I've read that the fish market is closed on Sundays, in addition to national holidays. Better ask your hotel concierge the night before to see whether or not the market will be open. At the latest, you'll be getting up at 5am to take the 5:30am train to get there by 6am (depending on how far away you are staying), it's worth the sacrifice to lose the extra 30 minutes of sleep and haul ass to the station by 5am to take the first train out. You'll want to see the auctions, a privilege few visitors have seen since it has been closed off to visitors in the past.
To get a sense of where the market is located, check out this map; Tsukiji is located Southeast of Central Tokyo. Though Tokyo Metro offers an official PDF map, it's crap like most Japanese maps. I prefer to use this map from Johomaps.
Depending on your origin, you'll be getting off at either Tsukiji Shijo Station, Higashi-Ginza Station or Tsukiji Station. Oedo line goes to Tsukiji Shijo Station, take exit A2 (the closest station and exit to the market). Asakusa line and Hibiya line both go to Higashi-Ginza Station. If you are taking the Hibiya line from the Northeast sector, get off at Tsukiji Station. Otherwise you'll get off at Higashi-Ginza if you are coming from the Southwest.
I highly suggest that you visit Hyperdia, enter in the station names and figure out what time the first train leaves your departure station. You'll want to get on the first train of the day, usually a few minutes after 5am. Don't miss it or you'll be spending around 15 minutes waiting for the next train. It's worth the effort to get on that first train to view the fish auctions.
When you get arrive at your station, just look for a map or ask someone, they should easily be able to direct you towards the market.
Market Layout in brief
From this map, you'll see that the fish follow a pretty linear route through the market. The top portion of the map is where the boats dock and unload their catch. The catch is funneled through the first layer of hangars where it is auctioned off to the middlemen. The middlemen either run stalls in the Marine Products Section or sell portions of what they won at auction to the individuals running these stalls. From there, restaurant owners stroll through making their purchases for the day, eventually loading all their goods in the delivery center.
Fish Market Route
This guide will assume that you arrived via the Oedo line to the Tsukiji Shijo station, exiting out of the A2 exit. The numbered list below corresponds to this map on my Flickr.
- The initial portion of the route will be a bit boring. Spend the time now to get acclimated to the hustle and bustle of the market. Learn to make yourself invisible - as in, don't get in the way of the turret trucks, handcarts or other employees in the market. As an individual so politely put it to one of my buddies, it's your vacation, but their livelihood you are messing with.
On this route, you'll probably pass a large holding area for Styrofoam cartons. It's one of two that I've seen at the market, the one on the other side of the market is more impressive. You'll also pass the fresh fish and live fish wholesale areas. Not much to see, the fresh fish are stacked in Styrofoam boxes, the live fish are in tanks, don't spend too much time here. The most interesting thing I saw was during my fifth and final visit, saw a guy in full fish market gear practicing his golf swing. Contrast? You got it...
- In the hangar spaces on your right, you'll see tons of frozen tuna sprawled about. If you get here early enough, you'll see the auctions happening here. This will be one of the most impressive sights you'll encounter at the market so load up on your photos here but again, do not get in the way of the employees. Make it a habit of knowing which nooks and crannies you'll be able to squeeze yourself into to make way for the laborers.
- If you are lucky, the market will officially allow visitors to see the auctions. Look for a corridor / aisle cordoned off, marked for visitors on your left. It should be in the area where the red route line runs through the secondary hangar. You can't really miss it since it should be packed with tourists taking photos. No flash please!
- When you are done with the auction, make a right and walk down until you see a room at the end of the hangar housing two large bandsaws. During your initial route (1) you'll see something similar but without the volume these two bandsaws get. Here they'll saw the tuna from the auction into more manageable pieces.
- Double back and meander through this section. Space is tight so again, anytime you stop, make sure you have a small area to escape to when the turrent trucks or handcarts make their way through the aisles. You'll probably spend the majority of your time here checking out all the products for sale and watching the stall owners skillfully gut or debone fish. Do not touch anything or get too close to the product, why would you want to? It'll get your hands all slimy. Stall owners hate it too.
My favorite gutter is located in row 7000-8000, column 112-101. He's in the middle of this block, look for a guy with a white headband and glasses. There's a photo of him in my previous post. He's very vocal and will give you a show... I promise.
- Making your way from the stalls to the delivery section, don't forget to look up and check out the awesome sun rays filtering through the windows and openings. The delivery section is pretty boring so just try to stay alive and make it to the dining portion of your trip.
- The restaurants you should go eat at (no matter how long the lines are) are located at building row 6, the row numbers are painted on the side of the buildings, you can't miss it. On that row, there are two restaurants of note, one with a green banner, the other a brown banner. I've never eaten at the one with the green banner but it usually commands a longer wait time so it must be just as good or better than the brown banner restaurant called Sushi Daiwa. The meal will run you about $35, totally worth it for some of the freshest sushi you'll ever eat.
- With your appetite satiated, probably the most protein you'll ever eat that early in the morning, make your way to the exit. On your left, when you reach the main street, Shin Ohashi Dori Avenue, you'll see a gas station filling up the turret trucks. Another photo-op?