Visiting the Toyosu Market Tuna Auction and Tsukiji Market – Tokyo, Japan
One of the highlights of a Tokyo trip is visiting the famous Japanese Toyosu Market tuna auction and the Tsukiji Food Market. The two activities used to be solely at Tsukiji but due to the popularity of tourists wanting to see the tuna auction, this activity was moved to Toyosu where it currently resides today. Toyosu is the largest fish market in the world!
There are a few different ways to visit this popular spot to view the auction:
- There are observation windows that give a bird’s eye view – this is open to the public and entry is free
- There is an observation platform that is right next to the action and you can hear the auction going in – this is only accessible if you win a lottery ticket system and entry is free if you are successful in winning the lottery. Lottery tickets are done online typically a month in advance so keep an eye on when the lottery window lines up with your visit if you are interested – here is the website. NOTE: I did submit for the lottery and won two tickets for our visit – as a group of four I had to submit twice since you can only try for up to three tickets per lottery submission.
Both options are free so I would recommend always trying for the lottery tickets and if you do not get the lottery, you can go to the observation windows. The benefit of the platform is that you can hear the auction and there are far fewer people. Both viewing areas do have glass in front for those looking for photography opportunities. And you need to show up to both early – and I mean early like 5AM early since that is when the tuna auction starts and typically only lasts around an hour or two. The disadvantage is that unless you do some research ahead of time, it may be difficult to understand what is going on and the history of this market.
That is where the third option for visiting the Toyosu Market exists – going with a guide. When I started planning this trip to Japan, I found an Airbnb experience that I knew we had to do. This Airbnb experience has a 4.95 rating with over 2600 reviews and counting. The tour is a full day and includes visiting both the Toyosu tuna auction and the Tsukiji food market, with a stop at one of the most famous temples and then a full lunch.
Our morning started by meeting our guide, Toshi, at 530AM at the Shijo-mae Station where we were immediately ushered to the observation windows. A note that Toshi has to be one of the BEST guides on Airbnb – he organizes an incredible day that very few people visiting Toyosu and Tsukiji markets get to experience. He communicated all details of the day including exactly how to get to the start of the day extremely well and even memorized everyone’s name and where they were from! Not to mention all is knowledge of this massive fishing operation. It was a joy to spend the day with Toshi.
Toyosu Market is made of three buildings – Fish Wholesale Market, Fisheries Intermediate Wholesale Market, and the Fruit and Vegetable Market.
We made our way to the observation windows at the Fish Wholesale Market building to see the famous tuna action and were already crowded with visitors. The fresh tuna was already over by this point – the auction starts sometimes earlier than 5AM – and they were auctioning frozen tuna. And these tuna were absolutely enormous! We got our first glimpse of the auction below and could start to piece together details – the frozen tuna were spread out all over the auction floor and tagged. Buyers would take flash lights and ice picks to evaluate the tuna, as well as feel for the oil. Then the person starting the auction would go tuna by tuna as buyers would make hand gestures to bid.
Toshi gathered the group and explained all about the largest fish market in the world and the operation we were witnessing:
- The auction started over 120 years ago
- Auction serves as a go between for fisherman and brokers who can then sell to restaurants
- The auction operates 5 days a week and each day moves 1.6 billion USD – BILLION!
- You must have an auction license to participate in the auction as a buyer
- Those with auction licenses can see up to a 30% or better profit margin
- Auction starts at 5AM each day starting with the fresh tuna hen moving to the frozen tuna, then other fish varieties. The length of time the auction runs varies depending on how much fish there are to auction that day.
- There are 400 companies with auction licenses and half are family owned
- Blue fin tuna – typically around 150kg and take 7-8 years to grow that large. Used to be over 300kg but no longer see tuna that size due to overfishing. There is a 30% loss of weight due to skin and bones. It is a rare catch for fisherman can pay expenses for the entire year when they succeed. blue fin are found all over the world even as far south as Australia and New Zealand – take organs out and stuff with ice to airmail to Tokyo. Higher quality tuna are found in the winter time in the region they are fished.
- The largest blue fin tuna ever sold – 500 kg in 1986!
