How to campervan in New Zealand

When organizing this impulsive trip, we gave a lot of thought not only to where we would go, but also how we’d get around once we got there. We planned on mostly using public transportation – trains, buses, ferries and so on – instead of renting cars, but in New Zealand, we wanted to rent a campervan. And we are so pleased that we did.


If you’re British, you probably get the inside joke of the license plate.

New Zealand is roughly the same size as Great Britain or Japan, but holds just over four million residents in comparison with Britain’s 64 million and Japan’s stunning 127 million. This means, of course, that there is a great deal of open country – and because food and accommodation might be few and far between, a campervan is the perfect way to explore. (It’s also called caravanning, but that’s usually only when you’re using a regular vehicle to tow a caravan that has no engine of its own. That’s commonly known as fifth-wheeling in the U.S.)

New Zealand is so friendly and welcoming to campervans; we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of vans of all shapes and sizes during our time here, proving that it is one of the most popular ways to see the country. There are campgrounds everywhere, from basic and rustic to luxurious; most of these have small motel rooms as well as powered and non-powered sites plus places for tent campers. Amenities vary, but almost always include common showers, toilets and kitchens, and there is often a pool or hot spring too.


Fernland Spa, near Tauranga, offers private open-air hot spring pools. The pools are filled from the spring, then drained into the nearby estuary, cleaned and refilled after every use, eliminating the need for chemical treatments.

The greatest advantage of campervanning is definitely the flexibility. We drafted a rough itinerary before we arrived, mostly based on N’s year living here back in the early 2000s, of places he wanted to revisit or had never been. But once we got on the road, we loved being able to stay in a place longer or leave early if it suited our plans. Had we booked all of our accommodation at B&Bs and hotels in advance, there would be none of this.


One of our very favorite campsites right on the ocean in Clifton, Hawke’s Bay.

The other biggest draw, especially on a trip of this length, is the ability to save a lot of money by cooking most of our own food. While I’m not making anything fancy, I am cooking simple, delicious meals appropriate to the summery weather and what we discover on our travels. We’ve been in a lot of agricultural regions, and many farms and orchards have unmanned honesty stands on the side of the road. Signs advertise what’s available, you select what you want and put your money in the box. We’ve bought just-harvested tomatoes, dried figs, zucchini, new potatoes, tons of fruit and anything else that catches our fancy. We’ve eaten a lot of local lamb, plus fresh sausages from the butcher, and it’s refreshing not to agonize over my meat purchase for endless minutes: all of the meat is pasture-raised in New Zealand, and none of it comes from a CAFO. Even tiny grocery stores in dusty little towns have a great selection of local meat. Just being able to make our own coffee and tea saves so much money rather than buying to-go drinks every day.


On the menu: local venison and merlot sausages, grilled potatoes and onions, fresh tomatoes with olive oil and salt, and a simple cabbage coleslaw.

As in the U.S., there are various membership programs you can join that offer discounted rates at particular campgrounds; we’ve used an invaluable (and free!) app called CamperMate to navigate our way to parks in a particular region. Freedom camping is also popular and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: sleeping in a designated area for free, but without any services like showers and sometimes not even toilets. This is often not popular with local residents, however, because there have been many cases of freedom campers basically turning a lovely local spot into their own unserviced campground, and therefore freedom camping is heavily regulated and often banned outright. We’ve freedom-camped a couple of times, but it’s not always ideal for a variety of reasons.


Camping by a gorgeous river near Tongariro National Park.

If you want to travel New Zealand by campervan, do your research; it’s essential to understand exactly what size and style of vehicle you’ll be renting. If you plan on doing any freedom camping, you’ll need to be certified self-contained, or CSC. The CSC sticker allows you to stay in more remote sites where other vehicles wouldn’t be permitted, and there are definitely rangers patrolling who will issue stiff $200 fines if yours isn’t displayed. You should also know that renting a campervan isn’t cheap; when we were first researching, we were stunned by quotes of nearly $8K for our month here, and after that you still need to pay for campgrounds unless you freedom-camp exclusively. There are also diesel taxes, tolls, and hefty charges for the ferry if you want to travel between the North and South Islands.


