Japanese Food & Cuisine: Tsukiji Tuna Auction Tour and Sushi Workshop
Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo 築地市場 東京
The last train of the Yamanote Loop Line got me to Yurakucho Station at 1am. It was very quiet in that usually so busy Tokyo downtown area at that time of night and the further east I walked on Harumi Dori, crossing the famous Ginza shopping district and passing by the grand Kabuki-za theater, the more quiet the night became.
All shops had closed long before and it would still take a few hours till the morning garbage trucks would arrive.
At the intersection with Shin Ohashi Dori, first signs of life began to appear again. An all-night ramen shop and a 24 hour Jonathan's family restaurant had their lights brightly up.
Crossing that intersection, I entered the Tsukiji area. White cooler trucks were parked along the street, their license plates indicating that they had come from far flung places like Wakayama, Mie or Kagoshima.
Peeking through the bushes planted along the sidewalk, I could get a first glance into the gates of the Tsukiji Market. Under glaring neon lights, forklift drivers were busy moving about huge loads of Styrofoam boxes.
Just before the impressive Kachidoki steel bridge leading over the Sumida River, I turned to the right. This was the Kachidoki entrance to the market and here was the Fish Information Center. Trucks rushed into the market, one after another. Two foreigners leaned over the guardrail in front of the building. Looking at the nightly scenery, hours of waiting in store.
I just made sure that I had correctly scouted out the Fish Information Center building and headed back to the Jonathan's Restaurant and their "Drink Bar". Pay once, have endless refills from their self-service coffee machines. Strong Guatemala coffee was the special of the day. I knew that I would need a couple of cups of powerful coffee just like that - I had signed up for quite a program for the remainder of the night and way past noon.
Tsukiji Tuna Auction Tour and Sushi Workshop
In September 2014, young Tokyo entrepreneur Tsubasa Kaieda had started a tour business aiming at giving foreign visitors not only the full experience of the Tsukiji Fish Market but also to introduce them to the traditional ways of sushi making in a hands-on sushi making workshop.
Kaieda had teamed up with two sushi masters active at the market for more than a decade, ready to fill the visitors in on the secrets of all the elaborate processes that lead to that perfect sushi on the plate.
Meeting of the Tuna Auction Tour
In fact, Kaieda offers two separate tours. The Tuna Auction Tour and later in the morning the Sushi Workshop. But to get an even so slight impression of the workings of the Tsukiji Market and then the actual sushi making, you would need to participate in both tours.
At 3am I was back at the Fish Information Center. Behind the two lonely foreigners who had waited there already when I got to the Fish Center a bit more than an hour before, a veritable line of visitors had formed.
Various signs spelled out that a maximum of 120 visitors would be allowed into the market each morning and they that had to enter in two groups of 60 people each. Once the 120 people mark had been met, the entrance would be closed. No surprise then that visitors who really wanted to experience the early hours at the market arrived already shortly after 1am to just make sure they got in.
Tsubasa Kaieda knew the proceedings well and was thus a bit more relaxed about it. He had set 3:30am as the meeting time for his tour group. Early enough, but just in time. The tour group assembled in front of the Fish Information Center than headed inside lead by Kaieda. With Kaieda came Hirobumi Morita, one of the two sushi chefs he worked with.
Everyone was handed a vest. No visitor would be allowed inside the market without wearing such a vest. The early folk had received yellow vests and were the first to see the tuna auction. We were handed blue vests, marking us as participants in the second batch of visitors to the auction. The tour of the second batch of visitors would be so much better, Kaieda assured us.
The waiting started. The first group of visitors would be able to enter the market at 5:20am, we would follow at 5:50am .
The Fish Information Center wasn't much of an information center. Basically it was a hall were the waiting visitors settled down on the floor, a few standard posters with fish and their names on the wall.
Kaieda's tour group this morning was rather small. In fact, we were only four tour participants: a mother & daughter couple from Hawaii, a young guy from Singapore and me. All of them had travelled to the Tsukiji Market by taxi from their Tokyo hotels. Unlike me, they could have a few hours of sleep before arriving at the meeting point.
