Experience Photographing the Tokyo Fish Market Before History Disappears

Experience Photographing the Tokyo Fish Market Before History Disappears

Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market has been my favorite spot for many years. The subtle differences between fish mongers is what adds vibrancy to the colorful characters that make up this market. Most of them have been working here for generations. Located just a two minute walk from Tsukiji train station, it’s a great place to spend the morning taking photos, followed by a very fresh sushi lunch. This has been my routine for the last eight years. The variety of closed and open spaces — from the auction houses to the narrow lane-ways — depict an ambience unlike any other fish market in the world. The bad smell of fish is not really apparent, which confirms the freshness of the product.

Creatively, the market has tons of opportunities to shoot a variety of genres like food, interiors, street portraits, or a combination of all three. The style of shooting is fast and furious, with not a lot of time to think twice about your content. Food is best shot in natural light, but unfortunately the overhead tungsten lights often leave highlighted spots on the fish, so you need to pick your subjects and ambient lighting carefully. Flash photography isn’t tolerated by any of the vendors. Also you can’t touch the product as some types of fish command a hefty price tag. I’ve been coming back for years so I’ve tried to find all of those of which I have taken a photo to give them a copy. It really helps to build the relationships if you can show your gratitude in some way. Goes without saying that tripods are not allowed either.

Tsukiji, Fish market, Tokyo

Tokyo Fish Market frozen tuna auction.

Fish Market, Tokyo

Tokyo Fish Market fresh tuna auction.

After multiple visits, my good friend Maguro Ken and I decided to write and photograph a small paperback book to sell at the fish market bookstore. Ken has been a tuna fish broker here for over 20 years. His local knowledge helped to put this labor of love together. Now that the market is scheduled to move to a new location in the near future, it would be a great idea to visit the market before history disappears.

Just a heads up that if you are expecting to have a fun time shooting you will be shocked to know that tourists are not really welcome. The market's main source of income in the inner part is to auction, wholesale, and deliver fish to their customers as quickly as possible. At the moment the only way to see an auction is to line up for a tour very early. First come, first served as numbers are limited. The auctions usually start around 5 a.m. and finish very quickly. If you don't want to wake very early for a tour then I would suggest you arrive just before 9 a.m. when locals are less stressed and about to finish work. Most locals at the market only know two words in English: "Get out."

Despite the rudeness, this place is as rough as fish guts and worth a visit. After a walk through the inner section of the market I would recommend a morning brunch at a sushi bar in the outer section. The outer section caters more for tourist so here you will feel more welcome.

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13 Comments

Lee Christiansen's picture

I've filmed at this market many years ago.

I hope things are different now, but when I was there I witnessed incredible cruelty with some live fish speared to keep them barely alive and fresh until sale. Many of these fish would have suffered for hours whilst stacked on sticks.

The sights of the tuna amazed me. I always thought these fish were little things so it was a real surprise to see them for real.

We were there to film a documentary about illegal whale meat sales. The director sent me in on my own to film so as not to attract attention - which was a little difficult 15 years ago with a huge Betacam SP camera on my shoulder. I remember being chased off by a burly trader, wielding a rather vicious looking knife...!

Alfonso Calero's picture

Over fishing of Tuna especially has lead to massive drops in sales. Here is a nice UNU documentary (2012) showing signs of sustainability programmes to help the industry and not abuse it. https://youtu.be/KkgHbrXoXes

If you realize that fishes are sentient beings, who suffer fear and pain, these photos are reminiscent of an emergency morgue of some immense disaster or the scene of some horrific war crime.

Tunas are amazing, athletic animals who have been described as aquatic racehorses, and consuming these apex predators has been compared to consuming tigers. The looming extinction they face is widely known.

While fishes there may or may not still suffer as Lee Christiansen explained in his comment, one can be assured that every fish there suffered immensely in being caught and killed. Fishing entails torturing animals.

To write of this place with such utter lack of regard for who these subjects are brings to mind “the banality of evil.” Knowing what fishes are like, how sensitive and perceptive and admirable they are, the recommendation to follow a visit there by consuming remains of its victims is plainly ghoulish.

Adam Ottke's picture

Thank you for this! I'm going to Japan soon and will definitely keep some of these things in mind! 5 a.m. — no problem! ;-)

Alfonso Calero's picture

I'll be there next month if you are around then for a sake!

Adam Ottke's picture

That would be awesome! I believe I get there toward the last few days of March. Let's connect if you're around!

I was just there a few months ago. I would suggest being there before 3. If you want to make sure you make it, be there by 1am. Our group arrived just before 2am and we just made the cutoff by 4 or 5 people. They only accept a limited number every day so if you want to guarantee making it, you need to be there much earlier. To put it into perspective, we were there on a weekday in mid October. So not really busy season but it's that popular so make sure to come early.

Attached Photo shows the room at full capacity. The people at the front of the line (far opposite corner where people are standing) arrived right after they finished dinner the previous day. Lots of people sleep on the floor while waiting.

Adam Ottke's picture

Thank you for the suggestion. I, too, heard of times more like 3:30 or 4, but not as early as 1 or 2! I will keep that in mind, especially since it will be the busy season when I'm there.

Can you comment on the pace of the tour and the overall atmosphere with respect to brining a camera and shooting? And is it super dark or do the lights around the area do a decent job (i.e. if I want to shoot film, do I need to look into bringing Delta 3200 in 35mm so I can get to f/1.4, or can I make do with some CineStill 800T in 120 that I got and shoot that at f/4)?

It's a pretty busy active work environment. They don't want you taking pictures when they walk you from the waiting room to the auction warehouse but it's mainly for your own safety so you're paying attention to the paths. You are walking where lots of vehicles and trucks move just like a typical dock. But once in the warehouse, you're absolutely free to shoot as much as you want.

I think ASA800 with an f4 should be okay with a slow enough shutter but I'm not too familiar with medium format systems, may need a push in development. I shot with an a6300 with two lenses. 10-18 f4 wide open, iso 3200 at 1/125 (example photo was those settings, sooc, no adjustments). For tighter shots, I used a 50mm 1.8 wide open, iso500, 1/125th.

Adam Ottke's picture

This helps me a ton. Yes, then I'll definitely need to rate/push for 3200.... Thank you. I'll be planning properly, then, I hope ;-)

Alfonso Calero's picture

Wow that is a crazy waiting time. I admire your patience.

Meng Keat Tan's picture

I was there on 28 Feb 2017. We came about 1.30 am and already 5 people in the queue. According to them end-of the month is rather slow day. The gates open at 3am that we are allow to wait in the awaiting room. So prepared wear some extra clothing as it is chilling. Do check the calendar schedule here for the market opening/closing.
http://www.tsukiji-market.or.jp/tukiji_e.htm

Alfonso Calero's picture

This is my Tokyo Fish Market book available at the only book store there. http://www.alfonso.com.au/bookshop