A dawn visit to the vast Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (東京都中央卸売市場) more popularly known as TSUKIJI (築地), is one of Tokyo’s undisputed highlights. The closest subway station is Tsukiji-Shijō (築地市場), although Tsukiji is also convenient.

The site on which the market is located dates back to 1657, when Tokugawa Ieyasu had the debris from the Furisode (Long Sleeves) Fire shovelled into the marshes at the edge of Ginza, thus creating “reclaimed land” – which is what Tsukiji means. The market relocated to this area from Nihombashi following the 1923 earthquake, the current complex starting operations in 1935. It’s likely that it will move again, probably around 2014 (see Tsukiji Troubles).

Tsukiji’s main action is centred on its jōnai-shijō (main market) lying closest to the water in the crescent-shaped hangar. The headline tuna auctions happen between 5am and 6.15am, and viewing, when allowed, is from within a cordoned-off area accommodating around seventy people (see Tsukiji Troubles). It’s well worth getting up early to witness sales of these rock-solid frozen fish, looking like steel torpedoes, all labelled with yellow stickers indicating their weight and country of origin. Depending on the quality, each tuna sells for between ¥600,000 and ¥1 million.

There are plenty of other things to see later in the day, including auctions for other seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables. From around 6am, restaurateurs and food retailers pick their way through the day’s catch, which is put on sale at 1600 different wholesalers’ stalls. Afterwards, head to one of the area’s plentiful sushi stalls and noodle bars servicing the sixty thousand people who pass through here each day. One good choice, in one of the rows of sushi stalls directly opposite the market’s fish section, is Sushi Bun.

Before leaving the area, weave your way through the jōgai-shijō (outer market), a dense grid of streets immediately to the northeast, heaving with fishmongers, grocers, pottery merchants and kitchenware sellers – there’s activity here later into the day when the main market is winding down. Closer to Tsukiji subway station is Tsukiji Hongan-ji (築地本願寺), one of the largest and most Indian-looking of Tokyo’s Buddhist temples. Pop inside to see the intricately carved golden altar and cavernous interior, with room for a thousand worshippers.

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