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Tokyo Travel Guide: Tsukiji Fish Market and Tuna Auction and the Kabuki Theater

Two of the major tourist attractions in Toyko were on my agenda, the fish market and auction, and a performance of the famed Kabuki theater.

Tsukiji Fish Market and Tuna Auction

Another gastronomic mission took place the next morning, with a pre-dawn visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market and tuna auction followed by a breakfast on fresh sushi. Unfortunately it was pouring rain, at 4:45 a.m., when I left the comfort of the hotel and, map in hand, turned into Ginza Chuo Dori.

There was hardly any sign of life along Tokyo’s most famous shopping, dining and entertainment avenue. Daylight would transform it into a thriving, lively promenade, luring tourists and nationals into shopping or simply window shopping for the latest fashion or electronic gadget, or dining in one of the innumerable restaurants.

Sloshing through rivulets, I arrived at the market, an area the size of a few football fields. Here, thigh-high rubber boots slapped against slickers; only faces and fearsome hooks were discernable on the men inside them. I’d walked too far and was in the wrong section. Still, I didn’t have to ask. One look at this bewildered, somewhat bedraggled tourist and a worker knew where I wanted to go. He pointed his hook in the right direction and I neatly skipped along.

Tourists jammed the cordoned periphery of the cold, damp hanger, watching potential buyers inspect the three-to-four-foot finless/tailless frozen tuna, which had been separated into lots and positioned in rows on a concrete floor. Brokers walked from one to the next lot, from one to another big fish, each time lifting a cutout near the rear with a hook and removing a small morsel. The action was imperceptible. But to these knowledgeable buyers, rubbing the tiny pieces of tuna between their fingers to determine the texture and quality of the fat content meant the difference between bidding on and passing over the catch.

Photos by Denise Mattia

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At 5:30 an auctioneer stood on a small platform, rang a bell and started the trading. Farther down, another bell pealed and another lot was traded, until finally, all the prime fish had been sold, marked with the buyer’s identification and carted away. Secondary auctions took place, and by 7 a.m. most of the fish had been loaded on trucks or brought to shops located inside the market. Since my visit, stricter regulations toward tourists were enacted due to their interference during the auction process.

Kabuki-Za Theater

After the market, I stopped by the Kabuki-Za Theatre. Inside, booths line corridors to the width of the theatre and offer a variety of snacks and souvenirs, T-shirt and Kabuki doll vendors taking up the larger spaces. Nearby, patrons can dine at a fast-food restaurant before and between performances and during intermission.

Kabuki, a dance-drama, was started originally by a women’s acting company in the early 15th century as a popular form of entertainment. While still retaining its dance-like movements, the plots and stories have become stronger over the centuries and the scenery and décor more elaborate. Matinees at Toyko’s famous theatre start at 11, and evening shows run from 4:30 to 9. Headsets provide an excellent translation.

Unlike the play I’d seen many years ago in New York, where our theatres aren’t configured for Kabuki, it was apparent how essential the wide, shallow stage and long raised gangway is to the presentation. I couldn’t resist attending an authentic performance. Watching the heroine reenact the drama about forbidden love was like watching in slow motion the petals on a flower blossom and sway in a gentle breeze, while her lover – fierce with his enemies and tender with her – accepted his fate with heroic dignity. It was thrilling.

I stopped for a Starbucks coffee in the Marunouchi business district near the Tokyo Station, the starting point of most of Japan’s trains. Built in 1912, the station was bombed in 1945 and is currently being restored.

Between sipping the brew, browsing the internet and looking out the window at city life in the rain, it occurred to me that like any major city, Tokyo has its share of problems with housing, traffic, parking, finance – and bias, as well. I’d been told that in order to prevent women from being groped in the subway during rush hour, male and female riders use separate cars. Still, to this tourist who comes from a fabulous but overcrowded, chaotic, dirty city, Tokyo seemed like a Utopia. I realized I’d merely seen the highlights and would likely never experience the real Tokyo. Still, it’s a great city, and my visit was reason enough for me to learn about and experience more of the country.

There’s a new solution for tourists traveling throughout the country. The East Japan Rail Pass, powered by ACP Rail’s RailNet web-based system, will let you receive a confirmation and e-ticket voucher for exchange in Japan.


Denise Mattia is a freelance photojournalist living in New York City. She is the recipient of two degrees in Theatre and Art and a grant for her work in reef conservation. Her worldwide travel features and photographs (topside and underwater) appear in national and international publications. She is an active member of NATJA.
All photos by Denise Mattia

© 2009