Last week, I visited the Tsukiji Fish Market here in Tokyo with Scott Jarvie, and had a wonderful morning shooting around the market, and so today I’m going to share some of my experiences and photos with you, with some advice for shooting there yourself interwoven, including a bit of a Japanese lesson to help you make the most of your visit.
Use this audio player if you’d prefer to listen and there are other formats at the bottom of the post:
Over the last twelve years since I moved to Tokyo, I’ve certainly not made the most of the fact that I live in one of the largest cities in the world with regards to my photography. I’m not much of a street photographer, largely because I rarely like my resulting images, but also because I have simply prioritized my time to concentrate on my nature and wildlife work. I have though for a long time wanted to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market, so when I was in a Google Plus Hangout with Scott Jarvie who was set to come to Tokyo for a few days last week, I decided to go and check it out with Jarvie, and see what we could make of it.
I ended up with 26 photos that I really quite like, and have posted an album on Google+ if you want to check that out. I’ve selected 12 images from that set to quickly walk you through today though, but I did want to give you a heads-up about an important aspect that we missed because I didn’t know how early we needed to get there.
The Auction – 4am Registration!
On the Tsukiji Fish Market Web site, it says that they start registration for two groups of sixty people to enter and watch the Tuna Auction from 5:25 to 5:50 for the first group, then from 5:50 to 6:15 for the second group. The earliest train I could get wouldn’t have gotten me to the market until around 6:30am, and as Jarvie’s first train wouldn’t get him there until around 5:25, so I drove and parked in a nearby car park, and took a steady walk over to the office by around 5:10, thinking I’d get two spaces for me and Jarvie, and wait for him to arrive. You can imagine how shocked I was to find that by 5:10am, all 120 visitors spaces were already taken.
I asked why they’d all gone in less than 10 minutes, and was told that people start arriving at around 4am to secure their slot. I heard the same thing a number of times through the morning, that people generally arrive and register from 4am, so if you want to visit, and actually watch the auction, you’d better get up especially early, not that getting there by 5:10am is exactly what I’d call a lie-in mind.
Market Out of Bounds Until 9am
Another thing to note is that the Market is pretty much out of bounds until 9am once the auction is finished, so although you can go a little early, and get some shots from afar, if you don’t intend to get there by 4am to get into the auctions, you might as well take your time. As you can see in this image, there are security guards that will ask you to leave the market if you walk in their before 9am.
Jarvie and I snuck around the car park, shooting images like this one from the outskirts, and I do like the results, so I don’t want to play this down too much, but for the most part, we were killing time, and once we were allowed in to the market from 9am, the pace of shooting changed, and the resulting images where very different as well.
Another thing to note is that there are electric carts buzzing around the market all the time, usually in convoy, and not really abiding by any rules as far as road markings go. I heard these things bump together a few times, and they are heavy and hard, and would really hurt if you got clipped or even full on bumped into by one, so stay aware.
In fact, you should just always keep in mind that this is a working market, not a theme park or a tourist attraction. Be respectful at all times that you are a visitor and you are being allowed to be there out of kindness, not duty. A few years ago the market was taken totally out of bounds to visitors due to a lack of respect for simple rules and common sense, and it would be a shame if that were to happen again, so don’t touch anything, keep a relatively low profile, and generally just play nicely.
So, as we weren’t able to enter the auctions, where they lay out hundreds of Tuna fish to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, we had a walk around the Sushi shops in the nearby vicinity to the Market, and they in themselves provide some good photo opportunities. Here (below) we can see one of the lines of sushi shops that we walked around. There were a few shops that had a long queue of non-Japanese visitors outside, and I’m guessing that’s because they offered great sushi at very cheap prices. Jarvie and I decided though to go into Sushi Ichiba, the small establishment that you can see on the left of this shot.
It wasn’t exactly cheap, with what we selected being around ¥2,800, which is around US$34 but we didn’t have to queue up for an hour, and boy was it good.
Here’s another shot from behind one of these little restaurants, of a young Sushi Shokunin, cutting up the Tuna, removing the bits that wouldn’t be used, ready to be more thinly sliced and placed on top of the rice to make Sushi.
This day to me was very much about textures, with lots of old buildings and fittings like the shelves in this shot, so I decided to process most of the batch in Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 4. I’ve processed them to the point where they are just starting to look a little like HDR images, but as a complete set, a body of work, I quite like the feel of these.
Quick Japanese Lesson
Note that for just about everyone of these shots, I asked for permission to photograph the subjects. In Japanese, may I take your photograph is “Shashin totte mo ii desu ka?”. If you are going to head into the market, or photograph people anywhere in Japan for that matter, keep hold of this, and listen a few times, repeating after me. 写真撮ってもいいですか？
Then, when you’ve finished, hopefully without taking too long and even if you do, make sure you don’t outstay your welcome, thank the person who’s photo you took with “arigatou gozaimasu” or “arigatou gozaimashita”, which both mean “thank you”, with the latter being past tense, which is sometimes preferred, especially if you were with the subject for a while. There are different ways to say these phrases, but as someone that’s lived here in Japan for 21 years now, you can trust me that this is about the best way to say these simple and yet practical phrases, in everyday use.