To pass the waiting time, Kaieda told us about the history of the Tsukiji Fish Market and explained the procedures awaiting us. I discussed Japanese fish with Morita, the sushi chef, in Japanese as he didn't speak English. He seemed to have had every conceivable fish living in Japanese waters already under his knife.
Tsukiji Market in 2005
I thought back to my first visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market in 2005. The whole market was open to everyone back then. Everyone was permitted to explore even the furthest corners. It was great, sure. But the tuna auctions (both fresh and frozen tuna) were already then a great tourist draw. Foreigners with large video cameras on their shoulders wandered about, standing in the way of the busy Tsukiji workers, unable to understand a word when being told to step aside.
In the late 2000's, the tourist masses went out of control. Basic rules like not touching the products were disregarded, the market merchants filed complaint after complaint reporting disruptive tourists who obstructed their work.
In 2008, the whole market was closed to all visitors for about a year, a ban that after briefly being lifted, was quickly re-introduced.
The authorities realized however what an important tourist magnet the Tsukiji Fish Market had become over the years and that closing the market seriously hurt the Tokyo tourist trade.
Thus the current system was introduced. Only 120 visitors maximum are allowed per morning, divided in to two groups, with only certain areas of the market open to them. It seems to work well that way - though it also means that one has to wait for a long time at the Fish Information Center to gain a spot. A little before 4:00am the last visitor was admitted. Everyone arriving later was sent away.
The Tuna Auction Tour
The waiting time passed quickly and eventually we were told by the market guards to get up and head for the door. Kaieda urged us to be extra careful of the silently speeding electric market delivery cars. Their drivers think only about making their deliveries in the shortest time possible and expect everyone else to get out of the way quickly.
A team of uniformed market guards led the whole blue vest group towards the one section of the frozen tuna auction open to the public. We passed by a few gates and got a fleeting peek of other tuna auctions on the way.
In "our" auction hall, the visitor area was roped off. We all got a good view but there was no walking into the area of the tuna buyers.
Rows after rows of frozen tuna were laid out on wooden boards on the floor. Their tail-end was cut open to allow a close inspection of the meat quality of every single tuna on display. The buyers, wholesale merchants from Tsukiji's Inner Market, as Kaieda explained, carried flashlights and large metal hooks, and took a close look at every fish.
Then, the auctioneer arrived. According to Kaieda, the whole market has only 12 licensed auctioneers. They are highly trained and communicate with the buyers in a sort of traditional shorthand that's impossible to grasp for the casual visitor.
Standing atop a small wooden podium, the auctioneer quickly shouts out numbers in a nearly incomprehensible sing-sang (similar to, say, the auctioneers at cattle markets in the American Midwest), the buyers just make hand-signs to indicate that they are willing to bid, another hand sign marks a deal made.
Row after row is quickly worked over by the auctioneers. Occasionally a bidding war breaks out between parties interested in a certain fish. It leads to much shouting and gesticulating on the part of the auctioneer till a final deal is settled. It sure looks like great theater to outsiders but it's cut-throat business involving millions of yen for the people involved.
The auction over, the visitors were guarded back to the Fish Information Center and we had to return our vests. For the casual visitor that meant the end of the morning's excitement inside the market.
Not for our small tour group. Sushi chef Morita, dressed in full sushi chef gear, charged ahead and took us into the Inner Market. That part of the market is open to tourists after 9:00am but we were there at about 6:30am.
Morita and Kaieda had their ways to get us past the guards and to show us the inner workings of the market: the huge band saws on which the frozen tuna are cut (terribly dangerous looking contraptions), the many outlets selling almost every sea creature imaginable. Morita was very busy on the tour giving high-fives to all sorts of merchants and electric car delivery drivers. He seemed to be a very well-known and well-respected person in the market.
Eventually, we went over to the Outer Market, the part of the market that is open to visitors all the time. It was crowded with tourists and local buyers alike, hunting for rare Hokkaido seaweed varieties, original Mito Natto and other specialties not found in the typical Tokyo supermarket.
At 7:30am, the Tuna Auction Tour drew to a close. As interesting as it was, it seemed only a prelude to the Tsukiji Sushi Workshop.
