Ota Market: Tokyo’s Pantry

Most people living in Japan and many visitors from overseas know that the world’s largest wholesale seafood market is located in Tokyo. But how many know that Tokyo also boasts other wholesale markets equally useful for stocking the kitchens of restaurants and homes across the metropolis?

There are, in fact, eleven wholesale markets scattered across Tokyo. While Toyosu (Tsukiji’s 2018 replacement) may be the largest seafood market, the Ota Market (Ota Shijo, in Japanese) is also one of the largest wholesale markets in Japan and handles the broadest variety of products: vegetables, fruit, seafood, and flowers. It is also open to visitors 05:00 to 15:00 daily (except Sundays and public holidays) and is a fascinating place to observe the buzz of activity that accompanies fresh food distribution for such a large population.

Ota Market is located at 3-2-1 Tokai in Ota-ku, just north of Haneda Airport. It is accessible by a number of city buses (details at the bottom of this post) or by walking 15-20 minutes from Tokyo Monorail Ryutsu Center Station.

The main market is comprised of four buildings: three for wholesale and secondary distribution of fruit and vegetables and one dedicated to seafood (also referred to as “marine products”). The flower building sits just to the west of the main market, on the other side of the Metropolitan Expressway.

Once you reach the market, a visit is easy. Check in at the front gate on the south side of the market. The guard will direct you to the administrative building immediately behind his guard box. On the second floor you’ll find a glass enclosed walkover bridge leading to the main market buildings. If the guard didn’t give you one, be sure to pick up an English brochure as you pass through the administrative building.

Once inside the market buildings, bear to the left and follow the helpful floor markings.

The usual visitor course begins from the fruit and vegetable market and the continues to the seafood market. Likely this is because, while the seafood auctions begin earlier, unlike Toyosu, these auctions are not open to visitors.

Instead, take your time to check out the fruit and vegetable market. Roughly 3.9 tons of food passes through this market daily, constituting 15.3% of the national monetary value of trade in these products. Even when no auction is taking place, things are perpetually in motion, with forklifts and turret trucks shifting goods, while people mill about checking on quality or zip by on bicycle, eager to reach some far-flung corner of the market. According to the brochure, there are about 1,200 each of forklifts and turret trucks, the workhorses of the market.

The fruit and vegetable auctions begin from 6:50. A bell like an old-fashioned school bell is rung to signal that an auction is about to begin. There is one central spot with risers where many auctions take place, although close observers will notice other auctions in other parts of the market.

One particularly interesting feature of the auctions is how the bidding takes place with hand signals. To the uninitiated, the signals, made with the right hand only, are an incomprehensible code. But to the auctioneers, who close sales incredibly quickly, they obviously make complete sense.

Near the central auction site is another small auction section, surrounded by roller conveyors, on which a most interesting production line of melons were being auctioned off. Is this area always for melon auctions, or does it specialize in seasonal fruit? Inquiring minds want to know.

In tandem with the centralized auctions, a number of separate small auctions were also ongoing across the central area filled with stacks of boxes of vegetables. In this area, the auctioneers stood on little steps, to make themselves more visible. The area was surrounded by unmanned turret trucks, presumably ready to haul away purchases as soon as they were made.

When you’ve had your fill of these auctions, move on to the next section of the market, where the initially sold items are further processed by secondary wholesalers who package fruit and vegetables to be on-sold along the market chain. In this area, most boxes are closed. Apparently buyer inspection is no longer a priority at this stage.

Following the arrows on the floor you will move up to the roof and along the parking lot to the seafood market. Even though the auctions are finished by the time you get there after watching the fresh produce auctions, there is still a bit of activity to observe, including items being prepared for on-selling. It is hard to believe, but this market is only slightly behind Toyosu in terms of its importance in keeping Tokyo stocked with seafood and marine products.

While normally only wholesalers are allowed to make purchases at the market, on the fourth Saturday of the month, the general public are also allowed to buy their seafood here.

Visiting after the auctions have finished gives visitors a chance to see how clean up is done, a key to why fish markets in Japan don’t have a strong fishy smell. And the manual transfer of live fish from tank trucks to holding tanks was a bit of a surprise.

One fun aspect of the market is the giant gable ornaments on each market building. There is a sea bream on the seafood building and a turnip, bamboo shoot and grape bundle on the other three buildings. Each is an auspicious symbol, guarding the market and bringing prosperity.

After your tour, head back to the administrative building. There is a small display on the market and its operation on the second floor in an exhibition room that opens from 8:30 am. The Ota Market was established in 1981 as the consolidation of farm produce markets formerly located in Kanda, Ebara and Kamata as well as the Omori marine products market and nine privately-operated flower markets.

There are also restaurants, shops, a bank, a post office, and even a dental clinic–a small city of amenities inside the market.

It’s a 7 to 10 minute walk to the west (right as you leave the central gate) to reach the flower market, where auctions begin from 7:00 and continue for significantly longer than the seafood or fresh produce auctions. Little wonder, considering that 2.5 million items pass through this market daily, representing 42.5% of the monetary value of the flower trade nationwide. (And the whole place smells pretty good, too!)

Auctions here are completely different from those at the produce markets. They are conducted through a sophisticated computer system introduced in 1990. Without it, surely the auctions would take even longer.

This massive market is a fascinating place to learn about the wholesale stage of food and flowers moving from farm to table.

Bus Information
* From JR Shinagawa station Konan exit: city bus for “Ota Shijo” (approx. 30 minutes)
* From JR Omori station east exit: Keikyu bus for “Ota Shijo” (approx. 20 minutes) or Keikyu bus for “Keijinjima” and get off at Keihin Ohashi.
* From Keikyu Heiwajima station: Keikyu bus for “Ota Shijo” (approx. 10 minutes)

© 2021 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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