To sleep or not to sleep?
This was the question I was considering the night before a 3 a.m. rendezvous for a guided tour of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, the highlight of which was viewing the famous bluefin tuna auction.
Considering the late hours I keep, it was really a no-brainer: sleep could wait. But what I later learned is that failing to wake up would have meant missing the final tuna auction open to visitors in 2015, and thus the main point of my first trip to the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.
Actually, the first time I discovered I would be one of the 120 visitors allowed inside the market for its final public auction of the year was after arriving in the cold at Kachidoki Gate by taxi on the short ride from Shiodome in Tokyo’s Minato Ward.
Here, a line of about 30 people had already formed underneath the charcoal-gray sky. At the head of the line was a sign in English (with Japanese notably following at the bottom): “Important Notice — To ensure the safety, the Tuna Auction Observation Area is temporarily closed from Dec. 1, 2015 to Jan. 16, 2016.”
Like many of the visitors who had arrived at this ungodly hour — many of whom were foreign tourists still battling jet lag — the news came as a surprise. The date was Nov. 30, 2015. Close call.
My personal guide, Katsuhiko Hayashi, 48, explained to me that the shutdown was done purposely during the busiest time of the year. Entry is strictly first come, first served.
For many of the testy fishmongers — some of whom came dangerously close to pancaking me and other unwary tourists in the group with their motorized carts — this last day of rubberneckers could not have come soon enough.
“There is always a large group of foreigners. It’s always filled to capacity,” Hayashi says, before we take our place in the waiting room among the second group of 60 visitors.
Viewing of the auction took place at its customary time, between 5:25 a.m. and 6:15 a.m. Among the curious onlookers in my group was a young couple from San Diego, California.
“I’ve been interested in the auction. I think the highest price I’ve heard was like a million bucks for a tuna,” says Matthew Kerchner, 27. “That was a couple of years ago, but prices have dropped a little since then.”
His trip to Japan was a gift from his girlfriend, Meaghan Johansen, also 27, who was not too thrilled about the early hour but was curious to find out the highest price the tuna would go for.
“This was high on the list but it’s the waking up at three in the morning portion that made me feel like ‘Ahhh! I’d like to do it, but I’m OK with just eating sushi as well,’ ” she says. “We got lucky. Tomorrow was supposed to be our backup day in case we overslept today. Apparently that wouldn’t have happened.”
Jonathan Hollmann, a 22-year-old bio-molecular engineering student at Tokyo Institute of Technology and medical student back in Germany, came with his mother, Anke Becker-Hollmann, 56.
“In all the travel guides I read it was always the first recommendation,” she says. “Plus, I’m still jet-lagged. I just got in a day ago.”
“Fish was one of the first things I connected to when I came to Japan,” says her son, Jonathan. “I love fish, but I don’t have it that much in Germany. Now that I got here, I have fish every day. Now I get to see where it comes from. Also, for jet-lagged tourists I think it’s easy to get here — you can’t sleep at night.”
As we awaited the tuna auction, Hayashi told me to stay near the front en route to the auction area and beware of the zigzagging motorized carts and busy traders, mostly men, who it appeared would just as soon run over the foreign invaders as avoid them.
Hayashi led me to the front of the group in the cordoned-off visitors section of the chilly warehouse for the frozen-tuna auction, which is supervised by the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market. A faint mist rose off the tunas, which were lined up on the floor in neat rows, each containing the weight of the fish in kilograms. Flash photography was not allowed.
Licensed market participants inspected the tunas, plucking at pieces of flesh that had been neatly cut open at the tail end, peering at them with flashlights, and rubbing the slices between their thumb and forefinger to gauge fat content.
“The whiter meat is better than the red meat,” Hayashi says.
All was a blur once the auctioneer’s cow bell rang, summoning the licensed bidders into action.
Hayashi tried to explain the mysterious exchange between poker-faced buyers with note pads who use hand signals and the auctioneer who hollers in singsong guttural tones while gesticulating wildly with his clipboard.
The hand signals represent the numbers one through nine (there is no sign for zero or 10) with price determined per kilogram, the zeros to follow determined by experience and a tacit understanding between seller and buyer.
In a matter of minutes, three small, medium and large lots of frozen tuna had sold out (on average approximately one tuna every six seconds) to the highest bidders, who include intermediate wholesalers from the market and other agents of restaurants, food processing companies, and large retailers.
Hayashi said the purchased fish was either shipped to another location outside Tsukiji or moved on small carts to stalls within the market where shop owners cut and prepare them for retail to other buyers including restaurants and supermarkets.
My guide told me that the estimated sum for the largest lot of big bluefin tuna we observed, a group of three fish, was about ¥5.2 million (approximately $43,000).
The January 2013 prized catch — mentioned previously by Kerchner — was for a single 222-kg tuna that sold to the Sushi-Zanmai restaurant chain for an all-time record ¥155.4 million (approximately $1.76 million) at the first fresh tuna auction that year.
Although prices of first-rate tuna tend to get overblown in the year’s first auction, the absurdly expensive price in 2013 was more an anomaly as Kiyomura K.K. President Kiyoshi Kimura got embroiled in a fierce bidding war with a rival Hong Kong restaurant chain.
In a flash, the main attraction of the morning was over, but we had yet to tour the interior wholesale markets where much of the purchased tuna had gone. Without the clout of my guide, the area was normally off-limits to visitors until 9 a.m.
Here Hayashi would also teach me a thing or two about the celebratory fish and seafood for oshōgatsu, the Japanese New Year, and finally take me for a tasty breakfast at Iwasa Sushi, one of the more popular restaurants in Tsukiji’s Uogashi Yokocho market.