The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Tsukiji Open Again (sort of)

Spent the night in an all night cafe in Tokyo on Sunday hoping to get to Tsukiji fish market early on Monday. This was the first open day of the market again after a month in which it had been closed to tourists due their number getting in the way of market opperations and some very bad behavior.

Walking through Tsukiji station on Monday morning however it was clear that a month’s hiatus had done nothing to limit interest in the market and the number of visitors heading towards the market’s gate was already in the hundreds. We were the late ones too because upon exiting the station we were met by uniformed men one of whom (above) was holding a sign that read the auction’s reservations had already been filled. They were very polite and very helpful as they informed us where we could and couldn’t go.

Where we couldn’t go unfortunately was just about everywhere. The new access rules have limited the number of tourists to the tuna auctions to a mere 140 a day. Two groups of 70 people are able to watch the auctions, from the safety of the visitors gallery, on two separate tours during the morning. Reservations for this are on a “first come-first served” basis and though you need (at the moment) to line up at the visitors centre and hope you’re early enough to get a free place I can see this developing naturally into a pay to visit scheme at some point in the future when the hotels and tour companies start pre-arranging reservations for their clients and guests and securing those places with a deposit. If you are not able to get a reservation, and the green vest that goes with it, your options for a Tsukiji experience are now severely limited. Basically the whole market is off limits until 9am. You are of course able to visit any of the sushi restaurants or shops around the edges of the market and spend money there but there is no access to the market itself or the colourful stalls where fish, and a myriad other kinds of seafood are prepared and sold. After 9 in the morning the manic energy of the place that is famously reported and what everyone has come to see is basically over and there is then little energy left. If a visit here is on the top of your list of things to do in Tokyo (as it appears to be for everyone) you may find yourself disappointed because it has to be said that the grand reopening of Tsukiji fish market is a bit of a misnomer and for all intents and purposes Tsukiji is still closed to tourists.

In fact Tsukiji has never been officially open to tourists and the workers there merely tolerated them. Though they sometimes got in the way the numbers and respect most visitors showed to the market and staff meant tourism was a manageable phenomena. The main problem these days is the crushing popularity of the place. The whole of Japan has seen a 60 percent increase in tourist numbers over the last ten years and over 8.3 million people visit the country each year now; many of whom head straight for the Tsukiji market. Of course all this attention does rather get in the way of business for those that work there and in an effort to make visitors understand this fact rules on photography such as a ban on using flash and limits to access have been progressively getting more restrictive over the last few years. The viewing area for the tuna actions was limited to 70 or 80 people a couple of years ago but up to 500 people a day had reportedly been turning-up in the hope of seeing the chaotic energy of the auction. This combined with unaware tourist or worse tour groups wandering slowly around the thin aisles of the traders and stopping to take photos everywhere caused over 400 accidents a year and helped lead to the market’s closure last month.

Monday’s visitors were generally well behaved and very understanding of the restrictions even if the reservation process was a surprise to some of them and they hadn’t been able to get a place at the auctions. Asked if the market was coping well with its identity as a tourist destination responses ranged from “It’s a work destination, not a tourist destination” to the need for a proper viewing gallery to cope with the tourists and more information provided for those that can get in to see the auctions. Everyone I spoke however, roundly condemned the bad behavior of some of the previous visitors, lamenting that “It’s a pity we all pay for someone[else]’s fault”. Most also understood the need to restrict access, if not the numbers of tourists, Lucus, a traveller from Los Angeles who had been in Japan two weeks before coming to Tsukiji and was not able to get a place at the auctions, was philosophical about his bad luck today. “The fish are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.” he said. “They need to find a way to let people look at it but not let people touch it.”

For now the restrictions at Tsukiji work well for the market even if they are not so helpful to the tourists that come to see it. Japan generally is struggling to arrange  infrastructure and ideas to cope with its sudden popularity as a tourist destination. This is not helped by a difference in attitude to tourism between Japanese and foreign visitors. Yasutake Tsukamoto, director of the Tourist Information Center run by the Japanese National Tourist Organization (JNTO) seems genuinely surprised that foreign tourists are interested in “experience-oriented” sight-seeing, stating in the Daily Yomuiri that “Ten years ago we believed foreign tourists went [to Tsukiji market] because of jet-lag.”

Of course in Japan consumer tourism is more common which is why the shops and restaurant that surround the market remain open to tourists even as the rest of the experience is gradually moving off-limits. Theresa, a travel journalist from Portugal who had been one of the first in the queue for the 140 places that morning, best summed-up the current situation when asked if these restriction were good for tourism by saying: “Tourists must adapt to the country. I think it is a positive thing that you can visit and if we are interested in visiting we have to come early. That is all.”



3 responses

  1. Nice pics of all that goes on at Tsukiji, all the way from the guy holing the sign, down through the workers to the auctions and the tourists standing outside snapping away.

    It’s a really nice place to visit, I haven’t been there for ages, will have to make a trip back there again sometime in the not too distant future.

    Hope all is well.


    May 12, 2010 at 10:37 pm

  2. Thanks Will! I do think the market as an experience is really not going to be possible anymore. basically the sensory overload that you and i remember from years back is now no longer permitted due to time and access restrictions. I feel sorry for tourists coming here now, they will get some flavour of the place but really nothing like the crazy, mad, heart in mouth event a visit used to be. But this is truly the way with many tourist destinations these days: their very popularity is destroying them. I like the Nepali proverb (I think it is Nepali anyway) that goes: “tourism is not only the goose that lays the golden egg, but also the bird that fouls its own nest.” Really even if everyone who had ever visited Tsukiji had been a model of respect and understanding I think the amount of visitors now would have caused the workers there to get annoyed with us anyway.

    May 17, 2010 at 1:39 pm

  3. Pingback: Not a Number « sungypsy blog

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