Semis at sunrise on the Interisland Ferry en route from Wellington to Picton.

For our American readers, remember that New Zealand drives on the left; unless you’re very comfortable with handling larger vehicles, you’ll absolutely want to book in some practice time in a safe area before you hit the open road. And finally, New Zealand has basically one major north-south motorway; all of its other roads are relatively small two-lane roads, especially compared to our massive flat, straight American highways. Journeys here are measured by time, not by distance; you can’t read “Auckland to Wellington, 658 kilometers” on the map and assume that will only be an six-hour journey – it’s closer to ten. It takes a lot longer to get to places here than you might expect, and the driving can be challenging and tiring with a lot of hills and narrow, windy roads. Driving a campervan in New Zealand isn’t for the faint-of-heart – but we’d argue that it’s by far the best way to see these gorgeous islands.

P.S. A million thanks to my amazing, incredible partner, who grew up driving on the left and took on the challenge of this journey with literally no help from me whatsoever. I will never be able to make him enough coffees to thank him!

The realities of travel

Friends, join me in the Trust Tree for just a moment and let us speak honestly. Let us speak honestly about the realities of travel, or Everything Is Not Always As Perfect As It Seems. As you are all well aware, we live in a manufactured world, where fake news and social media dominate our feeds and our brains. And the truth is…well, not everything is as it seems. This is especially true when it comes to travel.


No, camping next to an airport won’t be loud at all. Why would you think that?

When you see beautifully Instagrammed photos of your friends and family sunning and sipping fruity cocktails on some pristine white sand beach, you might think, “What jerks! Why are they on vacation and I’m slaving away in this hellhole?” But what you don’t see in that perfect photo is the tortuous four-hour ride in a rickety school bus over gravel roads to get there, the thousands of sandflies currently attacking them, and the bar bill where those cocktails were $25 each.


What a stunning beach! Is there a backstory? 

Travel is not always glamorous. In fact, unless you travel at a pretty high level (which we do not), travel is actually rarely glamorous. And this is where in a normal travel article I would pleadingly claim, “But that’s where the best experiences happen! You know, when everything goes wrong!” Rubbish. The best experiences happen when you accept that many, many things are going to go wrong, or at least take ten times longer than you thought they would, and you learn to deal with it anyway. That’s what good travel actually encompasses. Before we left, I clipped the following unattributed quote and pasted it in my travel journal: “I’ve always felt that lowered expectations are the key to a great holiday.” This has proved relevant on more than one occasion during our travels.



Kyoto’s futuristic train station.

Allow me to provide merely one example: N and I wanted to do some laundry. Simple enough. We’re each travelling out of one large backpack, so doing laundry every week to ten days (unless we’re on a farm in Japan wearing all of our clothes at one time) is adequate. One Saturday, we decided to do our laundry early the following morning as we had to leave our campsite by 7AM, and the museum we wanted to visit that day didn’t open until 10AM. Three hours should be more than enough, right? So we do what every modern traveler might do: we Google “24 hour Laundromats in Wellington” and find two likely candidates.

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This backpack has served N well since he first ventured to Honduras more than fifteen years ago.

We wake up Sunday at 5AM and get ourselves together. By 5:30 we’re on the road, but our GPS has decided that it’s taking the morning off for reasons unknown. We have a vague knowledge of downtown Wellington from walking the previous day, but the Laundromats we’re heading for are definitely not in the touristy areas. So we opt to troll a few downtown hotels, waking up sleepy front desk staff and asking for old-fashioned paper maps. When we finally get one, it just reaches the outer edge of the area we’re headed for, meaning we’ll have to wing it from there. (Oh, and if you’re wondering why we didn’t just use GPS on our phones? When your American cell service provider swears that you’ll have “really fast unlimited data in over 140 countries,” THEY ARE ABSOLUTELY AND TOTALLY LYING.)


The interisland ferry from Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island to Picton on the South Island. The photo was taken at 5:15AM; travel isn’t always about sleeping in.

