Walking around Tokyo's famous Tsukiji Market is a feast for the eyes. Yet one of the great frustrations as a tourist to this famous wholesale market is that you can look, but not buy. You may have no means of preparing or cooking the seafood back at your hotel, or you simply may not know how to. On past trips to the market, I have stared longingly at some of the freshest shrimp, oysters, and tuna I have seen in my life. Despite a pocketful of money, I could not buy anything. But for serious cooks and chefs, for whom high-quality ingredients are revered, looking and sampling is not enough!
Fresh tuna - Photo by Simone Chen
Fishermen of the Inner Market – Photo by Simone Chen
Enter Tsukiji Cooking to the rescue, a guided tour and cooking class service that gives Tsukiji Market visitors an insider’s experience.
Starting with a guided walk through the maze of vendors in the Inner Market (Jonai Shijo), then through the retail produce or Outer Market(Jogai Shijo), the walking tour finally ends at Tsukiji Cooking’s private kitchen with a class where you can create and enjoy a lunch made from the fresh seafood just purchased on your tour. The class and tour are conducted in English, and the guides take you to some of their favorite stalls for items like shrimp, scallops, and tuna. For non-Japanese speakers, this service is indispensable, as easily communicating with vendors can make a real difference!
On a Thursday morning, at 8:45 am, I met my two guides from Tsukiji Cooking, Misao Sugibayashi and Mika Ichikawa at Tsukiji Shijo Station. Typically, about 6-10 attendees make up the tour. We trodded along the main street, through the Outer Market, before finally arriving at the Inner Market wholesale warehouse entrance right at 9 am. With great seriousness, Misao-san and Mika-san cautioned me about the turret or motorized trucks and cart drivers who would not blink an eye at running me over, if need be, to make their deliveries! We entered, and Misao-san led us up and down the narrow lanes of vendors who from 8 am had already started winding down their workdays. Though slightly gritty and rough around the edges, the Inner Market is no less clean than the Outer Market. No strong seafood smell exists, nor dirt or grime, as vendors are constantly hosing and cleaning.
Down the long rows at Tsukiji Fish Market – Photo by Simone Chen
While most vendors are polite and respectful, they are foremost, fishermen. Meaning, they have a job to do, fish to sell, breakfast to inhale later. Few can strike up a conversation in English, but luckily, my trusty guides, who know the Inner Market like the back of their hand, took me to all of their favorite stalls. We visited one known for its tuna – slabs of bright red, lean akami, and pink fattier cuts of chu-toro and o-toro – and another that has the freshest selection of prawns from all over Japan. As we walked, my guides answered my questions, showed me how to pick out fish, and purchased fresh scallops (my request), clams, seaweed, shrimp, and tuna for our lunch later that morning.
Scallops in their shells – Photo by Simone Chen
Tiger shrimp – Photo by Simone Chen
After the fish market, we made our way to the much smaller produce market. Seasonal fruits and vegetables were on display. Mesmerized by a stand of fresh matsutake mushrooms – in season in September – I was distracted for a good 10 minutes. Fresh wasabi horseradish root, leafy shungiku (chrysanthemum greens) and shiso (perilla), and daikon radish are just some of the vegetables you can find here all for a good price.
Matsutake mushrooms – Photo by Simone Chen
After our tour, we arrived at Tsukiji Cooking’s private kitchen and cooking school, where chef and instructor, Naoko Kawagoe, was busy prepping ingredients for our arrival. I was warmly greeted and told what would be on the menu for lunch: an assortment of sushi – maki rolls, nigiri, and temari (“button”) sushi –and shira-ae (mashed tofu salad), and miso soup. We got down to chopping and mixing, right up my alley, since I love to cook and especially enjoy learning how to prepare new types of cuisine.
Grinding sesame – Photo by Simone Chen
Chef Kawagoe showed me how to grind toasted sesame seeds in a suribachi, a traditional Japanese mortar and pestle, to make a paste for the shira-ae. The aroma of freshly ground sesame was addictive and incredibly hunger-inducing, making my stomach growl with each stroke of my rapidly tiring arms. I also learned how to shape rice for nigiri sushi – you use a firm but light hand – and how to form the small balls of rice for temari sushi. No easy feat on the first try, but tremendously fun.
Forming rice for sushi – Photo by Simone Chen
As for the cooked foods, I watched Chef Kawagoe deftly chop, stir, and grill over an open flame. Through our translator, she instructed me how to make delicious miso soup using two kinds of miso paste. She also prepared some impromptu off-the-menu dishes using the produce we'd bought at the market, including a sautéed scallop dish with soy, mirin, and sake. Another dish was lightly-steamed clams in sake (rice wine) that yielded the most delectable juices from their shells.
Steamed clams – Photo by Simone Chen
Tsukiji Cooking attendees generally eat lunch together and chat amongst themselves. My guides told me that the menu varies with each tour group and class, but sushi is always on the menu so that visitors can try market-fresh fish. The school also offers other types of cooking classes. A recent one demonstrated how to make okonomiyaki, a pan-fried savoury pancake filled with cabbage, pork, and seafood. Students are welcome to attend just the cooking class and lunch if they have no interest in doing the walking tour of Tsukiji Market.
Rolling sushi – Photo by Simone Chen
As I feasted on my lunch of sushi, miso soup, and the steamed clams and scallops, the freshness and sweetness of the seafood were evident in every single bite. Having personally seen where all of these ingredients came from made the meal all the more special. I wondered about the seafood industry in Japan and overseas, and about how long it takes for fresh-caught seafood to make it to supermarkets. (Probably a few days. And then, how long it sits on a display of ice, or a foam tray, just waiting to be bought.) Although these questions are, unfortunately, not clearly answered in many countries, in Japan – and at least in Tokyo – the seafood industry is for the most part very transparent, and the quality some of the best of the best.
If you are visiting Tokyo from abroad, I highly advise reserving a tour and cooking class with Tsukiji Cooking. Even for professional cooks and those who may have visited the market before, this experience is truly unique because it provides an invaluable insider’s perspective. The cooking class and lunch is also great fun; attendees receive recipes to take home for the dishes they cook. To see tour and class schedules, and to reserve, visit Tsukiji Cooking’s website here.
Lunch made with seafood from Tsukiji Market – Photo by Simone Chen
Want to know more? Explore other great spots around Tsukiji!
Previously known as the Tsukiji Fish Market, Toyosu Fish Market is now the world’s largest wholesale fish market, which houses a daily tuna auction at the wholesale section. The famed Tsukiji Fish Market restaurants stalls are now at Toyosu, which is a great place where you can eat the freshest seafood rice bowls, ramen, and other local delights.