Tips for Visiting Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

It feels a little bizarre to recommend visiting a fish market as a tourist, but Tsukiji Market (aka Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market) in Tokyo is worth the visit. It’s the biggest fish market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any type, anywhere. It’s a sprawling complex on the banks of the Sumida River in the Tsukiji area of Tokyo and is a hustling, bustling trade hub.

There are a few things you should know if you plan on visiting.

Get there quickly

Despite a fair amount of opposition, it’s looking like the fish market will be moving away from Tsukiji in late 2016. If you want to see it as it is now (highly recommended), go now before it’s too late.

Get there early

If you’re planning on seeing the daily auctions (and you should plan to do this, this is the main attraction), get there very early. Visitors are split in to two separate groups of 60 people each. The first group will enter the market at around 5:30 with the second visiting at around 6. The official website says registration starts at 5am, but it actually starts much earlier and you will almost certainly miss out if you arrive at 5. Registration consists of being given a coloured vest. Once all the vests are gone, there’s no more space. You cannot reserve a space in advance. My recommendation, and it’s what I did, was to visit on your first day in Japan. I was jet lagged enough that I was awake anyway, so it wasn’t too big a pull to get up at silly o’clock. If you do this, be sure to plan for a power nap at some point in the day, because you’re body is probably going to take one regardless of whether you plan for it or not (I fell asleep on the underground, which I have  habit of doing).

A lot of the guides I read before hand recommended getting there for 4am. I’d aim for 3:30 am at the latest to get in the first group. We got there shortly before 4 and were in the second group. You will have to wait in quite a cramped waiting room once your registered but feel free to sit on the floor. There are also toilets outside (head right out of the door, then right again at the road and the public toilets are just before the bridge). After registering I actually wandered around the area for 30 minutes or so.

Know where you’re going

Embarrassingly, we found it a little difficult to locate the registration area. Our taxi dropped us off on Shin-Ohashi-Dori, which is where the market is. It is not, however, where you need to go to register. To register, head to the building marked on the map below. There are signs, but your best bet is to look for the large group of very tired looking people wearing bright waistcoats.

Once you arrive, you are given a multi-lingual information sheet that includes a map of the whole complex. It’s handy, but perhaps a little too late if you’ve already struggled to find the reservations building. You can download a similar sheet on the official website though.

If you want breakfast, be prepared to queue

Getting a delicious fresh fish (sashimi) breakfast at the market seems like an obvious choice. Be warned though, the queues for the more popular eateries can be two hours plus immediately following the auction. If you’re ordering something, definitely go for the fatty tuna sashimi.

If you’re looking for something else to do after the market, Ginza isn’t too far away and is a good place for a bit of shopping therapy.

Be aware that this is primarily a functioning market

The tourist aspects of the market are secondary. This is primarily a functioning market where people earn their living. As such there are some strict rules which are enforced. Read up on these rules before visiting, otherwise you will not be granted entry. Also be aware that you have to walk through large parts of the wider market to get to the auction room and you will encounter vehicles moving quickly through the area. It’s also going to be dark at the time you’re there, so be careful, follow the instructions of the guards and stay with the group.

One other thing to be aware of is that when you’re in the auction room it’s quite a tight squeeze and you need to make some space for yourself. You’re also going to see a lot of dead fish, if you’re squeamish about such things, this may not be for you.

Enjoy the experience

The video above contains some scenes from the market, both inside the auction room and the surrounding area. The auction is remarkable to watch. It’s fast moving, completely unintelligible for those uninitiated in fish auctions (and those who don’t speak Japanese) and fascinating. You can also spot the buyers examining the large tuna that constitute the day’s catch and doing deals all over the complex.

The fish themselves are impressively huge, and there’s a lot of them. There’s also a frenetic energy around the place and interesting things happening everywhere. It’s hard to follow what’s going on, but it doesn’t really matter. I’d recommend walking around some of the small shops inside the larger market complex after seeing the auction to see what the restauranteurs are doing with the catch you just saw being sold as well as to see some unique things for sale. You can also catch a peak in to some of the working areas in the market, which is very interesting.

Visiting Arashiyama, Near Kyoto, Japan

If you’re in the Kyoto area, it’s well worth the short train journey to Arashiyama. Using your JR Rail Pass, it’s about 15 minutes from Kyoto arriving in to Saga-Arashiyama Station on the Sagano Line. We stayed in central Kyoto near Karasuma so it was a quick trip on the Tozai line to Nijo Station and then the Sagano line to Saga-Arashiyama, about 25 minutes total.