So. Now the sun is just coming up, and I’m trying to use a paper map (remember that you always have to be in the map to navigate) to guide N through the narrow, twisty, turny, windy streets of Wellington (much like the hilliest parts of San Francisco) in a campervan definitely not designed for such silly Fast and the Furious games. We just make it to the first Laundromat when the GPS decides to show up for work. And the Laundromat is out of business.

No worries; onto the next Laundromat. It’s open! We grab all of our laundry and load up two of the tiny washing machines. Seeing that we’ve put our clothes in and are clearly ready to start washing, the young couple next to us asks if they can just pay us to use our KeyCard because the minimart next door where you buy them doesn’t open until 8 and it’s only just after 7.


Sometimes travelers need a little guidance; Japanese train stations helpfully provide that. We could have used the assistance in Wellington.

Wait, what? What’s a KeyCard? We’d loaded up with coins, which shows you how long it’s been since we used a Laundromat. No, it turns out that this Laundromat doesn’t use coins (presumably because the machines have been broken into repeatedly) and instead uses a KeyCard that we don’t have and can’t buy. Remove all laundry from machines and climb into van, dejected.

Search for next Laundromat on non-working but unlimited data; it doesn’t open until 9AM. We find a supermarket parking lot where we can sit comfortably for about an hour; of course, the area we’ve chosen is the site of an annual charity run attracting about 15,000 runners to the waterfront. We may actually be blocked in unless we can find an alternate route across the city. We are making poor choice after poor choice and our quiet Sunday morning is quickly imploding.


Race volunteers chalked encouraging messages along the course in Wellington. We definitely needed them too that day.

A few minutes before 9, we manage to make it to the day’s third Laundromat. It’s open! They accept actual money! We’re in! (And we’ve been to more Laundromats in one morning than in the entirety of our previous fifteen years.) We load in our laundry, then spend the time canvassing the neighborhood for potable water taps, clean public bathrooms and free Wi-Fi. Truly, when you’re campervan hobos like we are, these things matter. (And please note that we’re trademarking Campervan Hobos as our band name.)

Two hours and fifteen minutes, 30 kilometers, many wrong turns and $20 later, we have fresh, clean laundry. If you’ve been keeping track, it took us over six hours – six hours! – to wash and dry one large load of laundry, and we accomplished virtually nothing else during that time. And that, my loves, is often the reality of travel. So the next time you look at some glossy photo on social media and find yourself filled with envy, just remember the sandflies. And don’t forget your KeyCard.

Going nuts, vol. 1

When roadtripping in New Zealand in a converted 1999 Ford Transit van with less-than-ideal brakes, there are few things that your partner – who is gamely doing all of the driving – enjoys more than you screeching “Hey! Fresh avocados!” or “Stop! They’ve got pick-your-own strawberries!”, thus forcing him to make dramatic unplanned stops and U-turns, typically on dusty gravel roads with no turning room whatsoever. No, seriously, he loves this! Sometimes, however, you get your act together enough in advance that you can actually plan a visit to a farm, and so it was with our stop at Cathedral Cove Macadamias.


Cathedral Cove is located on the Coromandel Peninsula, east of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. Macadamias, named in 1857 in honor of Scottish-Australian chemist John Macadam, are native to Australia and grown commercially in many of the world’s tropical regions, including Hawaii, South America, Australia and New Zealand.


Cathedral Cove’s storefront and open-air tasting parlor.

South Africa now produces most of the world’s macadamias, although Hawaii is credited with “introducing” the nut to consumers, specifically with their ubiquitous and smartly-marketed Royal Hawaiian chocolate macadamia boxes which have been given as gifts by travelers returning from Hawaii for decades.


A few of Cathedral Cove’s mature macadamia trees.

Macadamia trees are propagated by grafting, and they start producing in abundance at about seven to ten years of age. Once established, the trees can produce for over 100 years. They are higher in overall nutrition than any other nut, and they are also typically the most expensive, with the exception of the treasured pine nut.


These macadamias will be ready to harvest in April or May. After they’re hulled, they’ll be dried for about six weeks before they’re ready to consume.


