Susan Kuro­sawa makes a dawn visit to Tokyo’s Tsuk­iji fish mar­ket

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

THERE are few com­pelling rea­sons to bound out of bed at 5am while trav­el­ling, un­less it’s a mat­ter of (bliss) a sa­fari game drive or (hor­ror) a trans­port con­nec­tion. Tokyo is such a thor­oughly ur­ban me­trop­o­lis — the Man­hat­tan of Asia, no con­test — that early starts here in jeans and rub­ber­soled boots seem an odd af­fair. But the sun is just ris­ing as we troop into Tsuk­iji fish mar­ket, about 10 min­utes by taxi from Tokyo’s Ginza shop­ping strip or Marunouchi busi­ness dis­trict. We are here for the daily seafood auc­tion, which starts at about 5.30am but is still in full cry when we line up in the vis­i­tors’ cor­ri­dor just be­fore 6am.

The scene in front of us is mes­meris­ing in its ar­cane tra­di­tions and sheer in­dus­tri­ous­ness. Our Ja­panese-Amer­i­can es­cort, Mark Kobayashi from the new Penin­sula Tokyo ho­tel, says even Ja­panese speak­ers find it hard to fol­low the shouted spiels. Close to where we are stand­ing, a ruddy-faced auc­tion­eer, hop­ping about on a small stool, calls out with such vigour and pace that be­tween rounds he sits down and gasps like a just-landed fish.

The seafood he is auc­tion­ing, how­ever, has long since sighed its last. Mas­sive bluefin tuna, fast-frozen and flown into Tokyo the pre­vi­ous evening from the US east coast or the deep wa­ters around the Hawai­ian is­lands, are lined up, sans heads and tails, as ovoid as sil­ver mis­siles, on the slip­pery, blood-spat­tered floor.

Bids for each new line of fish start with a fu­ri­ous call to ac­tion; our auc­tion­eer leans for­ward as he hand-rings a brass bell, as if about to tip off his nurs­ery stool. Bid­ders have al­ready in­spected the fresh­ness, fat con­tent and gen­eral qual­ity of what’s on dis­play, shin­ing torches and pok­ing around with near-sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion in lit­tle cuts on the skin. Each fish has its weight and ori­gin daubed in what looks like cochineal on its frozen bulk.

Al­though we can’t work out to­day’s auc­tion re­sults, the av­er­age Tsuk­iji price is $US100 ($113) a kilo for bluefin tuna, much prized for sashimi. The sta­tis­tics at Tsuk­iji, the world’s largest fish mar­ket, are stag­ger­ing. About 450 dif­fer­ent types of seafood — from scal­lops, spiny lob­sters and squid to sea cu­cum­bers and eels — are sold here and to­tal daily tak­ings av­er­age $US20 mil­lion. Up to 17,000 trucks move pro­duce each day and Tsuk­iji sup­plies about one-third of seafood con­sumed in Ja­pan.

Soon we move into the hangar-like mar­ket proper where more than 1000 stall­hold­ers are set­ting up for the morn­ing trade. We mince with geisha-like steps as we ne­go­ti­ate a course of pud­dles and slushy ice. Chaps in welling­ton boots and PVC coats push wheel­bar­rows of glit­ter­ing red snap­per; huge tanks con­tain doomed seafood of ev­ery size and stripe, piles of oc­to­pus gleam in a tan­gle of crim­son and grey­ish white, pyra­mids of sea urchins re­sem­ble spiky Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions.

We flat­ten our­selves against walls and stacked crates like phan­tom ninja as mo­torised back-end load­ers, driven in a style that could po­litely be called pur­pose­ful, charge past, cir­cling and swerv­ing dodgem style. Th­ese ve­hi­cles are trans­port­ing fish from the auc­tion floor to the cut­ting sheds, mar­ket stall­hold­ers and de­liv­ery trucks. The driv­ers stop for no one and we joke that some of the load­ers have the skin, hair and blood of slow pedes­tri­ans on their fend­ers. As Kobayashi puts it, They have work to do and we are walk­ing through their of­fice.’’

Tsuk­iji opened on its present site by the Su­mida River in 1935 but a river­side fish mar­ket was es­tab­lished in Tokyo in the Edo pe­riod of the 16th cen­tury. Fish­er­men sup­plied the then shogun at Edo Cas­tle but a mar­ket soon grew up to serve the needs of the broader com­mu­nity.

Tsuk­iji is open Mon­days to Satur­days but closed on pub­lic hol­i­days and the sec­ond and fourth Wed­nes­days of each month. Al­though the of­fi­cial web­site states vis­i­tors are not al­lowed to at­tend the auc­tions, there are dozens of tourists in the view­ing cor­ri­dor on the morn­ing of our visit.

To fully ap­pre­ci­ate what is hap­pen­ing, how­ever, I sug­gest a guided tour. Be as­sured, too, that it doesn’t smell strongly: there’s just the clear, slightly metal­lic odour of seafood.

Plans are afoot to move the mar­ket, which has out­grown its chaotic site, to the east of the Su­mida River within the next 10 years. The need for wider pas­sages and eas­ier ac­cess for de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles has be­come crit­i­cal but many stall-hold­ers will not go qui­etly; there is a pal­pa­ble sense of tra­di­tion at Tsuk­iji un­likely to be matched by a new fa­cil­ity with shiny stain­less decor and roofs that don’t leak.

By 8am, the restau­rant chefs and seafood re­tail­ers hit the stands to pur­chase their daily needs. The queues are get­ting longer at the lit­tle sushi and yak­i­tori bars that line the open ar­cades on the side of the main mar­ket. Rec­om­mended by Syd­ney restau­ra­teur Luke Man­gan, who re­cently opened Salt in Tokyo’s fash­ion­able Marunouchi dis­trict, is Daiwa Sushi (lit­tle English is spo­ken but you’ll be un­der­stood if you ask for a sushi or sashimi set’’); turnover is su­per-quick so there’s no lin­ger­ing at Daiwa’s sit-up counter. Big pots of miso soup are on the bub­ble; the broth will be served over tiny clams on the shell and sprin­kled with dainty curls of spring onion.

But we are al­ready gone: back at the Penin­sula, show­ered and de­odorised, ready for cof­fee and crois­sants. www.tsuk­iji-mar­ket.or.jp www.jnto.go.jp www.penin­sula.com

Pic­tures: Susan Kuro­sawa

More than 1000 stall­hold­ers: Tokyo’s Tsuk­iji fish mar­ket sup­plies about one-third of the seafood con­sumed in Ja­pan

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