Tokyo is modern Japan’s capital, its largest city and a dynamic and fascinating destination. Travelers in search of “traditional” Japan sometimes bypass Tokyo in favor of Kyoto; indeed, we never spent any time there until our 3rd trip. It’s true that much of Tokyo was destroyed in the 20th century, walloped by consecutive disasters of the 1923 earthquake and firebombing in WW II, resulting in much of the city being rebuilt since the 1950s. That said, this modern renaissance is also an important component of getting to know the “real” Japan and to miss it, is to miss out. It’s an exhilarating city of contrasts and extremes, with the user-friendly, comprehensive subway system lending itself to a wide exploration of Tokyo’s sprawling environments.
In my last post, I addressed getting around. Armed with a Pasmo or Suica card, navigating the Tokyo subway is a breeze. One of the first destinations the traveling photographer should steer to is the world-famous Tsukiji fish market. In a future post, I’ll disuss other Tokyo possibilities for shooting, but first, on to my number one Tokyo destination for traveling photographers.
Tsukiji: The world’s largest fish market
If you will be in Tokyo this year, and especially if you have never been to Tsukiji, don’t miss it! Tsukiji has been in the same location for over 80 years but is scheduled to move out of central Tokyo in October 2018. It is not yet clear whether visitors will be permitted to the new location. Steve and I first visited Tsukiji in April 2014, again in April 2016 and most recently, in January of this year. Each time, I found it a marvel of chaotic industry and wonderfully photogenic. Each time, I found it amazing how visitors are permitted unfettered to wander through the potentially dangerous market, with turret trucks whizzing by, men wielding wicked-looking hooks and knives as huge tunas and other fish are processed, while underfoot are slippery, bloody guts…that is, until a clean-up bucket of water washes over your feet!
What you need to know about photography in Tsukiji:
- Don’t delay: The historic market, open since 1935, is slated to move to its new home in October 2018. What that will be like is anyone’s guess.
- Limited numbers of observers (120 total) are allowed in the wee dark hours for the tuna auction, which is over by 6 am! Do the math, that means you must be there in the middle of the night to secure a spot. I’ll get up in the middle of the night for the Northern Lights, but…you guessed it, we’ve NEVER gotten up for the tuna auction! What interests us is the people, professions, profusion of products and flurry of activity and there is no shortage of subjects going at the normal time.
- The magic hour for visiting the inner market is 9 am! Keep in mind that this is towards the end of the day at Tsukiji, so be outside and ready to be waved in at 9 am sharp! Much of the activity will be winding down towards 10 am, but in that one hour, an astounding number of images will be made. A good morning itinerary: arrive in the area by 8 am, wander around the outer market (stalls and restaurants surrounding the inner market), shoot in the inner market from 9-10 am or so, then pick a fish or sushi restaurant in the area at random for a late breakfast or early lunch.
- Dress appropriately! What this means: warm enough, streamlined and with hardy footwear. The cavernous market has been cold each time we’ve visited. The passages between stalls are narrow and filled with hazards, so choose a versatile camera and lens set-up and leave the bulky backpack of gear in your hotel. There is no convenient place to change lenses or set down a gear-laden pack. I’ve mentioned the fish guts and water on the floor, so it should be obvious that flip-flops, high-heels or precious shoes would not be a good choice of footwear!
- Camera choices: Looking back over my catalog of shots from Tsukiji from 3 separate trips, I see I took a different set-up each time. What they had in common, besides being Fuji, was being minimal, streamlined rigs. The first set-up was the most minimal: Fujifilm FinePix X100, with a fixed 35 mm equivalent lens, a very small, unobtrusive, non-threatening rig, easy to carry and fun to shoot. I have the current version of this camera, the Fujifilm X100F, which would be a terrific choice. The second time, I shot with a Fujifilm X-T1, mostly with the “pancake” XF 18 mm F2R lens, sometimes switching off for the XF 35 mm F2 WR lens. This is another small lens, small enough to be carried in a purse or tote bag. This last trip, I paired my Fujifilm X-T2 with a zoom lens, the XF 16-55mm F2.8 R LM WR lens. The zoom lens is bulkier than the primes, but the versatility paid off. I also mostly composed without looking through the viewfinder, by back-focusing and using the rear LCD to compose, which made it easier to interact with the workers and merchants and is less off-putting. I was pleased with results on all three occasions, but my yield was the highest on the last trip, probably due to experience, the versatility of the zoom lens and the friendlier approach advantages of composing without using the viewfinder.
- All of the images posted here were taken with available light. Leave the flash in your hotel, chose a reasonable f-stop (f2-f8), chose a fast enough shutter speed to catch the action (1/125 or faster, if possible) and bump up your ISO as needed to achieve a rich histogram.
- Watch out! Keep foremost in your mind that Tsukiji is a workplace, filled with potentially dangerous instruments and vehicles (turret trucks, unique to Tsukiji, motorcycles and bicycles will be zooming through at full speed!). Do not distract the workers, watch where you are going (like crossing a street, look both ways!), never take a step back to reframe without looking first! It is amazing that such unfettered access is allowed. It is a both an exhilarating and mildly terrifying place to visit!
- Like anywhere, some people are fine with being photographed and others are not. Some stalls may have posted signs saying No Photography. Respect these wishes and move on, there is plenty to see.
I hope this post whets your appetite for travel to Tokyo! Next post, we’ll look at other destinations to consider for shooting opportunities in Tokyo, but this is the only one with an expiration date on it, so if you’ve been on the fence about going to Japan this year, the chance to see the world’s largest and busiest seafood market in its historic home should sway you! A good option for those who would like a guided tour would be to book a tour with Arigato Japan Food Tours. Charming Asami and Asha accompanied us on our last venture to Tsukiji and added a culinary and local’s dimensions that were most enjoyable. Whether you chose to go solo or accompanied, Tsukiji is a mesmerizing nexus of the world’s seafood industry and not to be missed!