Several of the city’s prime attractions are to be found around Tokyo Bay. The teeming fish market of Tsukiji provides a rowdy early-morning antidote to the serenity of the nearby traditional gardens, Hama Rikyū Teien. Across the Rainbow Bridge lies the modern waterfront suburb of Odaiba, built on vast islands of reclaimed land and home to Miraikan, Tokyo’s best science museum, as well as huge shopping malls and the Big Site convention centre.
On the north side of the bay, Kasai Rinkai-kōen is a good place to catch the sea breeze and has a fine aquarium. From the park, the Cinderella spires of Tokyo Disneyland are clearly visible to the west. Though you probably won’t have time to visit both in one day, these places are at adjacent stops on the JR Keiyō line from Tokyo Station. Coming from Odaiba, you can pick up the Keiyō line at Shin-Kiba Station.
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.
Generating ¥1.7 billion in sales daily, Tsukiji is undoubtedly big business, but during recent years the market’s volume of trade has been dropping (down some seventy thousand tonnes between 2002 and 2007), along with the number of wholesalers and middlemen who work there.
Uppermost on merchants’ minds is Tokyo government’s plan to shift the market to Toyosu, 2km across the bay. The site was previously used by Tokyo Gas, and the highly toxic ground must be thoroughly cleaned up before any construction starts on the new complex where tourists are likely to be kept at arm’s length from the action, restricted to walkways overlooking the wholesale fish section. This will help solve the problems caused in recent years by increasingly large groups of tourists disrupting the key tuna auctions. On a couple of occasions the authorities have had to put a temporary ban on visitor attendance at the auctions.