IF YOU KNEWSUSHI
Susan Kurosawa makes a dawn visit to Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market
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
More than 1000 stallholders: Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market supplies about one-third of the seafood consumed in Japan