Hulls from the previous year’s crop are used as mulch in the orchard, ensuring that nothing goes to waste.

At Cathedral Cove, the macadamias are processed entirely by hand from start to finish, and they’re also completely organic. The macadamias are sold fresh and roasted, and pressed into oil and made into butter, brittle and other value-added products. In addition to macadamias, Cathedral Cove also grows avocados, figs, apples and a variety of citrus fruits.


At the little storefront you get to eat as many macadamias as you crack!


Macadamia oil, best used as a simple, flavorful drizzle over salad or grilled bread. It also works wonders as a hair or skin moisturizer!


Fresh figs that were sadly not yet ready to eat when we visited.


Cathedral Cove is organic, so no chemical pesticides or herbicides are used in the orchard.


Bees are absolutely integral to a successful orchard. As at most of the farms we’ve seen, maintaining a healthy pollinator population is essential to a healthy ecosystem.


We bought avocados to eat with heirloom tomatoes from the farmers’ market…it is summer here, after all.


Look closely…New Zealand’s most vocal yet least seen creature, the cicada, is hiding here.


One of the many citrus trees on the property.


Definitive proof that “drinking wine” actually qualifies as “eating fruit.”


Meet Willow, one of Cathedral Cove’s organic lawnmowers.

Because macadamias are so delicious (and so precious), they’re best used as a showcase ingredient. As with all nuts, lightly toasting them in a dry pan will bring out their flavorful oils, but tread carefully – nuts burn very quickly. For storage, place in an airtight bag or container in the refrigerator or freezer as the good fats in nuts cause them to turn rancid quickly. Always buy nuts from stores with high turnover (of product, not staff) and whenever possible, smell them before purchasing – rancidity is definitely noticeable. Should you find yourself with a wealth of macadamias, try this. Or maybe this. Or just eat them lightly toasted and salted, perhaps with a gentle dusting of curry powder.

Many thanks to Cathedral Cove Macadamias for welcoming us onto their beautiful property!

Chapter Two: New Zealand

Haere mai and welcome to Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. We’ve gone from Japanese winter straight into Kiwi summer! We started our journey in Auckland as most international travelers do, where we picked up a campervan and drove north first, to visit an area where N taught diving long, long ago. We’re about halfway through the North Island right now, with the intention of making it just to the northern tip of the South Island before we have to turn around and come back. To say that we’re in a different world than Japan would be an understatement.


Our sunrise view at Whangamata, where we freedom-camped on the beach.


Tauranga seen from the top of Mount Maunganui.


Oystercatchers on the dunes.


Surf school at Omanu Beach.


Waipu Caves.


It’s easy to see why many fantasy movies have been filmed in these prehistoric forests.


New Zealand is home to an unusual number of “wild” chickens, seen here hiding from the rain at a picnic spot near Haruru Falls. Are they dumped in the woods by people who don’t want them? We have no idea, but we’ve seen (and heard) a lot of them!


Stormy day at the beach in Tauranga.

Next up for us: Lake Taupo and (hopefully) the legendary Tongariro Crossing!

Interlude: Cows love Skittles

Friends, we interrupt our regularly scheduled light and fluffy travel programming to bring you a brief interlude on cows. Cows and Skittles, to be precise. If you are here just for fun travel adventures, please feel free to tune out now – this one is about food politics.

Perhaps some of you noticed a little story that a couple of papers ran recently about a Skittles spill on a Wisconsin highway (although I’m painfully aware that there are one or two more significant American news stories to focus on right now). To summarize, a truckload of red Skittles missing their signature “S” spilled onto the road thanks to a rain-saturated cardboard box. When the local sheriff’s department came out to investigate, they discovered that the candy was on its way to be used as cattle feed. Maybe it’s fake news? Now that so much of what we read contains “alternative facts,” it’s hard to know what to believe. (You can read versions of the article here, here and here, and I’m sure there are plenty more.) Feeding food waste to cattle is apparently common practice in the U.S.

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Bessie here actually prefers M&Ms to Skittles, if you want to know the truth.

