More than the auction: Tsukiji restaurants to visit before it moves

by Erica Yokoyama

Contributing Writer

It is now less than a month before Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market closes to the public to relocate to its new venue in Toyosu.

The market, which has been in operation in its current location in Tsukiji since 1935, has become renowned, among other things, for its tuna auction. Now its resident restaurants, wholesalers and fish merchants are busy preparing for the move to the new market space, scheduled for Oct. 11.

Along with the main fish market, Uogashi Yokocho — the shopping streets within the inner market — will also relocate to Toyosu. Originally set up to cater to market workers, the busy alleyways are currently home to around 130 shops and restaurants where chefs can purchase cooking equipment and visitors can enjoy breakfast and lunch.

While this is not the first move for the fish market, it is incredibly significant for the businesses operating there. The first iteration of the market was established at the beginning of the 17th century in Nihonbashi by then-shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616).

The Nihonbashi fish market thrived until 1923 when it was devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake on Sept. 1. It was then relocated to its current home in Tsukiji, and the construction of the market facility was completed in 1935.

Many of the restaurants in Uogashi Yokocho date back to the earliest days of the current market, and their histories are intertwined with Tsukiji. The vast majority will move to the new market location, but there are several that should be visited before the move takes place and that history is lost.

Of all the sushi restaurants in Tsukiji, there are two whose reputations travel the farthest: Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi. Each shop’s reputation is well-earned; both serve high-quality sushi fresh from the market. Sushi Dai is the smaller of the two, with only 12 seats at its counter, making its queues longer than those at Daiwa Sushi. But queuing before dawn in the ramshackle alleys outside the restaurants is almost as much a part of the experience as eating the sushi itself, and one that is unlikely to be the same in the new location.

Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi both serve omakase (chef’s selection) sets (¥4,000 and ¥3,500 respectively) as well as sushi by the piece for those with specific tastes. As the most famous establishments in Tsukiji besides the tuna auction itself, the two have sparked an ongoing argument between Tokyo foodies about which is best. It’s a debate that will hopefully continue well after the move to Toyosu.

Another stalwart of the market is Sushibun, which first opened when the market was still at Nihonbashi and accompanied it to Tsukiji in 1935. The restaurant began long before refrigeration was widely available and, as was the style at the time, Sushibun became a practitioner of edomae-zushi, where fish is cured in vinegar or immersed in soy sauce and simmered.

Sushibun remains one of the city’s best purveyors of this traditional form of sushi, and is one of the few restaurants serving edomae-zushi within the inner market. The restaurant’s most popular dish is anago (conger eel), which is selected daily from the market and then broiled with a “secret broth” that has supposedly been the same for the last 150 years.

Uogashi Yokocho is not just a place for sushi, however, and there’s a wide selection of Showa Era (1926-89) restaurants serving up different fare. Odayasu, which opened in 1935, is a paradise for lovers of fried and deep-fried food. Its fried oysters come highly recommended but the shop’s speciality is tonkatsu (deep-fried and breaded pork cutlets). A customer favorite is the chāshū (roasted pork) and egg set menu, which was created based on suggestions from the shop’s regulars.

Coffee House Aiyo is a classic bar-style cafe that offers one of the oldest and simplest menus in the market that, according to the restaurant, hasn’t changed since the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The main focus is on the coffee, and the cafe only serves two dishes: toast (¥220) and soft-boiled eggs (¥80).

Finally, Yoshinoya, one of the country’s most famous food chains, is also intimately tied to the Tsukiji market. The gyūdon (beef-topped rice bowl) specialist that is now ubiquitous across Japan was first established in the Nihonbashi market in 1899, and followed it when it moved to Tsukiji. This original Yoshinoya shares all of the traits of the modern shop: the horseshoe-shaped counter, the gyūdon-centric menu and the efficient layout of the kitchen. Though the store will also move to Toyosu, this Yoshinoya is a true piece of Tsukiji history.

Tsukiji’s inner market will be open to the public until Oct. 6 but the final tuna auction will take place earlier, on Sept. 15. The new market is expected to open to the public on Oct. 11. Tsukiji’s outer market, located adjacent to the inner market and home to approximately 500 shops and restaurants, will remain where it is.