Herschel Journal - Tsukiji Fish Market

For issue 07 of Herschel's Journal I wrote about Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, the largest on earth, which will soon be moved to make way for the upcoming summer Olympics. Check out the story on Herschel's site, or below. 


The Tsukiji Legacy

It's 3 AM in Tokyo. Thousands of intricate neon lights blink onto empty streets and reflect in puddles undisturbed by passing feet. Taxis stack up outside hotels and their drivers snatch some sleep in the final stretch of their shift. Even the maelstrom of Shibuya Crossing is tempered in the slumbering pre-dawn hours. 

But one building in the city center is just waking up. Its massive network of narrow grooves and passages - like a giant urban brain - soon begin to pulse and jolt with activity. This is the Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest wholesale seafood market on earth. Every day this place moves almost 2000 tons of ocean life - from seaweed to shrimp, monstrous clams to premium caviar, tiny sardines to tuna weighing half a ton. This is the hub that provides the finest catch from the ocean to the best seafood restaurants in the world.

With the city still wrapped in night the harvest is loaded in from trucks. Once each variety gets sorted out to its proper destination, the auction houses prepare for the morning's main event: the selling of the tuna. Japan accounts for about 80% of the bluefin tuna consumed worldwide, and like the explosion that cranks the pistons in an engine, the auction of both fresh and frozen tuna is the force that drives the market. 

Dozens of the massive fish are laid out on wooden pallets, heads and tail fins removed, their streamlined silver-black bodies gleaming under the overhead lights. Before bidding starts the vendors pace slowly down the rows. When he comes across a promising specimen, the buyer will hack off a chunk of the flesh with a small pick tool, hold it in the beam of a flashlight, and work it between his fingers to determine the meat's texture and fat content. 

Suddenly a bell clangs and the action begins. At the stand the auctioneer bellows his wares in blistering Japanese. Wholesalers indicate their bids with a series of one-handed signals, and with deadpan expressions and flickering fingers they compete for the choicest fish, each of which will yield thousands of dishes. As quickly as it began, the auction is done. The fish are loaded onto wheeled carts and disappear into the maze of the market.

Outsiders hoping to witness the auction can do so, but to keep spellbound tourists out from underfoot, space is limited. Just two groups are allowed in per day, each of whom must register around 4:30 AM  if they hope to win a spot. 

The selling of the year's first tuna is always a ceremonial occasion. This year the first fish, a 440 pound bluefin, went for $165,000 to Kyoshi Kimura. Mr. Kimura, who owns a well-known Tokyo sushi chain, won the first fish in 2013 too, but only after a challenger engaged him in a bidding war that ratcheted the price to $1.4 million. 

But vendors like Mr. Kimura can only determine so much with their fingers and a flashlight, and they won't discover the true quality of their purchase until they get it back to their stall and start cutting into it. In true Japanese fashion, that's an art in itself. 

Properly cutting apart a tuna involves years of apprenticeship and an arsenal of blades including saws operated by two men, the positively sword-like maguro bōchō, and knives as small and precise as a surgeon's scalpel. Many of these exquisite blades are made by master artisans just next door in the outer market, which rings the inner area where you'll find the wholesale stalls. Tsukiji is largely a self-sustained, self-contained operation. Mixed in with the knife makers are vendors selling everything the market needs to run, including small restaurants where you can sample the product sold just minutes before. One of the oldest businesses is Tsukiji Masamoto, a knife shop founded in 1845. Misao Hirano, the 7th generation owner, runs it today. 

Markets like Tsukiji far outdate even Mr. Hirano's humble shop. In the 16th century the megacity we call Tokyo was just a small village known as Edo. Of course this was long before boats had refrigerated holds, so the day's catch was hauled directly from the water to shoreline markets known as Uogashi. Over time many such markets sprang up along the town's waterways, growing and changing alongside the city, year by year, until we have Tsukiji. Today the market represents the singular nature of Japan, the modern distillation of a tradition reaching back centuries. 

For good or bad, that change hasn't stopped. Since 1935 Tsukiji has called central Tokyo home. Before that it was at Nihonbashi, until the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 levelled it. Soon the market will move once more. 
This time it won't be a natural disaster that ends it, but manmade reasons. The market will shut down ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics to free up its prime real estate, and in November the bulk of Tsukiji's operations will relocate to the nearby Toyosu neighbourhood. It's a controversial choice: the new site once housed a gas plant, and the surrounding soil and water shows high levels of chemical contamination. That said, the new facilities will be twice as large, more sanitary, and have more parking for trucks and direct access to an expressway. 

Wherever it ends up, there's no doubt that Tsukiji, or something like it will continue to be an integral part of life in Tokyo.