Arashiyama is a fairly touristy area and can get quite busy. However, there are a few reasons that make the trip worthwhile.

Bamboo Grove

 Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove

Probably most famous of all the attractions in Arashiyama is the Bamboo grove. I was a little surprised when I arrived at the bamboo grove (less than a ten minute walk from the station that’s well signposted). Most of the photos you see show the grove as a relatively calm, quiet place. This does not match my experience. Despite the photos, it was really busy. Whilst I’d heard this might be the case, I wasn’t expecting there to be taxis driving along the road you’re on as you walk through the grove. The further you walk though, in general, the quieter it gets.

Do make sure you walk right to the end though, not least because it’s the entry to the next attraction.

Okochi Sanso (Ōkōchi Sansō) Villa & Gardens

This is one of the more overlooked gems in Arashiyama, and was relatively quiet on the day we visited (I suspect because of the roughly 1000 yen entry fee). Okochi Sanso Villa is a collection of buildings and gardens originally built over a number of years by famous Japanese actor Okochi Denjiro. The buildings aren’t accessible but the gardens are worth the entry price alone. Especially in autumn, which is when we visited.

The gardens are separated in to different types of arrangements, including moss gardens, trees, shrines and a tea garden (the entry fee includes a cup of tea). What’s impressive is how the paths are crafted to reveal different parts of the gardens to visitors.

 View towards Kyoto.
View towards Kyoto.

It isn’t all about the gardens though. As you meander your way through the property you are, at various points, presented with wonderful views of Kyoto. Again, stunning in the autumn when the colours are out.

Iwatayama Monkey Park

 Warning sign and monkey at Iwatayama Monkey Park.
Warning sign and monkey at Iwatayama Monkey Park.

Visiting the monkey park is not for the faint of heart. The visitor centre is approximately 160m up (160m elevation, you’ll be walking further) a steep, twisting path that has to be walked (there’s no other way up). On a hot day, it’s quite a challenge. Depending on your fitness level and the weather, you’re looking at a hike of between 20 and 45 minutes. There are two routes, one of which is steeper but shorter, and another which is longer but less steep.

As you can see from some of these images, the path isn’t necessarily well maintained either. In some parts it’s quite overgrown and most of it is uneven. You’re fortunate if you’re walking on a section with a handrail (although most of the really steep sections do have handrails). There are some wonderful views of Kyoto though.

It’s also important to manage your expectations when arriving at the park itself. The visitor centre is little more than a shed with a small shop and toilets. You can purchase food to feed the monkeys for around 100 yen, but you have to feed them from within the building, you are not permitted to take the food outside with you. These are wild animals after all, and I can imagine it being quite uncomfortable were they to round on someone they believed to be carrying food. There are warning posted around the area to this effect advising you to avoid eye contact (although I don’t know what “Don’t put a load on outside” means!). I did receive a warning from one of the monkeys who gently punched me on the leg, but I’m unsure what my indiscretion was!

What’s remarkable about the Monkey Park is that there are monkeys everywhere. You have to be careful walking around so as to not step on one. Even when you’re walking up to the park (and back down again) there are monkeys in the trees above you. You can hear them, and see them. It really does feel rather wild at times. There are regular feedings performed by the staff in the park which brings out even more monkeys that were previously hiding in the trees.

Thankfully the walk down is much easier. If you’re a fan of wildlife (I’m told there are rare birds in the area as well), it’s a worthwhile visit.

Staying in Traditional Japanese Accommodation Part 2 – Buddhist Temple

In the first part of our look at traditional Japanese accommodation we looked at a ryokan, the traditional Japanese Inn. For many, this represents the final word when it comes to traditional Japanese accommodation, but there is another option.

Buddhist Temple

Yes, it’s possible to stay in a genuine, functioning Buddhist temple.

Unlike ryokans, which are plentiful, staying in a Buddhist temple will require a little more adventuring. Not a lot, and far less than you’d expect, but a little more. The temple we stayed in was in a small town called Koyasan, which is located mid way up Mount Koya.

Yes, this is a Buddhist Temple mid way up a mountain! Awesome.

Getting to Koyasan requires a fairly convoluted train journey. We set off from Kyoto at around 11am and arrived at the temple at around 3pm. This involves catching a train from Kyoto to Osaka, then using the Osaka mass transit system to get to Namba and then another two trains before finally reaching the Nankai Koyasan Cable Car, which is the primary way in to the town. The cable car is quite an adventure in itself. It’s incredibly steep with stunning views all around. It’s worth noting that the Namba to Koyasan section of this journey is not covered by the excellent Japan Rail Pass.

