The Tuna Auction at Tsukiji Market: A How Not to Guide

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On September 10, 2014
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Photo by bass_nroll

A while ago, as I was scrolling through the arch nemesis of all things productive, namely Pinterest, I read a quote that said ‘disappointment is the nurse of wisdom’. It was on a black background in a white, jangly sort of handwritten font that last Monday suddenly began flashing before my eyes again and again.

However, the words had been re-written and instead said ‘disappointment is getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the tuna auction at Tsukiji Market only to find that registration had already finished and you were now stuck with more hours in a day than you had ever expected from the earth’s rotational capabilities’.

So, with these two inspirational quotes in mind I have put together a brief ‘how not to guide’ to the tuna auction. For actual, helpful information fellow GP blogger Grace Buchele Mineta has made it to the auction and written a really useful post about it on her website which I definitely regret not reading earlier.

So without further adieu, here is my guide for now to not see the Tsukiji Tuna Auction.



1. Don’t turn up at 4.30 am feeling smug at your prematurity

To visit the tuna auction you need to register beforehand in the morning at the covert Fish Information Center to be admitted in one of two groups of 60 people, with the first group visiting the auction area from 5.25am and the second from 5.50am. Since registration opens at 5am, and we were visiting on a Monday, I thought that strolling up roughly one hour before the first auction would give me plenty of time to don my green visitor’s vest, take a few test shots on my iPad and generally soak up the fishy atmosphere.

Tsukiji 2Photo by Bryan Allison

Unfortunately, we arrived at the FIC only to find a sign displaying the remorseless words ‘Registration is finished for today’. The poor guy sitting behind this plainly unambiguous statement was reluctant to slide open the window to deal me the blow verbally. His advice was turn up at 3.30am on busy days since tickets would be sold out by 4am. ‘When are the busy days?’ I cried. ‘Everyday’, he whispered, shaking his head and slowly sliding the window closed.

2. Don’t try and stay in this capsule hotel if you’re not a man

Since trains stop running around 12am and you need to be at the market in the early morning, your options for killing time are limited to; drinking endless cups of coffee in an all-night restaurant, loitering like a member of a dangerous youth gang on the street or finding a place to stay for half a night.

There are several hotels within walking distance to the market (expensive but useful for heading back to after the auction until check-out), a cheap and convenient manga café, or I found a handy capsule hotel in nearby Shimbashi. As it turns out, the capsule hotel was for men only which presented quite a big problem for the three females in our group.

3. Don’t give up but instead use the earliness to your advantage

If you miss the registration, not only are you faced with the disappointment of not seeing the auction, you also have to confront the 19 hour day that now lies ahead and you might be tempted to give up and go home. Instead, use the fact the no one else is up yet to your advantage.

sensojiPhoto by Les Taylor

We headed to Sensō-ji temple in Asukusa which is normally crammed with tourists but at 6.30 am is an oasis of Zen tranquility. I’ve been there several times before but I’d never really been able to appreciate how beautiful it is because someone’s head was always in the way. After, we walked to the Tokyo Skytree where there were no queues and we could have actually bought tickets to go up it if it wasn’t for the clouds blocking the view of everything.

Have you been to the tuna auction at Tsukiji? Do you have any advice for our readers on where to stay or the best time to get there? Comment below!

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Tokyo-based writer and consultant.
  • Jerry Gentemann says:

    When I lived there there was no registration and I took many of my friends there…in those days I rarely saw any other tourists either…what changed? Did the fact that you now must register and pay boost its attraction?

    • luan says:

      Hi, Jerry. Actually the administrators of the market, Tokyo Metropolitan Govt, have received several complaints from the fish traders that a increased number of tourists was disturbing their work, and had to cut down the stream. The market is now old and small enough to be transferred to another place (Toyosu) but the transfer process has been interrupted due to the land contamination problems.

      • alessandro says:

        hey luan, I am a photographer interested of doing a project about the market. I have just read your answer about it and it was interesting reading about the new Toyosu. could you please email me in a private massage, i have a few questions about it :

        aletheintruso@hotmail.com

        thank you very much!

  • MadPanda says:

    I have a feeling only tourists wake up at 3:30am to watch a fish auction. I wonder how many tokyo residents actually do this?

  • Yoshiyuki TEZUKA says:

    Turning up at 3.30am on busy days is so hard, and it’s true for almost everyday… Many Japanese don’t know this fact although we know Tsukiji auction is popular destination for foreigners. Thank you for your interst article.

  • Grace Buchele says:

    There’s a really nice Manga kissaten pretty close to the auction (which was what I used, since it was the middle of winter and I didn’t want to sleep outside… hahaha).

    Sorry to hear y’all didn’t get to go inside, though!

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