The Hawaiian mother & daughter couple had booked both tours, the Singaporean only the Tuna Auction tour. He liked it enough, though, to say that he would think about joining the Sushi Workshop as well.
In the Outer Market, one sushi restaurant was lined up after another. The more famous ones have queues outside with people waiting for two hours or more to finally get served.
Kaieda told us that the actual market people don't eat seafood in the morning. They work with seafood all the time. They slice it, they sell it, they transport it, all their working life is centered on fresh seafood. They don't want to eat it - at least not in the morning on a daily basis.
Thus, there are many restaurants in the Outer Market serving the meals the actual Tsukiji workers crave: ramen, udon and soba noodles, quick Chinese rice dishes. Kaieda, the Hawaiians and I went to a typical old-fashioned roadside soba noodle shop. They served great noodles for a low price but we had to eat standing at a makeshift table right on the curb. It was delicious nonetheless - and it was breakfast in traditional Tsukiji market worker style.
The Sushi Workshop - Shopping for Fresh Fish
Three more people had signed up for the actual Sushi Workshop. Two guys from Malaysia and a lady from Florida. Kaieda and I went to meet them in front of Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple, the Indian-style temple serving the Tsukiji area.
The Singaporean who had been part of the Tuna Auction Tour had by now thought things over and joined the Sushi Workshop as well.
It was 8:30am and, led by Morita, we all headed quickly back to the Inner Market. It was still closed to general visitors and the strict market guards made sure tourists didn't enter. We were allowed in.
Which fish we would be using to make our sushi later in the workshop had still not been decided. According to Kaieda, that depended on the best offers on each respective morning. It depended on the season, the catch brought in, the freshness of the product.
Morita knew, of course, which fish was best in which season and he knew exactly were to head inside the Inner Market. He was working with a few sellers and that's where he took us.
At the first stop, kazuo (skipjack tuna / bonito) was on offer. Kazuo is usually served tataki style, slightly fried on the edges. Only in high season is raw kazuo served as sashimi. Almost never on sushi, though.
The kazuo available here looked perfect for our purposes. Morita pointed out (with Kaieda translating) how to judge the fish by its appearance. Look at its eyes. If they are clear, the fish is really fresh.
If they have turned to grayish, it's better to fry them. There were details in the color of the scales, there were specks here and there and they all told a lot to Morita's trained eye. How fatty the flesh was inside for example he could judge by just searching for certain tiny marks on the outside. Morita could read a fish like a book.
Right next to the kazuo a smaller fish was on display. An isaki (chicken grunt), right now in season but still a rare sight having been delivered in such fresh condition. Again, Morita showed us the specks in its scales (blue in this case) that indicated the perfect freshness. Morita bought both fish and we headed to another seller.
The karei (flounder) Morita bought there was still alive and swimming in a small plastic pool filled with water.
Next was a place that killed fish professionally. Finishing off Morita's flounder was done in a second. But seeing just that was not the real reason we visited the shop. We stayed on and watched the actual work of the man in charge. He handled really dangerous creatures like the hamo (saltwater eel).
Hamo have a devilish set of teeth and once they bite you, you will suffer for a long time. The man demonstrating how to kill them had been bitten once, he said. It put him out of work for weeks and the pain was excruciating. Still, he continued killing them on a daily basis. First, he demonstrated how to slice the throat, then how to ram a thick hard wire down the inside of their spine. That way, the nerves centered in the spine were neutralized quickly, securing a soft flesh. (The final quivering of the nerves might otherwise lead to hard and unpalatable parts of the fish.)
At about that time, the Inner Market was opened to the general tourist public. The foreigners with their video cameras stormed in while we headed out. A last stop took us to a shop in the Outer Market were Morita bought a block of tuna. That shop had bought a whole tuna at an auction earlier in the night. When we got to the shop, the tuna had already been chopped up and put on display behind glass, as large deep red chunks of fresh meat.
In the back of the store, we could see one worker scraping the last tiny scraps of flesh from the impressive skeleton. "That last meat is not for sale." Kaieda explained. "Only the people at the fish shops get to taste it. It's the best."