The driveway leading to the temple

Upon reaching the top of the cable car, you simply locate the correct bus, jump on and away you go. Ten minutes later and we were outside our accommodation for the night, the Fudoin Temple. I’ll cover Koyasan in more detail in another post.

The entrance way is framed by two banners and a rock with Fudoin etched in it. It’s then a short walk up to the main complex.

The temple was reminiscent of the ryokan. Shoes had to be removed upon entry and the sleeping arrangements were the same (i.e. mats were laid on the floor only when it was time to sleep). Again we had a private bathroom. Apart from the morning ceremony and dining, we only really dealt with one monk (I’m unsure as to whether he was actually a monk, but I think any layman would describe him as such). He was very friendly, welcoming and spoke a little english. It’s always surprising how enthusiasm and friendliness act as ample substitutes for a common language.

 Dinner in the temple.
Dinner in the temple.
Dining room

Rather than food being served in your room, it was served in a communal dining room. It was a set menu and all meals were served to all guests at the same time. The communal dining room was beautiful, with approximately eight tables set out with screens between each. There were only three other tables occupied when we ate. The screens were adorned with traditional Japanese art, as were the walls. Some of the guests wore their yukatas to dine. Mine was on the small size, so I did not.

As this is a buddhist temple the meals served are entirely vegetarian. In fact they follow Syojin ryo, which is a buddhist approach to cooking that incorporates five cooking methods (raw, boil, grill, fry and steam), the five tastes (sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and salty) and five colours (white, yellow, red, blue and black). Koya Tofu is also served as well as sake should you want it (hot or cold). I’m not an expert in Japanese cuisine by any means, but I’m told that this particular style of cooking is inspired by the Koyasan area and is meant to provide spiritual and mental strength.

First, a disclaimer. For me to consider something a meal it has to contain meat. I’m a lover of meat and struggle with vegetarian meals. In fact, I believe this was the first vegetarian meal I’ve ever eaten. To say I was impressed would be a massive understatement. The meal was really quite fantastic. The standout was the Koya Tofu and the tempura style vegetables. My girlfriend, who’s a fair weather vegetarian, said it’s the best vegetarian meal she’s ever had. 

Upon finishing dinner we returned to our room to find that the beds had already been made. The beds were very very similar to those in the ryokan, with a pad laid on the floor and covered blankets provided. One thing to note, however, is that the temple can get very cold. We visited in November and whilst the rest of Japan was reasonably warm Koyasan in general was really rather cold and wet. There is a space heater provided in the room which we used, but the smell from the oil fuelling it was too much for extended use. Thankfully the blankets on the beds were warm and I had a comfortable night (although I generally prefer the cold). As you can see, a television was also provided in the room as was a private toilet.

You’re given the option of attending the morning ceremony. After all, this is a functioning Buddhist temple. The call is very early, and you’ll be fetched from your room at the agreed time. The ceremony lasts for about 30 minutes and is, to a degree, interactive. That is, you’re asked to come to the front and light candles. It’s actually very relaxing, with a lot of typical chanting and singing. There’s also an english section where some of the temple’s history is spoken about (the resident monk studied English at university). They also talk about the history of Koyasan, mount Koya and the particular sect of Buddhism practiced in this area (Esoteric, or Shingon, Buddhism). All in all, fascinating, and a great way to start a day of exploring.

Following the ceremony, you’re taken immediately for breakfast. Breakfast was significantly smaller than dinner but also delicious and meticulously served and presented. It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere in the dining hall when eating. It’s quiet and respectful. It’s completely incomparable to any breakfast you’ve ever had at any hotel.

Koyasan is a UNESCO World Heritage site and unsurprisingly there’s a lot of history in the temple itself, including the mausoleum of an Empress. The grounds are stunning, especially in the autumn (also, I’m told, May, when the rhododendrons are in bloom).

Koyasan should be near the top of anyone’s list when visiting Japan and if you’re looking for an authentic experience there’s few better options than Fudouin Temple.

Staying in Traditional Japanese Accommodation Part 1 – Ryokan

Japan is a wonderful country to visit, one of my favourites. In particular the variety of environments you encounter when there is extremely endearing. On our last visit to Japan we stayed in some really great hotels, including the Park Hyatt Tokyo (aka the Lost in Translation hotel) but the standout memories were from spending the night in more traditional Japanese accommodation.

When thinking about traditional Japanese accommodation, the first thing that springs to mind is a Ryokan but there’s another option that we’ll cover in part 2, a Buddhist Temple.

