auction hall - but be ready for some of the quickest framing and focusing of your life!

Once through the doors of the auction floor, you will be lined up against a thick rope placed on the floor, running the length of the floor, from the back all the way to the front where the auctioneer stands and where all the sample tuna is laid for display and examination. Normally you are only allowed to stand side by side, only one deep, but, if you followed my advice above, you will be in prime place and, let me tell you, a lot of the other visitors may try and squeeze past the guards and push through you to get to your spot (whether you choose to let them or not, is up to you, but when a very rude Italian tried to push me to get some pictures, I was not as polite! After all, you only get 15’ to experience everything and, let me tell you, every moment counts! But for now, lets assume you’re in the prime place I advised you to be earlier and you have an excellent view of the area! Before you you will see four things: a long row of frozen tuna, each with a thin slice at their tail cut open for inspection (read more on that below), the small area where the auctioneer will stand (with his assistants) for the 4-5 short minutes the actual auction lasts, the area, on the other side of the row of tuna where all the bidders and their specialist representatives stand and, finally, the packing and weighing area, just behind the auctioneer. From your spot, you will have about 8-10’ to take as many images as you want, with no restriction, but you cannot move from your spot. However, you actually don’t need to as you will literally be within a couple of meters from the action, so fire away.

A few photography-related tips:

buyers as well as market staff make careful notes on the quality of the fish as well as other buyers’ potential interest before the actual auction begins

buyers as well as market staff make careful notes on the quality of the fish as well as other buyers’ potential interest before the actual auction begins

  • while it will appear there is sufficient light in the auction area, you will need your ISO raised relatively high to enable you to shoot clear images. Most of my images were shot at 3200!

  • you will want to shoot multiple fast frames. Both the auction itself and the preceding review of the tuna happens quite quickly with people moving pretty much all the time, so you won’t have the luxury of slow shutter speeds. Any image I shot at 1/60 or below turned out massively motion-blurred.

  • the white balance is completely insane in the auction area. There are fluorescent and incandescent lights above, most of the workers wear white and as they move from one area to another, the white balance of your shot will change almost constantly. So please, shoot RAW and adjust it later depending on how it came out - don’t worry, you will have sufficient white targets to pick from!

  • the floor will be wet and cold - very cold. Remember, this is a place filled with flash frozen tuna, so be prepared to be chilly. But please consider bending low or even kneeling down (you might want to bring a plastic bag you can place at the floor, but most likely it will be soaked very quickly - it’s up to you) as a lot of good images are to be found from that angle. Unfortunately this was not possible in my case as there was more than 3cm of water around my feet and chunks of ice, so kneeling was out of the question!

  • you will not be allowed to take tripods with you, so please don’t even bother. Monopods as well.

Once the auction begins things are over within a couple of minutes - depending, of course, on how high quality the tuna is. In our case it was all over in less than 2’ and, according to our guide, more than 400,000 USD worth of tuna changed hands in those 120 seconds! There is nothing visually interesting in the auction moments themselves, so put the camera down and enjoy the moment - maybe shoot a video! At the end of the auction you will be ushered quickly outside (herded actually), past the storage areas, past the support pens etc and to the main market area. The advice I gave you earlier on trying to shoot while you’re walking still holds here, but this time you can possibly take a few seconds and venture away from the group to shoot at something which might catch your eye.

the seafood market area

The market area! Now, there is no nice way to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it: while you were inside the waiting room and the auction area, this was the time when the market was in full swing! Which means, you guessed it, that you actually missed it! You missed the traders dealing in all sorts of exotic fish, shellfish, oysters and pretty much everything seafood-related. Unfortunately, there is no way around it. Visitors are only allowed to the market area from 7am onwards, AFTER the main trading has been all but completed, anyway, so you would not have been able to visit it anyway, but what hurts even more is seeing it after the actual trading is done - you feel like a latecomer to a wonderful party!