Back into the Market
By the time we’d eaten and loitered outside the entrance to the market for a while longer, it was finally 9am, so we headed inside to photograph the people that work here. I’d asked the gentleman on the right in this photo if it was OK to photograph them as they used a variety of what I’d prefer to call swords rather than knives, to cut up a tuna.
At this point, the guy in this photo came back to his stall, on the opposite side from the stall where they were cutting up the tuna, and had some fun in Japanese, talking about the large group of foreigners that had taken over the front of his work space.
After a minute or so, I decided to politely make him aware that not all of the foreigners he was talking about didn’t understand what he was saying. I turned and apologized for getting in the way, in Japanese of course. This of course was met with laughter from him and a few others on his stall, and a slight amount of embarrassment.
I continued to have a very nice long conversation with this guy, who as you might guess, despite the tough appearance, seemed to have a heart of gold. Part of our conversation was actually about how many people that work in fishing ports or related industries can be quite tough looking and rough, but inside, they are warm and generous people. I also learned that he was a baseball coach for a school baseball team, and we talked about how emotional it can be to watch the high-school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium, that’s just finished here in Japan. We laughed a lot, and then one of the others on his stall came back with a few pieces of tuna on a plastic tray, and proceeded to open a packet of soy source over it, for me to try.
The raw tuna, or sashimi, was absolutely beautiful, and of course, I wouldn’t be much of a friend if I didn’t let them know that Jarvie was with me, so that he could try it too. This offering of food like this is quite typical of the Japanese once you’ve made a connection as we had, and I was really pleased to have been taken in by them as they did. Jarvie just mentioned on Google +, as I was preparing for this Podcast, that it made a big difference with my understanding Japanese, and helped us to get some photos that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, and I totally agree. Being able to speak the language makes such a difference at times like this. If you ever want a personal guide in Japan by the way, I’m not cheap, but I’d be glad to quote a price if I’m available during your visit, so drop me a line if you seriously want to hook up for something like this.
We continued to walk around the market, and was amazed by just how large the place is. Even for someone like me that hasn’t particularly enjoyed this kind of photography so far, there’s just a wealth of opportunities for great images, such as this guy looking for a piece of tuna in his freezer full of the stuff.
By the way, I shot my images mostly with the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, my 50mm f/1.4, and my 14mm f/2.8 lens. I also used the 24-70mm f/2.8 a little as well, but these last three shots were all made with the 14mm, which is behind that slightly funky perspective.
The light in the market can be amazing too, with reflections in the wet cobblestone floor, and in this last shot (below) you can see that we’d found a spot where the light was pouring in through a glass skylight.
I found the light, the people and the place to be quite magical, and will certainly be going back again soon, probably by 4am next time, so that I can get into the tuna auctions and see what I can make of that too. I’m actually quite happy to have found at least a bit of a voice in street photography here. I have of course been shooting and posting some street photography for years, but always found Japan frustrating because of the peace signs and cute poses when you try to photograph anyone. On this trip though, there was none of that, and this, along with some of the shots from a recent photowalk that I did too, might just start to turn it around for me with regards to this relatively unexplored, on my part of course, photographic genre.
Tsukiji is Moving to Toyosu
One last thing that I wanted to touch on before we finish is that the Tsukiji Fish Market is moving from it’s current location to a place called Toyosu, about 10 minutes down the road. The actual date is not set yet, but it’s expected to be within the next two to three years. I’ll try to remember to come back and update this post, but do note that if you are listening to this podcast or reading my blog post in or after 2014, the market might have moved, so do check beforehand.
I’ll also put a link to the official Web site in the show notes, and try to update that too, at least on the blog, if it changes in the future. Remember that you can get to the blog posts to check images to accompany the audio at mbp.ac/331, where 331 is the episode number. Don’t forget to check out the rest of the photos from this day on Google+, and I’ll probably drop them on Flickr as well as my own gallery too, whichever suits you, and do let me know what you think.
Tsukiji Fish Market Web site: http://www.shijou.metro.tokyo.jp/english/market/tsukiji.html [Removed dead link]
My Tsukiji photos on Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/photos/102227359845636175866/albums/5731832324940681889
Music from Music Alley: http://www.musicalley.com/
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I lived in Japan from 92-94. We visited the Tsukiji Fish Market during a trip to Tokyo and were able to see the auction. It was fascinating and I hope you do get back to see it on another visit. My husband is in the Air Force and we were both fortunate enough to teach English to two groups of Japanese physicians and dentists who were extremely generous and hospitable to us. We saw things and were invited into places that most gaijin would never be able to experience without that connection. The Japanese are warm and hospitable people and we loved every minute of our four years there! I really enjoyed this podcast and hope to see more excursions like this from you in the future.
