Tsukiji Market: Oceanic Interface

By request: a quick architectural read of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market (prompted by friend, classmate,and occasional colleague Addison Godel).

Tsukiji Market is pretty well documented, at least in the tourist literature. Lonely Planet (and others) are profuse in their praise: recommending a 3am wake-up call to catch the fabled daily Bluefin auction. Luckily, the place is still buzzin’ at 9, when the outer market officially opens to tourists. The market is perennially-doomed: blog posts and articles from years back proclaim “see it now!” before its inevitable closure or relocation. As of December, 2013, it’s still going strong: warnings about accessibility are unfounded – at least for the determined tourist – and it remains one of the top sights/experiences for any visitor to Tokyo.

I won’t dive too far into the history of the market here: suffice to say the construction of the current building (completed in the mid 1930s) was the end result of a series of catastrophic events and government responses that elucidated the tenuous relationship between the imperial government and civil population in an era of chaotic modernization (Taisho- and early-Showa-era). For Wikipedia fiends, the 1918 ‘Rice Riots‘ and 1923 Kanto Earthquake are good references – but once I start digging I’m quickly out of my league.


History aside, the building itself is pretty interesting, architecturally. There’s no facade to speak of: this is infrastructure pure and simple; a no-nonsense mechanism for getting fish-to-face as efficiently as feasible. The market building is situated on reclaimed land on Tokyo bay, just south of the glitzy Ginza district, at the mouth of the Sumida river. The littoral space claimed by the market (and surrounding district) operates as a functional interface between the city and the sea. While today most hauls are surely brought in my truck, I can imagine that fishing boats, in times past, would unload at the market’s south-east dock. From here, the wholesale catch would be auctioned off in the private ‘inner market,’ then moved to the semi-public ‘outer market,’ then to the loading docks and out into the surrounding neighborhood and greater metropolis. The plan arrangement facilitates this: it’s essentially a quarter-circle arc with three concentric layers representing the procession from sea to table: wholesale auction zone; semi-public retail zone; loading docks and distribution hub. The semi-circular arrangement minimizes the distance from ship to truck.

[Loading Docks in central hub]

[Loading Docks in central hub]

[“Ring road” between loading docks and semi-public ‘outer market’]

[“Retail street” arc perpendicular to major service “spokes”]

[“Service Alley” in arc parallel to “Retail street” – both running perpendicular to major ‘service spokes’]

The central loading docks are laid out on a fairly regular pattern: three covered passages link back to a semi-circular ‘ring road’ that marks the boundary of the outer market, and provides a quick path for the innumerable little vehicles that threaten to mow down unsuspecting tourists.

The middle zone – the semi-public ‘outer’ retail market – is the most interesting, because certain ideas about urbanism are evident in the design. Here, major lanes radiate like spokes from the hub of the loading dock ‘ring road,’ providing direct vehicular access back to the wholesale ‘inner market.’ Smaller corridors run in arcs perpendicular to these spokes, alternating in scale and accessibility. For every public-facing retail pathway (lots of light, plentiful signage, open coolers with fish) there is a narrow service alley parallel (precariously-stacked boxes, power tools for sawing through deep-frozen fish). To me, this organization seems more urban than architectural, a reading that’s reinforced by the paving pattern, raised curbs, and drainage channels cut into the ground surface. I suspect at some point in time this was all exterior space, and was covered as a concession to shop owners once it became clear that the outer market was a permanent extension of the inner (Of course, this is all just idle speculation….).

Tsukiji Birdseye








[Aerial View via Google Maps]

If the market is indeed closing, it’ll be a shame to see it go. The frenetic activity within is naturally the big draw here (nothing like dodging zippy forklifts and hopping over pools of blood to kick off the day!), but if the market is indeed relocated and the building demolished, Tokyo will lose an under-appreciated architectural gem: a functional masterpiece perfectly suited to both to its geographic and psychological location: the physical and mental site of the ‘first cut’ of a series that will transform the daily haul into haute cuisine.

Tsukiji Market is located at 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo, Japan – or really, anywhere around there. Interior plan here. More photos, as usual, on my Flickr page: Tsukiji Market.


Leave a Reply