Still, as you are now completely free to roam around, please, please do it! You will see the areas where they prepare some of the tuna (obviously not the top rated quality just sold, but excellent samples anyway), the people who are shaving away the flesh from the bones, separating the heads from other, fresher fish, and preparing it for the various shops dealing with these parts and so on - the list goes on and on. True, not much will be happening at this stage, but it’s a walk worth taking (I spent more than 45’ at the market and I was the only one from our group who went there) and it was well worth it!

the restaurants

And finally, we come to the sushi restaurants and bars! They are lined along the far end of the market, separated by a row or warehouses and loading bays (so, again, please be careful crossing the area). Most of the people in both groups end up at the restaurants for a well deserved meal anyway, so be prepared for a little wait. Oh, and in case you’re thinking: sushi? At 7am? Well, think about it: you’ve been up most likely since 3am and it’s now well past 7, so you are hungry. And even if you’re not actually famished, trust me, the sushi at the Tsukiji market is amazing - possibly some of the best I’ve ever had!

There are, of course, all types os sushi places - more western-targeted ones (with tables, etc.) and more traditional, very narrow ones with a bar-and-stools arrangement with the sushi chef behind it preparing all sorts of amazing goodies, so choose whatever suits your tastes and preferences. We went for a really small, traditional one, which seemed to have a long(ish) queue - true, we had to wait for around 30’, but let me tell you, it was absolutely worth it! We ordered one of the more expensive combo offerings and it was absolutely delicious! And yes, it as more than enough for two people. By the way, the queue of people was there about 45’ later when we finished, so you don’t actually have to rush, but at the same time, I don’t know what time those places shut (someone said 9am, but I cannot confirm that), so please ask around.

the auctioneers run the auction in a speed very difficult to follow, communicating with the buyers AND sellers with tiny, almost imperceptible, gestures (as opposed to shouts). the auction is finished in less than 2’

the auctioneers run the auction in a speed very difficult to follow, communicating with the buyers AND sellers with tiny, almost imperceptible, gestures (as opposed to shouts). the auction is finished in less than 2’

After your breakfast you can walk around the small shops surrounding the sushi places - there are some very interesting places to see, from a traditional Japanese knife maker, to a bamboo utensils maker, wholesalers of pretty much everything food and restaurant-related, selling all those amazing Japanese utensils you always envied at restaurants but were usually to expensive to buy. Well, be prepared as the prices here are very low and everything is both well-made and absolutely authentic! Unfortunately for me, I already owned pretty much everything I could have wanted (from previous trips and markets across the world) but if I didn’t, I don’t doubt I would have walked away with a carton full of stuff!

what does the future hold?

When I was there it was supposed to be the last year the market would be hosted at the Tsukiji area. There were plans by the city of Tokyo to move the market (and the auction) to a new area deep within the harbour where access to the fishing fleet, loading and transport facilities would be easier and more modern. This however was delayed until later in 2018 for environmental concerns and while a new deadline has been given for the end of 2018, I don’t know when the move will be completed and how this will impact access to visitors. Don’t get me wrong, from what I was able to find out the new market is completed already, with dedicated viewing areas, much bigger auction areas etc., but this is Japan we’re talking about and things will get done when they should get done - never before and never half-way!

I don’t know how things will change as a result of the move - I am certain a lot of the old-world charm will be lost as a result. Some of the images and press-releases I’ve seen on the new market include brand-new, pristine and almost clinical auction areas, elevated observation areas for tourists with thick, double-layered glass separating them from the auction area and offering them warmth and other smaller creature comforts, brand new restaurant areas with viewing windows to the storage and other areas etc. - I don’t know if this will also include the ability to venture closer to the action or not, but whatever it ends up being, I know it will simply not be the same. (at the same time, photographically speaking, judging from the images available on the new market and auction area, the lighting is going to be 10 times better and, since visitors will be restricted to the viewing area, maybe tripods and monopods will be allowed.

So, if you’re planning to venture to the market anytime in 2018 or beyond, please check online (a good source is www.japan-guide.com, not only for this but for all things related to your visit to Japan!) and plan carefully. And even if the market itself has indeed moved to the new location - by all means, go! - I would still advise you to also visit the old market. It’s not only the seafood area that’s interesting (and old, very traditional and covered with that amazing patina of actual use!), but also the surrounding outer market. Personally, next time I visit Japan (which should be just after the 2020 Olympics - I’m staying away from any country hosting the Olympics at Olympics time!) I will make a point of revisiting the market, wherever it is much as I dread it - you see, we are human and our hearts and minds cannot but compare the old with the new and constantly search for improvements or lack thereof, and I’m afraid that in Japan, with their penchant for modernisation, that old world charm the market had will be gone and it will leave a gap. But hey, this is the world and we have to follow it along!