Japan is known the world over for arguably the finest seafood. Tokyo alone has 34 Michelin-starred sushi restaurants and even the offerings at less renowned establishments in the metropolis are fantastic. But it’s not cheap. This is one of the world's most expensive cities, after all – and its famous Tsukiji fish market, where US$18-million in raw fish changes hands daily, is home to the planet's priciest sushi (a 440-pound bluefin tuna was auctioned for US$117,000 in 2016).
Located on the picturesque banks of the Sumida River on the border of the Ginza district, the market opened in 1935 and is a cultural landmark – but it’s also a tourist trap. And after years of relocation rumours, Tsukiji is finally slated to move on Oct. 6. Saturday is the last chance for tours of the live tuna auction, limited to just 120 visitors at a time. The new version, set to open two kilometres from the current spot as Toyosu Market on Oct. 11, promises to have more viewing space – but the temporary closure is the perfect excuse to learn about what the rest of the country has to offer sushi lovers and to look beyond the capital for your fresh fish fix.
The best bet for your wallet – and stomach – are the smaller markets scattered across the Japanese archipelago, especially the northernmost cities where wholesalers offer wholesale prices and you can choose individual pieces of fish and assemble your choices over a steaming bowl of rice: scallops so fresh they’re still in the shell with the foot, blood-red, two-metre long octopus tentacles, salmon roe, squid, shrimp, sea urchin, yellowtail, mackerel, tuna – all caught and cut that day. You can eat like a king for less than $20 a meal.
Hiroko Miyamoto, an English-speaking guide based in Kyoto, says most visitors have no idea that these just as good – if not better – fish markets can be found throughout the country. Her favorites? “Omicho market in the city of Kanazawa, one in Hakodate, one in Naha in Okinawa.”
Don't be daunted if you've never heard of these places: With cruise lines such as Princess, Star, Cunard and Silver Sea travelling to far-flung cities all around the island chain, it's Google-search simple to step off the boat, take a cab a few blocks and step into a Far East culinary fantasy. All that's needed is a little know-how.
Every market is a little different – some, such as the one in Sakaiminato, require a 300 yen entrance fee (about $3.50) and reservations and visitors are limited to a few dozen a day – but the concept remains the same. First, get a plastic bowl of white rice (look for a vendor near the front of the market), served in a healthy dollop. Then roam – or, better yet, graze – walking up and down aisle after aisle, examining what each vendor has on display, pointing toward what you want.
In Hakodate, I do just that. Here, on the tip of Hokkaido Island (and at Aomori just across the bay in the Mutsu Channel), the mix of cold currents from the Arctic and the warm Pacific waters create some of the best fishing conditions anywhere – and that means phenomenal options for fresh, clean and affordable eating. I flit from vendor to vendor, stopping at plastic tables to wolf down varying grades of bluefin – red fatty se-kami, fatty chutoro, and the best of the best, otoro – and savour bites that I could never afford back home or in Tokyo.
Markets accept cash only, so be prepared. Locals get vendors to stamp a punch card ticket available at any stall and then pay at the end; I didn’t know and paid for each piece as I went along, but I was a newbie. My first meal digested, I was now among the initiated.
Few of the vendors speak confident English, but the point-to-order system means it isn't much of an issue.
Saito-San, the one vendor I encountered in Hakodate who can speak English well, serves up the smoothest slices of maguro I’ve ever had. He takes an interest in me in my leather jacket and endless hunger and soon we are discussing the future of the tuna industry. Japanese eat more tuna than any other nation – about 80 per cent of all bluefin – and the global tuna craze means diminishing catches and smaller specimens being caught. Two major firms, Kyokuyo Co. and Nippon Suisan Kaisha, Ltd., are planning to ship 500 tons each of farmed tuna this year, he tells me.
It's hard to imagine with such bounty on display – but could Japan become a nation of farmed fish? And, I wonder, when that happens, will this all still exist? How can it?
“Things change,” Saito responds with a laugh, offering me a tall bottle of Asahi beer. “But Japan will still eat tuna. They love it too much. That will always stay the same.”
Air Canada offers direct flights to several cities in Japan, departing from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
Princess Cruises sails here more than any other line, with 60 departures between March and November. The Diamond Princess, refurbished in 2014, features specialty sushi restaurants and traditional onsen baths onboard. Rates start at $1,449 a person based on double occupancy.
For help in planning market tours, visit japan.travel, the official website of the Japanese National Tourism Organization. Search for "fish market" and more than a dozen options come up. Click through for descriptions, hours, public transportation info and other useful tips.
Most Far East cruises start and end in Yokohama, just a short ride from Tokyo. If you choose to extend your trip post-voyage in the capital, the Shangri-La is a top bet. Facing the Imperial Palace and Ginza shopping district, you’re right in the thick of it all, and the views from the 32nd floor are unbeatable. Plus being adjacent to Tokyo Station makes shinkansen bullet train service across the country – or to the airport – easy. Rooms start at US$365 a night.