Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Changes at the World's Greatest Fish Market

Tokyo's merely amazing Tsukiji Fish Market - said to be the world's largest - has proven so popular with tourists, it has revamped rules for visitor access. People will still be able to visit the market in the early morning hours, see the wonders of the deep and eyeball the finny morsels destined for Tokyo's restaurants and supermarkets that day, but access to this working market in central-city Tokyo is getting tighter.

As of April 4, the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market - as the sprawling market is officially known - closed the tuna observation area, where early-rising visitors observe the pre-dawn tuna auction. The auction is a lot more interesting than it may sound; here, you can see some of the biggest tunas imaginable, hear the frantic bidding of the buyers and get a real feel for how things work in the global seafood business. Unfortunately, the auction became a victim of its own success. So many tourists came, the authorities had to shut the observation area for a rethink. It reopened Monday, May 10, and things are a bit different now.

Manami Kobayashi, who represents tourism and travel interests for Tokyo in northern California, informs me "These changes have been implemented for three reasons: the size of the facility, the influence on businesses and the safety of visitors.''

Henceforth, she says, market officials will allow a maximum of "140 visitors per day, on a first-come, first-served basis'' for the tuna auction. Visitors must register to enter. Reception opens at 4:30 a.m. at the visitors' reception area, which is located on the ground floor at the the "Data and Information Center for Fish,'' next to the Kachidoki Gate entrance.

If you go - and if you're in Tokyo and haven't been to Tsukiji market, you should - you'll join one of two groups of 70. The first tour begins at 5 a.m. and finishes at 5:40. The second tour begins promptly - and if you know Japan, you know prompt means prompt - at 5:40 and finishes at 6:15 a.m.

Of course, you don't have to see the tuna auction at all. You can forgo the auction, wander about the market on your own - taking care to stay out of the way of the workers and their zippy mechanized carts - and take in the sights. And, of course, you can follow tradition by going out for a sushi and beer (or tea) breakfast at one of the many cafes nearby after your tour.

"When visiting this market, please be very careful, and show consideration, so as not to disturb any of the market's normal day-to-day activities,'' Manami Kobayashi advises. "If you wish to enter the other wholesale markets near the tuna auction observation area, please wait until 9 a.m. This is the same original procedure that was in place before the market was closed.''

I might add: Wear boots and bundle up. The market is chilly and there is often water on the floor.

All these rules may sound fussy, but this is probably the greatest show on Earth for all things fish, and one of the uncontestable highlights of a trip to Tokyo. And this show is free, making it a welcome option in Tokyo where, as you may know, the bill can otherwise add up fast.

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