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Tsukiji Fish Market「東京築地市場」: Tuna Auction「マグロ初競り」

frozen tuna auction tsukiji

Anyone said sushi? Tsukiji is where everything starts.
Para ver en español, pulsa AQUI (o en la bandera española arriba a la derecha)

Welcome to Tsukiji, the largest fish market of the World.

The history of Tsukiji goes back quite far in the past.

In 1657, Edo (Old Tokyo) was devastated by the Great Fire of Meireki. So the ruling Tokugawa shogunate decided to fill in the coastal area of Edo. Using advanced civil engineering, the land was reclaimed from the Tokyo Bay and named Tsuki-ji (築地), which literally means "constructed land".  This area was quiet with only shrines and samurai homes. 

Then, in 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed much of central Tokyo, including the Nihombashi Fish Market. The fish market was then relocated to the Tsukiji District and began its operations in 1935, making Tsukiji a prosperous and bustling town. 

Since Japan's economic boom in the 1980s, people all over the world became keen on sushi. Consequently, the place where the best sushi chefs gather to hunt the best raw material, turned into a sightseeing spot for visitors from all over the world. 

Tsukiji will be moving to Toyosu (near Tsukushima) in 2016, so there may only be 2 years left for visitors to have the opportunity to see the major event: The Tuna Auction.

If you are coming, planning to come and would like to know more about how to do it, this post is for you. If you are not, but still want to know how is it, this post is for you, too.

Let me take a step back, remind the rules for all the visitors in Tsukiji Market in a very Japanese way - with manga, at the entrance.

tsukiji fish market rules manga

tsukiji fish market rules manga

tsukiji fish market rules manga

Visitor Guide
It is possible for anyone (not drunk) to visit the Tuna Auction in Tsukiji.
Yes, it is 100% free. Just need to:
1. Check the calendar to confirm that the market is open (closes Sundays and another weekday)
2. Be there by 4:00AM. You can either go out in Roppongi and take a taxi from there, sleep at a hotel in Shiodome (like Conrad, Villa Fontaine, Royal park Shiodome) or cheap manga cafe nearby or take a taxi from your hotel e.g. from Ebisu, it was 2500円)
3. Come to the main entrance [MAP] and find the waiting room for the "maguro auction"
4. They will give you a vest and that's your ticket to get in.

Why so early?
There are two sets of 60 people who are allowed to watch the action; the first group is allowed to watch the auction between 5:25am and 5:45am, the second group is allowed to watch the auction between 5:50am and 6:10am.

To be in one of those two sets of 60 people (120 people total), you need to arrive more than an hour ahead of time. They have two different color vests to differentiate between the groups. If there are still spots available, they will give you one of the vests. As soon as they run out of vests, you are out of luck.

The taxi driver didn't tell us that the waiting room was right by the main entrance, so we walked all the way to the auction area, realized it was wrong, asked and made our way back. It was 4:30. The 1st group was full, the 2nd half-full. Saturday mornings are probably the busiest day. Please take into account that April-May (with Sakura and Golden Week) may be very busy too. 

For us working in Tokyo, weekends are resting time. Recover sleep hours, exercise. That's why I dot look that happy at all.

queue for tuna auction in tsukiji fish market tokyo

What happens inside?
After the long wait, security guards will escort you to the auction area. Where all the action is. Frozen tuna are laid all over the huge room, with numbers written on them to make it easy for the bidders to know what they are bidding for. Everything (bell and little platform) is ready for the Tsukiji personnel to start the auction.

Even though we all heard about the huge price reached by the tuna sold in the first auction of 2014  (700000円 per kg - roughly 5000€/kg) [REF], Tuna is not so expensive in Japan. The first auction of the year has a special meaning and it is a honor to win it so the prices per kg are always higher than the usual average (2500円 per kg - roughly 15€/kg) (see here the evolution of the most expensive tuna kg of the year [REF] [REF]).

Contrary to what one would assume, fresh bluefin tuna does not only come by boat. It arrives at Narita airport every day, from all over the world. They are carefully packed in crates and unloaded onto palettes often less than 24 hours after being caught. It has to be very fresh. That is why the fish you see are frozen, carried in custom-made wooden boxes called "coffins" all the way here.

tuna for sale

Fish ready, bell ready, can we start?

tuna auction bell

Except for the echo from other ongoing auctions (as you can see in the  [MAP] the auction area is HUGE and the visitors are only let stand in a really tiny space for a limited time), the action goes in pure silence. Sushi chefs go around inspecting the tuna, using their eyes, their fingers plus a multifunctional hook, used to pinch the skin (hence the tiny little hooks you see in the tail of the fishes) as well as to drag the won fish later on.  

tuna auction atmosphere

inspect tuna quality hook

Bidding can only be done by licensed participants. These bidders include intermediate wholesalers (nakaoroshi gyōsha) who operate stalls in the marketplace and other licensed buyers who are agents for restaurants, food processing companies, and large retailers. While competing with each other, the atmosphere is quite relaxed.

subasta de atun tsukiji tokyo

Those selecting have a lot more pressure.

inspeccionando el atún en tsukiji

Even some slices of meat are presented in a separate table, so they can fully appreciate the quality.

tuna meat samples in tsukiji fish market

checking, checking...

tuna texture inspection

...something wrong with the tuna on the far right.  It is banned「禁止」because of scratches in the tuna「魚体キズつけ」? I have serious trouble with the first 2 kanji that explain "the reason for the scratches".

frozen tuna auction tsukiji

tuna inspection tsukiji

Everyone ready, let's start!!

tuna auction bell

The guy climbs up, shakes his bell to call attention and starts shouting tuna numbers along with prices. People use their fingers to bid. Name is written on the cap. No talk. It goes fast. 

Then is just time to use the hook, carry the tuna out and free up space for a new auction to start in the row just behind. Welcome to the largest fish market in the world. The tuna auction (of the most loved fish by the Japanese is impressively efficient, yet rooted on the tradition (no mechanic platforms, no electronic bidding bullshit). 

It is fascinating to me, because of my telecom background. We talk so much. About 5G. New solutions, new applications, integrated devices, the networked society. Boats, connected cars, machine-to-machine. While many perceive Japan as a futuristic place, in my view is quite the opposite. They are more keen on preserving traditions than many other countries (perceived as much less advanced, but more willing to change e.g. India). I still wonder: If ain't broken, why fix it?

The guys use the tiny hooks to carry the huge frozen fish. Each of these pacific bluefin tunas is a 200kg predator of small schooling squids and fishes, as we saw in Polynesian waters.

sold tuna tsukiji fish market

carrying tuna with hook tsukiji fish market

carrying tuna with hook tsukiji fish market

New auction starts, the process is repeated.

tuna auction starts

names on cap tuna auction

sold tuna at tsukiji fish market

sold tuna at tsukiji fish market

Eventually, people come with their basic carts. Place the fishes on them. Move away from the auction area. Because as we say in Spanish "está todo el pescado vendido". We are kicked out from there too.

tuna cart tsukiji

But managed to get a glimpse of the cutting area, even though we are told to "not take pictures" and to "not stop" by the security guards who scort us. After this mechanic saw, they use a maguro-bocho 「マグロ包丁」or very long knife for tuna. Not a weapon, but has been used by yakuza as such ;)

tuna saw tsukiji

The fish is ready to be shipped and so are we.

tsukiji fish delivery

Restaurants are way too busy already at this moment (seems that the auction is not popular among locals, but the breakfast is) so we head to Tokyo Station, to warm up at Starbucks before our next stop... Skytree.

tamagoyaki tsukiji

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