The Food Dudes Take The Tsukiji Fish Market

It's the crack of dawn at the world's most renowned tuna auction and The Food Dudes are there to take in all the sights, sounds and smells.

February 19, 2018

It’s barely 3am and Tokyo has already sunk its teeth into our jet lag-addled skulls. The perfect time to cross a major experience off the Japanese Bucket List: Bearing witness to the pre-dawn splendour of the world famous Tsukiji Fish Market.

Kitted out in mandatory neon vests and mustering stores of energy from the depths of our psyches, we queue in a designated space for our turn to take in the action. It’s like a medical waiting room from some cold, industrial, dystopian future. A few dozen lucky observers will take the tour this early morning. Plenty will be turned away.

Through the glass, we watch an endless parade of small carts zipping about the market space. They speed around with shocking abandon, often coming within millimetres of one another when passing. Our bodily peril is palpable as we take in the strict photography protocols that will improve our odds of avoiding a violent run-in with the carts. No photos until we reach the market floor. No flash at any point. No funny business, lest you be hastily ejected.

The conductor corralling our eager group explains this rigidity with comic aplomb. Not missing a beat, he swipes a lozenge from one of our co-tourists, his rough English and general chutzpah masking an otherwise overly familiar intrusion. We’re all in this together now. Huddled on the chilly floor of our detention cell, with the first wave of gawkers already permitted to enter the market proper, we patiently wait.

In the midst of loudly reciting his laundry list of rules and restrictions, our fearless guide catches wind of our motherland. When his insistence that Toronto has no good sushi is met with claims of suburban eminence in the realm of ethnic cuisines, we’re served a harsh rebuke: “I am not ethnic. I am Japanese.” Point taken. Our bad. If we’re seconds away from being kicked out, at least we made it this far? He continues his briefing with a sharp eye on us and, soon enough, our gaffe has faded and it’s time for the main event.

We’re reminded of the frequency of cart-related accidents as we traverse a narrow path through the bustle and chaos of the market floor. Then suddenly we’re in it. The action-packed bedlam of the acclaimed auction is a sight to behold, and well worth the wait. Even in our native tongue, the pace and procedures here would be dizzying, so we’re totally lost, awash in Japanese jockeying. The massive fish change hands before our eyes, their winning bidders relishing the day’s catch. It’s been a few years since a world record $1.8 million bluefin tuna cranked up the spotlight on Tsukiji, and the thought of all the sales that have gone down since is stupefying.

As has been the case throughout The Food Dudes’ Japanese sojourn, we witness in reverence the customs of an enchanting society. The men yelling for their slice of the bounty are gruff, insistent, yet particular about the product and considerate of one another. It’s easy to fantasize about the sundry destinations of each mighty tuna as it departs with its triumphant (temporary) owner. Countless omakase courses from Shibuya to Tribeca will be blessed with today’s spoils, some single bites fetching into the hundreds of dollars. There’s a thrill to envisioning the ripple effect of this transactional, cover-of-night ritual. Every sushi lover should visit at least once.

Let loose on to the Tokyo streets for sunrise, any trace of fatigue has vanished. We’re invigorated by our brief proximity to the nucleus of an entire culinary movement. Japan has much more to teach us and, as always, we have much to learn. But first, breakfast.