Text and photos by Justin Eeles
With its decision to move the iconic Tsukiji fish market to a new location, Tokyo’s municipal authority has possibly denied future visitors the opportunity to experience one of the city’s historical highlights. Justin Eeles went to Tsukiji to find out how some of the vendors are taking the news.
To make the most of your visit to Tsukiji Market, it’s advised to be up and ready to go by 4am. This is in order to guarantee access to the tuna auctions that start the day’s trading. For many the thought of waking at such an hour is difficult enough when aiming for a sunrise view over a volcano or a balloon ride over majestic ruins; for the world’s largest fish market it might be harder to swallow. My own experience of wet markets in Asia has taught me that a wrong turn towards the fish counters can result in a serious assault of the senses, not something you particularly want on three hours sleep and an empty stomach. Japan, however, is different and the chance to witness such an integral part of everyday Tokyo life should not be missed, particularly with its imminent closure approaching.
Officially known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Produce Market, Tsukiji Market has occupied its present location in downtown Tokyo for over 75 years. Opened in 1935 after the devastating Kanto earthquake of 1923 destroyed many of Tokyo’s smaller markets, Tsukiji takes its name from the expanse of reclaimed land on which it was built. Since opening it has grown to be the largest market of its kind in the world, spurred by the rapid growth of Tokyo itself and the obsession the Japanese have for its main commodity.
Over the years it has become the beating heart of the city, employing over 50,000 people with an annual turnover of around five billion dollars – all done while most of the city is asleep.
The relationship between the bustling traders and tourists has had its difficulties over the years. The sheer number of visitors trying to squeeze their way through the frenetic alleys and aisles, some inebriated but most vacantly sleepwalking, not only upset vendors but also put themselves in danger of being hit by the constant flow of fast-moving vehicles. Visitors have been banned on several occasions and there is now a strictly regulated ‘first come first served’ operation for the tuna auctions, with visitors herded into a cordoned area to witness proceedings.
At 4.30am there was already a long queue at the visitors’ gate, with the first 120 visitors divided into two groups, with each allowed 15 minutes on the auction floor.
With chilled and frozen tuna from across the globe delivered daily by air, land and sea, the auctions usually ensure the best tuna goes to the highest bidder, with dealers representing not only Tokyo’s top sushi restaurants but clients across Asia and beyond. It’s not always the texture of the fish that raises prices - Tsukiji made the headlines earlier this year when a bluefin tuna was bought for the massively inflated price of US$1.78 million by a local sushi chain at the first auction of the year.
With the tuna laid unceremoniously in rows on the concrete, their tails hacked off to expose thawing flesh, the dealers inspected the quality of the fish with a selection of basic tools including meat hooks, torches and simple touch on the fingers. I imagine it’s a scene that has changed little in the past 50 years with no signs of the modern world in sight.
At 5.30am the auctioneer, raised on a small stool, swung his bell swiftly through the air, signalling for the whirlwind of bidding to begin.
To an onlooker it was hard to know exactly what was happening, except that tuna was obviously changing hands at a fair rate. Using an ancient series of hand signals, the bidding crescendoed steadily, with the auctioneer’s body dancing to his voice’s increasing high pitch until suddenly the deal was done and the action moved quickly to a different body of fish nearby.
Outside, a constant whirl of activity ensued, as the market’s fleet of electric vehicles weaved their way at pace in all directions through the buzzing streets and alleys, delivering produce and restocking the inner market with freshly purchased fish – it’s easy to see how a sleep- deprived tourist could disappear under a ton of tuna.
With the tuna auctions completed, the trading reverts to the Jonai Shijo inner market while visitors traditionally head straight to the strip of sushi bars in Jogai Shijo, the outer market, for some well-earned breakfast as the inner market is off limits to visitors until after 9am. These small stalls offer some of the freshest and most affordable sushi in Tokyo and long lines quickly develop to the best-known establishments like Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai.
Around these restaurants, the market’s outer stalls offer a wide range of produce, including fruit, vegetables, spices, tools and traditional snacks. It is predominantly geared towards the buyers at the tuna auctions and Jonai Shijo, as the produce on sale relates almost entirely to the sushi business. From the knives used to cut fish to green tea, seaweed and horseradish for wasabi, if you own a sushi restaurant in Tokyo there’s no need to shop elsewhere.
The Jonai Shijo carries on where the tuna auctions left off, with a dazzling display of seafood on offer, spread across an enormous floor area. Some is recognisable, some distinctly otherworldly. By lunchtime the majority will be sold and by the end of the day a vast amount already consumed in Tokyo’s myriad restaurants and bars.
During this frantic trading I managed to ask a number of vendors - some of whose families had worked at the market for generations - about the proposed move. Overall the majority were resigned to the move and many were happy that the government was funding a new modern facility that will improve the efficiency of the market. Others weren’t so positive. The reputation that the new site has for being polluted was a definite worry to many - the former location of a gas plant, the soil is reportedly contaminated with toxic waste. Some are still holding hope that the decision will be reversed, allowing Tokyo’s thriving fish trade and visitors alike the chance to experience the charm of Tsukiji for a while longer.
As the trading began to die down and the vendors started to pack up their stalls, I made my way back to the sushi counters for a traditional Tsukiji breakfast. Sitting down to a steaming mug of green tea and bowl of Maguro Don, sprinkled with sliced seaweed and pickles and a generous lump of fresh wasabi, it was hard to imagine the Tsukiji spirit dying any time soon, whatever its geographical outcome.
This article first appeared in Asia Eater issue 1