First up is the default option for traditional Japanese accommodation, a Ryokan. Ryokans differ from hotels in a few key ways. Most notably, you sleep on the floor rather than in a bed. As you are served food in your room, the “beds” aren’t made up until after dinner at which point the small table used for dining is moved or removed and the padded covers put down. You’re also given Yucatan to wear (similar to a dressing gown) and it’s entirely acceptable, if not encouraged, to wear them the entire time, including in the communal areas.

The construction of the rooms also differs from a typical hotel. The walls are made of paper and the floor is made up of tatami mats. Most ryokans have shared bathrooms and communal baths.

We stayed in a Ryokan called Ryokan Tanabe in the town Takayama, a 5 hour train journey from Tokyo and a sensible second stop in Japan if you’re moving from Tokyo to Kyoto (the train journey is actually in two parts, the first part bullet train and the second part a very scenic and picturesque trip from Nagoya station to Takayama). Takayama is an enchanting town that’s known for it’s Edo period heritage buildings and festivals (as well as sarubobo, the faceless baby monkey dolls meant to bring good luck). For me the stand out memories were the awesome autumn colours and the incredible hida beef (Japan is a beef lover’s paradise).

This particular ryokan appears to be run by a delightful elderly couple who take care of all your needs, including making the beds and serving the food. We opted for a slightly more expensive room that included a private bath, toilet and small private garden area. The communal baths are, by all accounts, very nice. They have both wooden and stone varieties and helpfully alternate which gender uses which in the evening and day, so all guests can try both. Unfortunately we were stretched for time so only used our private bath.

There is a knack to using this. There’s a small wooden bucket with a tap/faucet above it. Pressing the button fills the bucket with warm water. You use this bucket to wash your hands, feet and private parts before going in to the main wooden bath, that’s to the right of this area. There’s a small stool to sit on when you’re doing this – it was a bit of a struggle for my 6’3″ frame, as was fitting comfortably in to the wooden bath.

Overall though, it was a pleasant experience and really rather relaxing. It made for a refreshing change to the normal underpowered hotel shower with a shower head placed at roughly nipple height.

As you can see from the photos above, there’s a small table and legless chairs in the middle of the room. This is where dinner was served, and it was a real experience. At the agreed time there’s a gentle knock on the door followed by the elderly lady shuffling in to the room on her knees. What followed was a procession of food and drink being positioned just so on the table. The care given to presentation rivalled most fine dining restaurants. It was completely symmetrical, given there were two of us dining.

Thankfully there was also a brief demonstration of how to eat some of the elements presented. Given that I don’t speak Japanese, and the lady serving us spoke very little English, it was remarkably effective. There were huge smiles all around, and it was a wonderful experience. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so welcomed when being served anything, anywhere.

I’d love to tell you what was served, but I’m largely in the dark. There was definitely some delicious hida beef, some miso soup, some tempura dishes, rice, seaweed (nori), tofu, noodles and all sorts of other elements. I honestly found some elements challenging (my partner, a fair weather vegetarian, even more so) but most of it was delicious and filling. Breakfast was similarly served in the morning (the lower of the two photos above). One of the most remarkable dining experiences I’ve ever had.

 Some of the dishes served
Some of the dishes served

Following dinner, our plates were cleared, the table and chairs put away and the beds made. I felt a little awkward at this point. The beds were made by what I assume to be the elderly lady’s husband who was also quite elderly. This clearly didn’t bother him as much as it bothered me as he scrambled around on the floor laying out and then covering the mats and blankets in a very choreographed and agile display.

 Beds in the Ryokan Tanabe
Beds in the Ryokan Tanabe

I actually found the beds quite comfortable. The pillows, in particular, were very nice indeed. What was strange though, was waking up in the morning, realising you’re on the floor and your brain assuming that something went wrong in the night.

This ryokan, as is typical, had a pleasant communal area where you could spend time with the hosts and other guests should you wish. There was also a small gift shop and the obligatory area to store your shoes on entry (shoes have to be removed upon entering and slippers are provided).

Overall, this was a very pleasant night in a lovely part of Japan. I’ll write up a more detailed report on Takayama at a later date as it’s a special location that warrants exploring a little more.

An alternative –  Buddhist Temple

Ryokans are relatively popular in Japan (although can be more difficult to find, and are certainly more expensive in the larger cities) and are often occupied by tourists looking for a more traditional Japanese experience. But there is an alternative. In Part 2, we’ll look at what it’s like to stay in a genuine, functioning Buddhist Temple in a mountain village.