Back in 2012, the severe drought that swept across the country caused corn prices to skyrocket, and that’s reportedly when the trend of feeding excess food to cattle really accelerated. In some cases, cows were even fed candy that was still wrapped, although a professor of animal nutrition seemed mostly convinced that the wrappers would pass through the cow without issue. I’m in no way a vet or other animal expert, but I imagine that plastic really can’t be good for an animal’s insides – even one as large and tough as a cow.

But wait, you might say. Skittles are mostly just corn syrup, which is just corn, right? And that’s what the cow would be eating if corn prices hadn’t risen so much, so really, what’s the big deal? It’s actually not the Skittles that bother me – it’s all the other stuff we don’t know about. Consider that the only reason we now know that these Skittles were intended for cattle feed is because they spilled. Had they not spilled, we’d still be shoveling our CAFO hamburgers in, none the wiser. This story indicates that a lot of other mysterious food waste goes to our cows, including but not limited to stale baked goods, peanut and almond shells, and orange rinds. Probably harmless, yes, but do these ingredients affect the integrity (what little there is) of the meat? Could a severely peanut-allergic person have a reaction to beef from a cow fed on peanut meal? I have no idea. And I also have no idea what is in our food.

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My point is not that the Skittles themselves that are inherently bad (although they are). It’s that you didn’t know they were there. How can anyone make an informed decision about what they eat when they don’t have all the information? How can I implore my cooking students to read the label of every food item they buy when I know full well that label is inherently misleading? I also resent the implication that feeding Skittles to cows saves them from the landfill and is therefore virtuous. In a country that wastes over 40% of all edible food produced, I’m fairly certain that the quantity of Skittles we’re talking about here is negligible enough that the landfill excuse doesn’t hold up – greenwashing at its finest.

Some time ago, a friend who shops very consciously received a recall notice at the bottom of her grocery store receipt indicating that the big-brand chicken she’d purchased weeks earlier had been recalled. Since she deliberately never purchased big-brand chicken, she knew this had to be a mistake – yet when she contacted store management, she received a boilerplate customer service response that didn’t address the issue. Follow-up calls and emails went ignored, leaving her to assume that of course she had purchased that chicken – labeled as organic and packaged under a “clean” name – even while trying so hard not to. Plus, organic and conventional chicken were both part of the same recall, so how can one trust that the organic product really is? And that leaves us here, stumbling around the grocery store in a panic, reading labels frantically and generally feeling like a failure all the time because we no longer have any faith in a system designed to protect us from fraud and mislabeling.

These stories are compelling on many levels, but my takeaway is this: unless we’ve grown, raised and processed food ourselves from start to finish, we no longer can have any faith that we’re buying what we think we’re buying. I know plenty of people who wouldn’t feed their kid Skittles (concerns over Red 40 high on the list) but would certainly offer a lean beef stir-fry with plenty of supposedly organic vegetables and arsenic-free brown rice. Yet these same people, who are working so hard to get it right, are getting it wrong. Again and again, because they cannot trust that they’re buying and consuming what they think they are.

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I’d love to end on a positive note, so I’ll leave you with this – if you want to trust your food, grow your own. Start a small garden. (If you’re in the Denver area, support a locally-owned business and go here for everything you need to get growing.) Raise backyard chickens. Get a beehive. Join a CSA. Know what you’re eating and where it came from, and be willing to ask questions. Also: eat less meat, and spend more money on it, and know who raised and processed it. And please, let us know your thoughts on this story. We’d specifically like to hear if you feel confident about label honesty and accuracy (including organic vs. conventional) and what exactly is in the food you buy.


Scenes from Tokyo

For our final week in Japan, we tackled the world’s largest metropolitan area. Tokyo has 13 million people in its center and about 33 million when the surrounding areas are included. Even with our travel experience in cities like Paris, London and New York, this city is a bit overwhelming. It definitely takes a couple of days to get oriented and to feel comfortable, and even then it can still knock you for six. Below please find some of N’s favorite photos from our week.


Tokyo is an often dizzying mix of ancient and modern.


Shrines and skyscrapers, kimonos and street fashion: a constant study in contrast.


