Gordon Gecko might look out of place in the middle of Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market, but there are plenty of things that would make him feel right at home. Like Wall St, the world’s largest fish market runs on a frenzy of activity and adrenaline, the most expensive of fish stocks changing hands as high-value deals are closed in the blink of an eye.  Every morning at 5.20am, as regular as the NYSE opening bell, Tsukiji chimes into life and for the next 5 hours the largest and most important fish market in the world runs at the pace of a Shinkansen going in a hundred directions at once.

Trucks, cars and mini forklifts laden with today’s catch of fish and seafood, dart like minnows through the narrow streets and passageways of the market. No time for the usual niceties of Japanese service during the early morning trading hours … twenty million dollars of produce are bought and sold each day and no one can afford a minute’s rest.

Visitors must arrive before dawn to catch a glimpse of the auction where mammoth 300kg tuna are bought and sold by traders. As a result of the increasing numbers visiting the fish market in recent years, tourists have been banned from the tuna auction area on many occasions.  I was lucky to get through during one of the periods where they were allowing access to limited numbers. The small and tightly packed space allowed only a few any vantage point, however I squeezed through in time to see the action.

Visiting this main hall is an arresting experience.  Bitterly cold temperatures preserve the frozen fish as they lie beached on the expansive trading floor. The tail of the tuna is carved open to reveal the quality of the splendid catches on display.  Surprisingly there’s no smell whatsoever throughout the market, such is the coldness of the air and prime freshness of the fish.

Prospective buyers trawl the lines of fish, using torches and probing hooks to extract and inspect the flesh before bidding for the best catch.

As the auction ends, the fish are transported to their next destination or moved to the many shops and stalls inside the market. The variety is astounding, with over four hundred types of fish and seafood of all shapes and sizes changing hands each day.  First, larger fish have to be prepared for sale.  Frozen tuna is divided up using large band saws and fresh cuts are carved with metre-long, highly specialized knives resembling great samurai swords.  Not the time to pick a fight with the locals!

Carving tuna at Tokyo Tsukiji fish market

Once the early morning frenzy has died down, there’s time to indulge in some good-humoured banter as customers arrive to buy the auctioned fish.   I joined in the fun, requesting a shot of the ‘handsome man’ in the middle (below) to the great amusement of all nearby!

Mr Yamamoto (below right) is loved and revered. Not only does he buy great quantities of breathtakingly expensive fish, but he’s also a master sushi chef and therefore permitted to carve his own cuts, a rare honour and one he accepts with great enjoyment and excellent humour. The proprietor of an exclusive Tokyo restaurant, he’s clearly the favourite customer of the day. The owner and staff of the lucky stall crowd around to watch a true master at work.

Chef carves fresh tuna, Tokyo Tsukiji fish market
Chef packs fresh tuna, Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

Last orders are taken as stall holders finalise business and wrap up for the day.

What better reward could there be for getting up at 4-something-am than a hearty breakfast at Tsukiji? The finest sashimi and sushi known to man (or woman!) provides a splendid start to the rest of the day.  No wonder everyone’s smiling when the morning’s trading is done.

End of the day at Tokyo Tsukiji fish market

Gordon Gecko would no doubt approve.  Lunch is indeed for wimps.


June 11, 2010 - 8:37 pm Simon - Great work Jackie - love your portraits - you have a special knack of getting the best smiles out of people!

June 13, 2010 - 6:12 pm Kaylea - Great photos Jackie, love the colours and the Japanese seem like very smily people! The panning shot brings back good memories of our trip to the market.

June 13, 2010 - 8:20 pm Cathy - Jackie - the words sparkle with wit and observation and this article could easily have been in any quality newspaper around the world. Now your words complement the fab pictures. You are so lucky to be able to do both!

June 13, 2010 - 11:40 pm Helke V - Good job Jackie! I enjoyed looking at these pictures and reading the words.

June 14, 2010 - 7:57 am Polly - Fantastic photos, wow!! What an amazing place, and of course so well captured. Excellent stuff.

June 14, 2010 - 5:16 pm Ali - These are fantastic, Jackie. So full of life and with great accompanying text to give us some background. Never expected raw fish Fleisch to be quite so arresting! Can't wait for your future blogs to enjoy.

June 16, 2010 - 5:20 pm Claire - These are fabulous - really capture the moment and the obvious good humour of many of the people there. Love it!

June 27, 2010 - 10:43 pm Mum - Fantastic photos, complemented by equally good commentary - I agree with all the other comments above, especially that they could be in any quality newspaper anywhere in the world. The panning in the first one is very skillful, and all the expressions are spot-on.

August 18, 2010 - 1:36 pm Artem - Great work Jackie! Amazing place.

August 30, 2010 - 6:19 pm Mike English - Jackie I love all your pictures , they capture the essence of the subjects. In this series my choice is the picture of Mr Yamamoto with his knife calving the Sushi. It may not be the best or most challenging technically but it shows the humour and enjoyment of the workers for their life. Together with the japanese passion for food.

September 3, 2010 - 3:26 pm Saranya Worawichawong - Wowwwww!! really love this collection Jackie 🙂 great photos 🙂

September 8, 2010 - 5:56 pm Jane - What fabulous photos! Photos stood on their own, but enjoyed the commentary. It was lively with good humor. Congratulations on the article.

September 8, 2010 - 6:34 pm jackierado - Many thanks for all the generous comments. Have to say this was one of the most wonderful things I've ever photographed. Freezing cold and almost impossible to get out of bed in the morning, but so rewarding and invigorating when I got there. And the most fantastic sushi breakfast to boot, with plentiful supplies of warming miso soup and hot tea!