Visitors Return to Tokyo’s Toyosu Market to Shop and Eat
Guideto JapanFood and Drink Travel Society
Business at Tokyo’s Toyosu wholesale market has continued through the coronavirus pandemic, but as cases began to rise in February it closed its doors to the general public as a precaution. After more than three months, the market is again welcoming visitors.
As an essential operation, the Toyosu Market continued to operate even after the government declared a national emergency, with the oft-photographed auctions for delicacies like tuna and sea urchin being held as usual. The market has still felt the impact of the pandemic, with upscale restaurants, the main buyers of high-grade seafood, being forced to close or operate with sharply curtailed hours. The many eateries within the market also felt the repercussions as the usually abundant flow of tourists dried up, giving many shops no other choice than to close down for the interim.
Thorough measures have been implemented at Toyosu to prevent the spread of the virus. The wholesale market used to be open to the general public from 5:00 am to 5:00 pm, but to avoid early-morning congestion when the auctions begin to take place, the gates now open at 9:00 am and closes at 2:00 pm. Visitors must wear masks, undergo a thermographic body temperature check, and disinfect their hands before they can enter. Those with temperatures higher than 37.5°C are not allowed in.
On the first day of reopening, several dozen visitors, all maintaining proper social distancing, lined up at the entrance to the market. With the popular auctions off limits, most quickly made their way to restaurants and shops.
“We are back in business at last,” exclaims Irino Mitsuhiro, president of Daiwa Sushi, one of the many popular sushi shops in the market. “It almost makes me want to cry when visitors tell us how much they’ve been looking forward to eating here again.” The shop, which dates back to the Toyosu Market’s predecessor Tsukiji, had never before been forced to close for such a prolonged period. While Irino is happy to be up and running again, he is keenly aware of the need to follow protocols put in place to keep customers and staff safe from infection.
Fewer Customers, Less Time to Wait
At another popular sushi shop, Sushi-dai on the third floor of the Fisheries Intermediate Wholesale Market, seats quickly filled with customers. Likewise, Ryū-zushi, a restaurant in the Management Facilities Building, teemed with people. Shop staff were delighted to have their customers return, but it was not long before they saw numbers dwindle as early arrivals, their appetites for sushi satiated, moved on. Tourism is down due in part to the public remaining cautious about going out and the curtailed market hours, and restaurants have yet to see their clientele return to the numbers they enjoyed before the pandemic. Another factor preventing business from rebounding to pre-pandemic levels has been the sharp decline in foreign tourists, who previously clamored to buy the high-priced seafood on offer.
Not everyone is unhappy about the drop in visitors, though. “We used to line up for hours,” says one customer, a man in his forties from Kanagawa Prefecture. “Now we don’t have to wait as long to get seats in the most popular sushi shops.”
While most of the restaurants have kept their menus the same, a few are offering new items at special bargain prices. Others are offering general customers the chance to savor the low-priced meals enjoyed by market personnel while the wholesale market was closed to the public. Shops are keenly aware that with the hordes of foreign tourists gone, they have to lower their prices and expand their offering to attract customers.
Dontaku, a restaurant on the third floor of the Management Facilities Building, is offering for a limited time bara-chirashi, a sashimi bowl containing fresh slices of domestic tuna, anago (sea eel), scallops, and salmon for just ¥1,000. The shop’s sushi chef assures customers that it is a real bargain. “The quality is higher than a similar dish we used to offer for 1,500 yen.”
Iwasa-zushi in the Fisheries Intermediate Wholesale Market Building is another place that has added a sashimi bowl to its usual menu of nigiri-zushi. Generously topped with slices of domestic tuna, crab, salmon roe, and amaebi (northern pink prawn), the rich seafood bowl is a popular item despite its eye-popping ¥2,000 price. Shō Sushi, another shop on the same floor, also offers a ¥2,000 sushi bowl as well as a seasoned flounder bowl for ¥1,000 and an anago bowl for ¥800.
The Edomae Jōkamachi Mall, a food-themed shopping arcade, opened on the grounds of the Toyosu Market in January this year. While it enjoyed brisk business into February, it closed when the national emergency over, the coronavirus was declared. It opened again for business on June 1, just a few days ahead of the reopening of the Toyosu Market.
The mall is a temporary facility and is scheduled to close in the spring of 2023 when it will be replaced by the Senkyaku Banrai tourist center. The unexpected closure has affected the shops within the facility, and with the reopening hopes are high that businesses may soon recoup their losses.
The mall is open from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. In addition to restaurants serving sushi, seafood bowls, and ramen, there are shops selling blocks of fresh tuna, varieties of dried products, traditional preserved foods like tsukudani, and other gifts. There is an open terrace in the center of the structure where customers can sit and eat. Visitors should check store times online before visiting as some shops remain closed or have shortened hours.
A Delightful Selection of Gifts
Suzutomi, operated by a tuna wholesaler at the market, offers reasonably priced dishes featuring the popular fish, ranging from nigiri-zushi to tekkadon, a bowl of rice topped with tuna slices steeped in soy sauce. For true connoisseurs, there is a ¥2,200 tasting plate loaded with slices of seven different kinds of tuna, including Pacific bluefin, southern bluefin, and bigeye tuna, as well as cuts of fatty toro.
Fish dishes are not all the mall has to offer. At the ramen shop Neiroya, customers can choose from a variety of ramen bowls as well as curried rice. Cooling shaved ice with a sweet sauce is also on offer. Neiroya’s most popular ramen is made with a soy sauce-based soup. Other tasty dishes include Setouchi lemon ramen and soba noodles with meat. Chilled bowls of spicy tantanmen noodles are available in limited numbers in the hot summer months.
Visitors searching for gifts should be certain to pay a visit to Toyosu Ichiban, which offers a wide variety of products only available at the market, including condiments and bottled delicacies. Shoppers can also find washable face masks, fans, chopsticks, and a range of other gift items. There are even toy models of the market’s ubiquitous turret trucks.
An attendant at one of the Edomae Jōkamachi Mall gift shops notes that the number of customers is gradually increasing, but that sales are still half what they were when the facility first opened. As Tokyo’s coronavirus cases have again started to soar, workers at Toyosu worry that people will start hunkering down in their homes again and stop coming. There remains hope, though, that authorities will get the situation under control and that customers will return to Toyosu for good when the pandemic is resolved once and for all.
Edomae Jōkamachi Mall
- Address: 6-3-12 Toyosu, Kōtō, Tokyo
- Days open: Same as Toyosu Market. (See calendar)
- Hours: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm (due to coronavirus concerns, some shops may be closed or have shorter hours)
- Getting there: One-minute walk from Shijō-mae Station on the Yurikamome Line
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A masked chef at Daiwa Sushi takes patrons orders. All photos by Nippon.com unless otherwise indicated.)