Welcome to one of the world’s most efficient (and clean) public transport systems.


Installed in 1958, Tokyo Tower bested the Eiffel Tower by thirteen meters. One can imagine the French were none too pleased by this.


The legendary Shibuya “scramble crossing,” part one…


…and part two, taken seconds later.


We went to a traditional Shinto wedding! Well, not really. We visited Meiji Shrine on a Saturday and it’s an extremely popular wedding spot. Now N can legitimately claim that he is an international wedding photographer! 


The enormous lantern at Senso-ji Temple.


Even amidst all the chaos and neon, peaceful places exist.


It is virtually impossible to convey the visual impact of Tokyo at night.


A Nissan 2020 concept car in a showroom in Ginza district. The high-end area is famous for new product launches for everything from cars to fashion to electronics. 


Even when Tokyo infuriates, it also manages to delight. These steps at Akasaka Station are actually TV screens with a constantly changing display. Stumbling (sometimes literally) upon public art like this is one of the joys of travel.


Street art on a hotel near Tsukiji Fish Market.


The Rainbow Bridge connects Tokyo and Odaiba and is illuminated in different colors according to season or holiday.


There is actually a pedestrian walkway along the Rainbow Bridge! It takes about thirty minutes to cross the bridge on foot.


Iconic Mount Fuji…with Tokyo’s haze, it’s more difficult to see than one might expect.


N waited for days to take these skyline photos from the SkyDeck at Roppongi Hills. It’s the only observation deck in the city that isn’t enclosed by glass; as such, it’s frequently closed due to high winds. 


And with this, we leave Japan behind. See you in New Zealand!

Temples and shrines

There are few more iconic images of Japan than the ubiquitous temples and shrines found all over the country. Certain places, like Kyoto, have one around every corner, but even in Tokyo’s Blade Runner landscape they turn up in the most unexpected places. The temples are Buddhist and the shrines are Shinto, and in Japan these two primary religions co-exist peacefully. To paraphrase a lovely book I read about pre-Western Japan during our travels, Christianity would have done better here if they’d just installed gorgeous churches next to these temples and shrines. Essentially, these are as much about beauty, calm and aesthetics as they are about religion, and as such everyone is welcome, regardless of their beliefs.


Nonomiya Shrine, Arashiyama.


Matsuo-taisha Shrine, Arashiyama.


Ceremonial sake barrels at Matsuo-taisha Shrine. This shrine is a favorite pilgrimage site for sake brewers to pray for the success of their vintages.


Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, Kyoto.


The summit of Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine.


When you approach a Shinto shrine, you first throw a coin into the offering box. Then you ring a bell like the one above to summon the spirits. Bow twice, clap your hands twice, focus on your prayer in your mind, then bow once more.


Yasaka Shrine, Gion District, Kyoto.


Most of the shrines and temples have gorgeous paper lanterns that are illuminated at night.


Osugi Shrine, Inishiki City, Ibaraki. We were taken to visit this shrine by Mitsuru-san, the owner of our second farmstay.


Though common themes could be seen, all of the shrines and temples we visited had incredibly unique details.


When you enter temple grounds, you wash your hands and rinse out your mouth from a ceremonial fountain.


We frequently came across statues with hand-knitted caps, scarves and cowls. A little research indicated that these are Jizo statues, named for the protector of children; he reverently guides their souls into the afterlife. The statues are placed on temple grounds to honor deceased children.


The main entrance gate at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine is in a large leafy park which is a wonderful oasis of green in this frenetic city.


Meiji Shrine, Tokyo. The large drums are used for summoning the spirits.


Ravens aren’t necessarily malevolent in Japanese culture as they are in Western cultures; this bird is guarding wooden prayer placards at Meiji Shrine.

These varied and beautiful sites were such a joy to discover as we traveled around Japan, and their interesting architectural details and rich symbolism made them a highlight of our month there.







Here fishy, fishy


Tsukiji Fish Market is definitely not dressed up to impress tourists.