Thanks for the comment Elaine! I’m pleased you enjoyed this episode.
For sure, actually living here helps to see things that most foreigners never get to see.
I’ve wanted to visit Tsukiji for years, but never got around to it. I’m pleased I went, and I will certainly try to get to the auction before they move the market to Toyosu.
Great gallery, love the way all the pictures share the same “a little like HDR images” (as you said) look and feel. Did you stack several filters from Nik Color Efex Pro to get to that point please?
Thanks for the kind words.
The effect was just Detail Extractor in varying degrees, depending on the image. No stacking.
Note too that the second image “Driver” was pretty much straight out of the camera. I love the light on that one.
Thanks for the follow-up Martin
Great podcast Martin – reminds me of a day with Turkish photographer who I booked as a guide in southern turkey got some great access to rural family life etc well worth cost – hopefully can do the same in Tokyo with you one day
That sounds great too.
Just let me know if you need help like that here in Japan any time.
I’m surprised about the “asking” bit. They’re in a place that specifically opens for tourists pretty much every day of the year, so no one working there is going to be surprised about a camera, but everyone working there is *working*, so I would have thought the offense here would be to interrupt their work, especially to ask a trivial question that everyone already knows the answer to. Asking the question you already know the answer too falls under “social graces”, and like I said, I thought that would take a backseat to getting work done, so it’s a good datapoint to have learned, should I ever visit the market.
But as a counter-example to the fish market, I’ll point out that if you’re in Kyoto and see a geiko (geisha) and want to take a photo, just go ahead and do it, but if you want them to pose, consider that to ask you’ll be interrupting their work, or their heading to work, and that is indeed an imposition with their busy schedules. (And if they’re with a client, it’s downright rude and they will likely refuse you.) But like any similar scenario, be respectful and quick.
Hi Jeffrey! Thanks for stopping by.
Asking is not only suggested by the security guards, I personally think it’s good photography etiquette. Of course, if you want to shoot candid shots in the street, just go ahead and shoot it, and then if necessary ask afterwards, but I think you should ask at places Tsukiji.
Sure, the Tsukiji bunch are used to being photographed, but it can’t feel great to just has someone come up and start shooting without a word. The good thing is that no-one says no, or at least not to me, and once they’ve acknowledged you, they go straight back to work, so they’re great models!
Great advice about the geiko Jeffrey!
The colors and textures you captured in the Tusukiji photos were quite amazing. It looks like you had a good time and I’m quite jealous of your extremely fresh sashimi encounter.
That fresh tuna sashimi was something else too. 🙂
Although we lived in Japan for three years 1969-1972 we never got to the fish market. I wonder if the move to the new facility will change the atmosphere of the place that you caught so well in your photographs. Hope not. I am now inspired to go to our local West Side Market and do some shooting. It is retail, but attracts a wide spectrum of customers and all the vendors are small businesses.
I’m sure the atmosphere will be different from now, with a nice new building etc. but the people won’t change, I’m sure. Before you know it, everything will be business as usual.
If you get over to your local market, do have a good time, and share a link to the photos!
I’m quite sad to hear that they don’t allow visitors into the market now before 9AM. If I recall correctly there was some ruckus made by a few foreigners who were misbehaving inside.
It’s a pity, because I’ve also photographed inside the market and found the bulk of the action happening in the early hours until about 7 to 8AM when things start to slow down.
You can join one of the two sessions for the auction much earlier, but you have to get their by around 4am to secure your place. Once that’s over, it’s after 9am.
The problem was much more than a few foreigners. It was years of foreigners getting in the way and touching the fish etc. They were quite patient for a while, but then when they’d had enough, they banned visitors all together for quite a while. The new rules are a result of a lot of thinking how they could let people in, but maintain the safety of the visitors and keep people from touching the fish.
It’s a shame, but we can’t really blame the market staff. People needed to behave more initially.
I just listened to this episode, as I only recently discovered you. I love the images and your narrative. I also liked the catchy music bed? Can you share the name of the tune or the musical group?
Thanks for listening John!
This track was from Music Alley, by Reggae Far East. A track called Cost Cut Japan. You should be able to find it in this list.
Doing some research for a trip to Japan in 2019. Came across your post, and I have to say this has been the most informative in regard to the Tsukiji Market. I’m an amateur photographer and my passion is street photography/lifestyle photography. I would definitely love your assistance photographing the fish market when the time comes….if you’re still offering.
I’m pleased you found this post useful.
If the timing works, I may be able to help with your visit, but it’s possible that Tsukiji won’t be there in 2019, at least not in it’s current form. A new market has been built at Toyosu, and the market should have already moved, but they are having problems that are causing them to rethink. The current plan actually has them leaving Tsukiji in place for small business sales, and making Toyosu the new wholesale fish market. Depending on what actually happens, there may or may not be anything to see in 2019.
Let’s keep our eye on the situation, and see if there is anything possible.