- The floor is intentionally green to have the red of the tuna meat stand out
The Fisheries Intermediate Wholesale Market building is where wholesale businesses operate selling to restaurants, but this area is closed to the public. But not when you have Toshi as a guide! Toshi owns and operates a restaurant so he has access to this building and takes his guests through the market on his Airbnb experience.
This area was fantastic – I wish we were able to spend all day here admiring all the different seafood – giant tuna (and even tuna heads just chilling on the ground), crabs of all shapes and sizes, shellfish I have never seen before, prawns and lobster – it was endless. Toshi had us moving through the isles very fast to not interrupt any business operations. We spotted by several vendors of which I am sure he frequents to pick up items for our lunch. We gathered so many things I absolutely lost track of them. This was an incredibly special and exclusive part of the day and we were mesmerized by all the action and everything we saw.
Upstairs we got a chance to walk around the public portion of this building and even got a knife lesson from one of the vendors. I was less than good at slicing my paper with a giant sushi knife. Watching the craftsmanship of the knives being created and sharpened was amazing – I wish we were able to bring one home but obviously that is a carry on no-no.
It was time to take a bus to our next stop at Tsukiji market which is known as the old market. Our eyes widened as we took in all the sights of the market – as you know, we love food markets and this one was epic. Stalls were set up to make you eyes drop, mouth open, and wallets empty. Toshi took us to a few stalls including on that makes dashi packets to make the most luxurious umami broth (while I did not purchase it here, I did find it when we got home and it is the best), and Tamagoyaki which is a Japanese rolled omelette – and what makes this so delicious? Dashi of course!
Toshi then gave us time to explore the remaining four streets of the market on our own and gave us a few recommendations of places to stop. We were instructed to not get too much to eat as we had a big lunch ahead of us. Kevin and I bolted as we wanted to make sure we explored as much as possible with our limited time. Every stall was an invitation and we could have easily spent hours here. Kevin and I grabbed a charred eel liver on a stick and strawberry mochi – both were excellent.
Everything we got was incredibly delicious – markets like these are just the best where you can sample small items from many places to make a full meal. But we followed Toshi’s ordered and held back as we ate with our eyes until it was time to move onto the next stop.
We hopped onto the subway to our final area – Asakusa. On our way to lunch at Toshi’s restaurant, we walked down Nakamise where all the souvenir shops and snacks ahead of a popular tourist attraction – Sensoji Temple.
Sensoji Temple is a Buddist temple and one of Tokyo’s most iconic temples as one of the oldest built in 645 AD. Clocking over 30 million visitors a year, it is the one of the most visited religious sites in the world. There are many different buildings in the complex and feature giant paper lanterns – some of the largest you will find in Toyko. Sensoji is also home to a popular festival – Sanja Matsuri.- which takes place in May.Stopping by this temple was a must on our trip to Tokyo and it was wonderful that it was included during this day. Toshi took many photos as we walked around the buildings admiring the architecture, history, and beauty. There were many opportunities to donate coins, burn incense and get your fortune.
Toshi then led us a few more blocks to his restaurant where his wife has been cooking all the fresh seafood we purchased from the market. Toshi popped some champagne as we settled in for a mutli-course enormous meal, Kaiseki style. Honestly, we could not believe how much food was at this lunch – it is kind of insane after all this exclusive sightseeing all day that we ended with an elaborate seafood bonanza.
We started with delicious miso soup and then a plate of scallops, chicken, and miso cod. Then the largest oyster I have ever seen appeared! It was as big as my hand – how the heck are you supposed to eat this?The next plate had us puzzled what it was – turned out to be tuna collar. We have never seen tuna presented in this way and wow it was amazing, had so much meat and fat content. Then the hairy crabs arrived and each pair got gloves and a pair of scissors to tackle getting every morsel of meat out. The food continued to come – snapper two ways, tuna five ways, abalones – it felt endless!
WOW. I am still stunned at how much this Aribnb experienced rocked. It was certainly more money than I typically spend on an excursion but after experiencing the entire day – it is well worth the money and an amazing value. We did not leave lunch until after WHAT TIME – it was a full 8 hours day that included an incredible amount of sightseeing, experiences, and food. And not to mention, Toshi himself. I cannot recommend adding this whirlwind of a day to your Tokyo itinerary it is beyond worth it and something that not many people get to experience.