January is a delicious time for local seafood, as fish naturally fatten up to survive in icy waters. A visit to Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward will give you a first-hand view of winter seasonal seafood, as well as a chance to savor it in the area’s restaurants. Here’s a guide on what to look for and where to eat at the world’s largest seafood market — before it changes location to Toyosu in Koto Ward sometime in the next couple of years.
Start your morning at the recently opened Turret Coffee (2-12-6 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; 03-6264-1883). Barista Kiyoshi Kawasaki, formerly of Streamer Coffee Company, serves espresso in colorful ochoko (sake cups). Or get a latte to go and keep your hands warm while perusing the market.
Start by exploring the many stalls of the outer market, Jogai Ichiba, that sell essential staples for the Japanese kitchen, such as konbu (kelp), tea and nori. Katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings) specialty store Akiyama Shouten (4-14-16 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; 03-3541-2724; www.akiyamashouten.com) sells kezuri-ki, the tool used for preparing your own katsuobushi shavings. The shop will adjust the plane in the wooden box according to your ability to shave the hard filets of smoked and dried skipjack tuna. Katsuobushi flakes adds a rich, smoky note when sprinkled over tofu or steamed greens.
The inner market, Jonai Ichiba, opens to the general public after 9 a.m., so schedule your visit around this. It is here where hundreds of nakaoroshi (intermediate wholesalers) sell directly to chefs and retailers. Each stall has its own specialty, such as tuna, shrimp or live seafood. After the inner market moves to Toyosu, visitors will no longer be able to walk among the colorful and dizzying array of seafood — the new location will instead have a viewing area overlooking the nakaoroshi — so now is your chance.
Note the care with which the seafood is displayed. Whole fish are often positioned with the eyes to the left and the tail to the right. Some stalls practice ikejime, a technique of killing the fish quickly by pushing a thin wire rod down the spinal cord, resulting in a richer texture and better flavor. At eel specialty stalls, a spike is used to secure the eel down onto the cutting board before it is butterflied. Listen for the screeching sound of bandsaws slicing super-frozen tuna.
At this time of year, connoisseurs go crazy for delicate innards such as shirako (milt), usually from cod, but the best is said to come from fugu (blowfish). Shirako is steamed in sake and served with grated daikon and a tart ponzu sauce. Ankimo (monkfish liver) can be seen in the market still attached to the fish after its stomach has been sliced open. Referred to as the “foie gras of the sea,” it is rolled up like a sausage, steamed and sliced, and is considered a lighter version of its duck counterpart.
Shellfish thrive in cold waters. Trattoria Tsukiji Paradiso (6-27-3 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; 03-3545-5550; www.tsukiji-paradiso.com), which opens at 11 a.m., is a gem in the outer market that brings together Japanese seafood with Italian cuisine. The signature lunch, Linguine alla Paradiso, is a hearty pasta dish of mussels, tsubugai (whelk), shirogai (white tellin clams), asari (Japanese littleneck clams) and shijimi (corbicula clams) that are cooked until they burst open, the juice enriching the tomato sauce.
Shellfish’s rich texture is treasured at the sushi counter. Akagai (ark shell) is a red clam that is crunchy, while hamaguri (Oriental clam) is simmered until tender and slathered with a sweet soy reduction. Tsukiji Sushidai Honkan (6-21-2 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; 03-3541-3738; www.tsukiji-sushidai.com), which opens at 10:30 a.m., offers many otsumami (small dishes) to whet your appetite. Start with shirako or ankimo and grilled or deep-fried bites before moving on to seasonal sushi. Excellent this time of year is the buttery kanburi (winter yellowtail), which melts in your mouth. Saba (Pacific mackerel) is salted and then cured in vinegar (shime-saba), which helps to cut through the oily fish. Kawahagi (thread-sail file fish) is a meaty whitefish that is luxurious when topped with its liver (kimo).
Squeeze into the counter at Toyo-chan (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Bldg. #1; 03-3541-9062; www.tsukijigourmet.or.jp/11_toyo), a katsu (deep-fried pork cutlet) specialty restaurant that excels at kaki fry. Bread crumbs cover two oysters that are deep-fried until golden; the juicy, briny oysters are a nice contrast to the crispy coating.
Tuck in at Takahashi (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, Bldg. #8; 03-3541-1189) for simple dishes that speak to a fishmonger’s heart. Kinmedai no nitsuke is a pink-fleshed splendid alfonsino fish simmered in a sweet soy and sake broth until tender.
With the imminent move of the inner market to Toyosu, now is the time to experience it along with the rich selection of dining options of the outer market. And winter undoubtedly offers the richest selection of seafood.
Tips for your Tsukiji trip
• Tsukiji is a working market, so visitors should be very aware of their surroundings and be sure to step out of the way of workers on fast-moving turrets or in the narrow aisles of the inner market.
• In the inner market, avoid being in a group of more than two or three.
• Security guards distribute maps of the inner market designating areas open to the public.
• Photos are permitted, but flashes are not allowed, as the fishmongers are using knives.