A man in a cap and Wellington boots is holding a glistening metal pick in one hand, a small lump of flesh in the other. And he’s beckoning me over.
“Hey, foreigner! Feast your eyes on this,” he shouts.
Under normal circumstances, I would probably do a Carl Lewis at this point, but this is Tsukiji’s famed fish market and the flesh he is rolling between his stubby fingers and admiring lovingly is from a mist-enveloped, 155-kg tailless tuna.
And this is no ordinary tuna, he explains. Somehow, like many of the hundreds of naka-oroshi (intermediate wholesalers) who ply their trade at the world’s largest fish market, he can tell the quality simply by hacking out a chunk of flesh and inspecting its color and texture.
“It’s all about fat content — the pinker the better,” he says, lowering his voice to a whisper.
I ask if this means he will be making a bid when the fish comes up for auction. He makes no reply as he scribbles down some numbers on a piece of paper, but gives the kind of grin that says “Does Tsukiji sell fish?”
At this point a bell rings and all eyes turn to the serinin, the auctioneer, who stands on a small stool, waving his arms madly and barking an obscure language, known only to those in this inner circle of buyers and sellers.
Hive of activity
In fact, to the uninitiated, Tsukiji market might appear to be a place of incomprehensible mayhem.
The 20-odd auction pits sell anything from gawping globe fish and live lobsters to slimy sea urchin roe and wriggling eels. Whale meat — for sale to scientists only, of course — is as inconspicuous as the man-size tunas.
Undeniably the stars of the show, tuna, are sold at a rate of about one every five seconds, some for the price of a car (a 202-kg bluefin, the black truffle of tunas, fetched a record 20.2 million yen in 2001). No sooner has a bid been landed than the fish is hooked with a pickax, loaded onto a delivery cart and whizzed down the narrow aisles and alleyways of the vast 23,000-sq.-meter market to one of 1,600-odd wholesalers’ stalls.
More than 2,300 tons of fish — about one-third of the total consumed in Japan — passes through Tsukiji each day, all auctioned, sold and delivered in a space of a couple of hours: That’s a lot of wheelbarrows and push-carts doing a lot of whizzing. It’s a captivating experience — but dwell on it at your peril.
Yet, this year, Tsukiji market turned 70, and, like any organization that has been in operation for 70 years, it knows how to land its fish.
From around midnight, when trucks loaded with produce from places as far-flung as Mexico and Turkey converge on the market, to the time that same produce is auctioned and packaged off to your nearby supermarket or favorite sushiya nine hours later, the system is as well-oiled as a can of anchovies.
Sad then that sightseeing visitors have been charged with fishy behavior: As of mid-May, the auction pits have been put off-limits to tourists, whose fish fingering and flash photographing have become a “nuisance” to wholesalers and auctioneers alike, said Yoshihiko Yamamoto of the market’s administration department.
Exceptions may be considered for those who obtain permission beforehand in the form of documentation obtained from an applicant’s embassy, Yamamoto curiously added.
Further inquiries revealed something fishy in Yamamoto’s tale, however. One administration staffer insisted the ban only applies to large groups, while another remarked that if visitors kept their digits and flashes to themselves, they would unlikely to be thrown out (the route I took on two post-ban visits).
Yamamoto, though, is adamant: “Efforts to prevent visitors from disregarding regulations haven’t worked, so this was an inevitable, though regrettable, outcome,” he added.
Regrettable, indeed, but auctions, while frantic and fun, kick off at around 4:30 a.m., long before the first trains — and most sane human beings — have begun to stir.
What’s more, Tsukiji is much more than just an auction house.
In addition to offering what may be the world’s most astonishing array of marine products, 450 in total and many of which you may never have seen before — not alive and flapping at least — there is the much vaunted experience of sampling what is, according to some gaijin gastronomes, possibly the best and certainly freshest seafood in Tokyo.
There are a number of hole-in-the-wall eateries within Tsukiji’s grounds, once solely charged with feeding the market workers, but now out of economic necessity welcoming the casual visitor as well.
Many simply offer a set selection of premium sashimi cuts or sushi morsels priced between 2,000 yen and 3,500, yen but more flexible eateries will tailor the menu to suit your purse.
Another good reason to visit the market sooner than later is that it may not be around for many more years — at least not at its present location. The metropolitan government has already unveiled plans to relocate the Chuo Ward-based facility to a more high-tech, user-friendly site at Toyosu wharf in Koto Ward.
Yet some of the market’s old hands have protested this move, saying it is both unnecessary and prohibitively costly (retailers, restaurateurs and other staff will be required to cover their own moving costs).
Yoshiharu Kiku, 71, who began working at Tsukiji 56 years ago, expresses bewilderment at the plans, saying that the name Tsukiji itself has become synonymous with the world’s best and most eclectic selection of fish.
“This place has a long tradition. Why break it and start from scratch all over again?” he says. “Government officials only think what’s best for themselves, nobody else.”
At which point I mention the hierarchy’s ban on tourists at the auctions. “Nonsense!” he says with a big smile. “Nobody’s going to stop you from enjoying that.”
And he was right.
For eateries within the Tsukiji market zone, Japan Times food writer Robbie Swinnerton has previously recommended both Daiwa-zushi and Sushi-bun. Another option is Tsukiji-zushi, a larger establishment just outside the market, but its basic sushi platter, while superior to Daiwa’s, is — at 4,000 yen — twice the price.
You can’t go wrong, however, if you simply look for the place with the longest line outside.