Tsukiji too popular to function

Tourists welcome at eateries, underfoot at fish vendors

by Reiji Yoshida

Visiting the famed Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward is an awesome experience for foreign tourists and it can never be too early in the morning to go.

Well before 5:30 a.m. daily, dozens of foreign tourists can be seen awaiting the start of the daily auction of hundreds of huge tuna.

The auction of both fresh and frozen tuna many more than 1 meter long and fetching more than ¥1 million has become a major tourist attraction in Tokyo, particularly for visitors from overseas.

“It is very impressive. Very interesting,” said Ralph D’Angelo from New York, who was among dozens of foreigners viewing a recent Tsukiji tuna auction.

“I can’t believe I have to get up at 4 o’clock to come here, but it was worth it,” said D’Angelo, standing by hundreds of huge tuna on the auction floor.

The Tsukiji market is widely recommended by travel books and Web sites. But the swarms of visitors foreign and Japanese alike are hindering its operations and allegedly posing sanitary concerns. In fact, it’s so popular that the operator of the market is now urging people “to voluntarily refrain from coming.”

Some ill-mannered tourists even try to pick up some of the tuna, fascinated by their amazing size, fish merchants said.

“We are handling raw, fresh food. We cannot say to tourists, ‘Please come in, we welcome you,'” said Hideji Otsuki, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government official in charge of the massive fish market.

Keeping Japan’s most famous and largest fish market open to outsiders could even invite the risk of terrorism, some officials said.

Since May, the metropolitan government and representatives of the fish merchants, restaurants and other shops inside have continued talking about the tourist issue.

When they meet Wednesday, they plan to propose new regulations on tourists, Otsuki said.

If the parties come to an agreement, “we would ask tourists to refrain from coming to the market,” he said.

This doesn’t mean a total ban on visitors, Otsuki said. It only means the market won’t actively invite them. Keeping outsiders away is not a realistic option because the market is open 24 hours a day and does not have tight security, he said.

About 42,000 people enter the market daily, and 19,000 trucks load and unload seafood and other goods 24 hours a day.

“Tsukiji opened more than 70 years ago. It is so old that it is not designed to handle the flow of people from outside,” Otsuki said.

But not everyone at the market wants visitation curtailed.

Tsukiji’s restaurants and shops, especially the famous sushi bars known for their high quality and reasonable prices, practically depend on tourists.

“As far as sushi restaurants are concerned, I think more than 50 percent of their customers are (outsiders) on weekdays. On Saturdays, they probably account for more than 90 percent,” said Susumu Isono, director of Isonoya, which runs sushi and other fish eateries inside Tsukiji.

“We have many foreign customers, too,” he said.

But fish merchants find most outsiders to be a hindrance.

Market participants “are desperate in bidding for tuna because hundreds of millions of yen worth are auctioned everyday,” Otsuki said. Auctioneers often complain of missing buyers’ hand signals because of all the flashes from the tourists’ cameras, he said.

Until the late 1980s, the Tsukiji Fish Market was mainly the realm of fish merchants and buyers. Tokyo had far more fish shops then, and the market was much busier than it is today, recalled Masao Takeuchi, who runs a coffee shop at Tsukiji and serves as director of the association of eating and drinking establishments in the market.

But in recent years, the fish trade at Tsukiji has declined as large supermarkets started bypassing intermediaries and domestic fish consumption began to decline.

Restaurants and shops situated inside the market then started trying to attract more visitors, Takeuchi said.

With the gourmet boom in Japan and Tokyo’s rising popularity as an international city, suddenly Tsukiji found itself a prominent tourist destination.

A visitor from New Jersey who came to see the tuna auction and identified himself only as Robert said many foreign tourists come to see Tsukiji partly because they are interested in Japan’s fish-eating culture and respect the long-held traditional fish auction.

“I think it’s important to allow tourists to see this … probably there are some tourists who wouldn’t come to Tokyo if they couldn’t go to Tsukiji,” he said.

Fish merchants say, however, that walking around in the crowded market is also dangerous for outsiders.

There is constant vehicle traffic, ranging from large refrigerated trucks to small “turret trucks” with pallet-loads of fish plying Tsukiji’s narrow aisles.

Tsukiji is indeed one of the world’s largest and busiest food markets, with 2,090 tons of seafood, worth ¥1.79 billion, being traded daily along with some 1,183 tons of vegetables, worth ¥320 million.

“Some foreign tourists come wearing high-heeled shoes, and others bring their little kids on strollers. That’s quite dangerous,” said Junichi Honma, spokesman for Wholesales Co-operatives of Tokyo Fish Market.

For English-speaking tourists, merchants can still ask them to be careful and observe the rules inside the market verbally or by showing them notices in English.

But for those not conversant in either Japanese or English, it is very difficult to communicate, Honma said.

While Honma himself believes the fish market should basically be open to outsiders to take advantage of its No.1 status, a majority of the co-op members believe priority should be placed on the fish trade, not tourism promotion, he said.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, apparently eager to attract more foreign tourists to the capital, proposed last year that a wider, glass-walled concourse solely for tourists be set up in the middle of the tuna auction venue.

But the proposal was immediately turned down by the cooperatives, which argued that priority should be on making daily operations more convenient, Honma said.

He doesn’t believe, however, that urging tourists to show voluntary restraint will reduce their numbers.

The co-ops have instead proposed that identification cards be issued for each visitor and entrance fees be charged to cover insurance costs for possible accidents.

But measures to control the visitor flow would involve a big budget and large-scale renovation, Otsuki of the metro government said, admitting that asking tourists to refrain would be a halfway gesture unsatisfactory to either side.

Otsuki suggested better visitor control could be possible at Tsukiji’s planned replacement to be built in the Toyosu district in Koto Ward in 2012. But details of the relocation have not been finalized, he said.

The association of eateries in the market has already petitioned to allow visitors free movement in the new market, where many of them also plan to relocate, metropolitan government officials said.