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Tsukiji fish market: Old schooling for kids

by Jason Jenkins

A new year means new beginnings. For the Tsukiji fish market, that new beginning may finally arrive in 2018. News of the market’s closure in Tsukiji and rebirth in the nearby Toyosu neighborhood has been a regular feature in the news. This year, however, the closing will very likely become a reality.

There has been lots of talk about how sanitized (both hygienically and aesthetically) the new location will be. Either way, aging facilities and the looming Olympics make the move an inevitability. One of Tokyo’s most iconic commercial centers will soon leave the formidable real estate where it now sits.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting that your time to visit the old Tsukiji market is running out. Have you been to the famed fish market? Do you want to show your kids this cultural landmark? Now’s the time to plot out your visit and this can be a great cultural and culinary experience — but think about it carefully before you go.

A Tsukiji visit is not for everyone. If you have small children, then I’d recommend not visiting the inner market at all. The aisles are narrow, slippery and covered with water hoses. Most importantly, it is a work site, so you have to expect people pushing carts and hauling large boxes everywhere you look. Then there are the turret trucks. These scrappy, three-wheeled vehicles bang around the market grounds at alarming speeds. Carefully evaluate if your kids can navigate a place like this safely, and keep in mind that strollers, backpacks, rolling suitcases are strictly prohibited. Anything else that could obstruct an aisle must also remain at home. In the warmer months, many forms of open-toed shoes are forbidden, as well.

The next step is deciding when to visit. The market closes on Sundays, most Wednesdays and on many holidays, so check the calendar before you show up. I’ve turned up twice in the early hours, only to realize that it was a Wednesday morning, so avoid my dumb mistake. It’s also worth noting that Tsukiji can close to tourists for indefinite periods of time. This usually happens after a visitor has flagrantly disregarded the rules or otherwise made a scene. The authorities at Tsukiji will not hesitate to eject someone from their grounds. They may also decide to close the site to visitors for a week or longer. Check the market’s website before you go.

Before you visit, I recommend talking about it with the kids. Prepare them for their surroundings. Remind them that you will have to stay close together and that no one can stray off. More importantly, talk about the significance of Tsukiji and its importance to Japan. Talk about what seafood they like to eat and make a point to look for it at the market. Write down the Japanese kanji names to look for, as many kids might not recognize a fish if they’re not accustomed to seeing them whole.

On market day, start early, but not too early. I usually advise arriving no earlier than 8 a.m. If you’re thinking about going to the tuna auction with kids — don’t. Some people think that seeing the tuna auction is integral to the “experience,” but I am not one of those people. In order to see an auction, you have to arrive at the middle of the night and spend most of the early hours in waiting rooms as cold as frozen fish. This is just to watch a few men bid.

Instead, let the kids sleep in a little and arrive around 8 a.m. when the outside market opens. Stop by the Plat Tsukiji for a map of the area. There are coin lockers here as well. Now it’s time to grab some breakfast. If you want to start the day with sushi, then you have plenty of options in the streets to the east of you. In order to eat at the sushi stands inside the Tsukiji Market grounds, you’d need to arrive hours earlier to wait in line. I’ve done that with kids, and would not want to do it again. There’s great fish in most sushi places near the market, so why wait for hours for something only slightly better? You’re unlikely to taste the difference.

Once you’ve filled your bellies, then it’s time to explore the outer market. By 9:30 a.m. I’d start heading toward the inner market. You might not be admitted until 10 a.m., depending on how the rules stand on the day you visit. Once you enter, remind the kids to keep their hands to themselves. Depending on the child’s age and interests, I recommend hanging a camera around their neck to keep their fingers occupied.

The market can seem overwhelming at first. Talk about the fish and other sea creatures you see: Which ones do the kids like to eat? How different do they look intact and on ice? Make sure that you give them enough time to take it all in without getting in the workers’ way.

For more information, visit www.tsukiji.or.jp/english/index.html. Be sure to check the calendar at www.shijou.metro.tokyo.jp/calendar/2018.