It’s our last week in Japan and we’re tackling Tokyo, district by district. We woke up at 4AM to jump on the first train out to Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest wholesale seafood market in the world. We opted not to attend the famous tuna auction, mostly because you have to arrive by about 2AM via expensive taxi in order to queue for the limited tickets available to tourists. Even without the tuna auction, though, the market is pretty spectacular.


Please stay out of the way…these guys move fast.


Seafood arrives here from all over the world. Most of the crew starts work between 2 and 3AM each day the market is open.

Tsukiji is made up of two markets – the inner market holds all the wholesale vendors and is off-limits to the public except for between about 5 and 6:30AM for those with tickets to the auction. The outer market is entirely open to the public and contains dozens of small restaurants, plus stalls selling kitchen equipment and other goods.


Stalls selling kitchen equipment and other sundries line the outer market.


Of course you can still smoke here…we’re in Japan.

Make no mistake – this is a working market, and tourists are barely tolerated. The market has closed to tourists entirely on a number of occasions, thanks to safety concerns and complaints from vendors, but is currently open. You’re expected to pay close attention to the carts, forklifts, trucks and other machinery moving at high speed around the market, and basically stay out of the way.


The grittiness of the fish market contrasts with shiny modern skyscrapers.

Tsukiji Market sits on prime Tokyo real estate just outside Ginza, one of the city’s fanciest shopping districts. Land here is more valuable than anywhere else in the world; as such, the market was scheduled to move in November 2016 in preparation for the 2020 Olympics. This was a highly unpopular decision, as many of these stalls (and their inhabitants!) have been in place for decades. In August 2016, the move was postponed; the reclaimed land where the market is to relocate is reportedly heavily polluted, and corruption allegations have been tossed around. Relocating a market of this size is a massive undertaking and it will be interesting to see if and when it actually occurs.



The fish for sale is always presented beautifully, and of course on plenty of fresh ice.

Tsukiji doesn’t just sell fish, though that’s what it’s best known for. There are stands with fruit, vegetables and exotic mushrooms too. Earlier on our trip I commented about the exorbitant cost of fruits and vegetables here; have a close look at the cantaloupes in the photo below – they’re priced at 1800 yen, or about $16 each. And they’re on sale! You can save if you buy the whole box of six for about $87. At a fancy food hall later that day, we saw melons nestled gently into little presentation crates and selling for about $150, and individual strawberries for $5 each. Perfect fruit are a popular gift here.


Want an orange? They’re between $3 and $4.50 each, depending on the variety.


An interesting array of herbs, flowers and other decorative garnishes.


One of the numerous small “restaurants” that line the outer market. You order at the counter on the right from the chef or his assistant, and eat standing at the long table on the left. Dishes are washed in the gutter next to the street, and no, I don’t think the health department is bothered.


Ramen for breakfast on a chilly winter morning? Yes, please.


Indeed we ate ramen, not sushi, at the world’s most famous fish market.


A quiet moment before a busy day.

Commercial fishing is a challenging topic, especially for the Japanese. On one hand, you have cultural traditions formed over countless generations in this island nation. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that we’re running out of fish. Consider that Tsukiji Market alone handles over 700,000 tons of fish per year. That isn’t even a comprehensible number, but it’s definitely one that won’t continue. Many wholesalers and famous sushi chefs lament that the size and quantity of the tuna has decreased dramatically over the past twenty years; as oceanic pelagics, these fish can’t be farmed as other fish can. By some accounts, over 90% of the world’s fishing stocks are either fished out or nearly so; it’s estimated that at current fishing rates, fish and seafood will be completely gone by 2048.

This isn’t made any easier by the fact that – at least in the U.S. – we’re constantly told to eat more fish to improve our health. The U.S. imports over 90% of its seafood, much of it from highly compromised environments, so while fish may help your heart, eating more of it has an irrevocable environmental and social cost. And how do you even know you’re eating the fish you think you are? Much of it is mislabeled. Like most of our food system, this industry is heavily compromised too.

An issue as complex as the sustainability of modern fishing isn’t going to be solved in one post. But as always, friends, please spend your food dollars wisely and make your fish and seafood choices consciously and carefully.


Easy to find the market with landmarks like this!