We got our taste of it though. One of the store clerks came out with a paper plate and offered us a few slices. Delicious, indeed.
Slicing the Fish
The workshop itself took place in a small rented kitchen studio in the Outer Market. There we met sushi master Nobuyuki Noji. Noji had started his career at the veritable century-old Ryotei Restaurant, had then moved on to Tsukiji and now owns his own restaurant. Noji took on the role of head teacher at the workshop, with Morita assisting him. The hierarchy among sushi chefs is strict. Kaieda translated all their words.
Both sushi teachers had brought their own sets of knives. They are their personal tools and they wouldn't be comfortable cutting fish with any other knives than their own.
Noji inspected Morita's purchases. He praised the freshness of the kazuo and was surprised to see such a fine fresh isaki on the table. He then began demonstrating how to professionally cut a raw kazuo.
His cuts were deliberately slow to allow us being able to follow all his moves while he explained what he was doing: how to scrape the scales off, how to detach fins, how to open the fish and then, most important in the case of raw kazuo, how to separate the flesh of the back from the flesh of the belly. In the belly flesh, parasites reside. Those parts can't be eaten raw - the parasites would create a serious stomach upset.
The back flesh of the kazuo skinned and filleted, Noji went on to slice up the karei. The karei being a flounder, a flat fish, it needed a totally different procedure than the kazuo.
The isaki was next and now audience participation was possible. Who would dare to cut the fish? The procedure would be the same as with the kazuo.
After some prodding by Kaieda, a volunteer stepped forward. Though obviously not very experienced in cutting the flesh off the bones of a fish, under the supervision of Noji she did a fine job slicing one side. Kaieda looked out for another volunteer.
I stepped forward and was handed the knife. All those little things that looked so obvious when Noji cut the fish turned out to be very unfamiliar in practice. Where do I place my fingers on the fish? What is the right grip on the knife? Noji patiently corrected me. Then I let the knife slit into the flesh, trying to stay as close to the bones as I could would getting the knife stuck in them. The cameras of the other workshop participants clicked while I clumsily tore through the flesh. Finally, the filet was separated from the remains of the fish. Applause came from everyone around. Noji assured me that I had done well while I told him, "It looks so much easier than it actually is."
Noji and Morita then cut all the freshly sliced filets and the tuna into slices suitable for sushi. It's a different technique than cutting fish to be eaten as sashimi and of course, the details were demonstrated and explained.
Finally, it was sushi making time. A bag with sushi rice was placed in the center of the table. Sushi rice is cured with vinegar and in fact, getting the rice right is as much of a challenge as the handling of the fish. But those details would have been way beyond the scope of the workshop.
Kaieda had bought a fresh wasabi root while we toured the Outer Market and he had grated it to a fine mush, now resting on the table.
What we now had to try was the seemingly simple procedure of forming a little cube from a small handful of rice using one hand, then take a piece of fish with the other, lace the fish with the wasabi using the index finger of the hand holding the rice, then place the fish on the rice and form the final sushi with the fingers.
Again, it looked much easier than it was done, but after a few attempts, the squarely shaped rice with fish we would put down on the plates in front of us began to look more and more like actual sushi.
Correctly form-fitting or not, it was delicious either way. By now, it was lunch time and helped by cups of cold green tea, we finished the kazuo, we finished the isaki, we finished the tuna and the karei. All of them worked into our own first self-made sushi.
To become a real sushi chef takes years and years of hard work and experience. But the workshop succeeded in providing a great little peek into both Tsukiji Market and the challenges and joy of sushi making. Hands-on, no less. Not to mention that the whole day's experience was great fun.
When I strolled through my local supermarket on the outskirts of Tokyo in the evening of that day, I noticed raw kazuo sashimi offered as a Special of the Day. Raw kazuo? By now, I knew where that came from. I knew the area of the Tsukiji Market where it was sold, the way it was sliced and which parts of the fish can be eaten raw. The fish seemed suddenly very familiar.
Further information & Tsukiji tours booking
For further information on both the Tuna Auction Tour and the Tsukiji Sushi Workshop, please see their website www.tsukiji-market.jp
Book tours directly through the website.