The Tsukiji Legacy

It’s 3am 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 Market, the largest wholesale seafood market on earth. Every day this place moves almost 2,000 tons of ocean life — from seaweed to shrimp, monstrous clams to premium caviar, tiny sardines to tuna weighing a half-ton. This is the hub that provides the finest catch from the ocean to the best seafood restaurants in the world.

Under night skies the harvest is unloaded from trucks. Once each variety gets sorted, 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 an explosion that cranks the pistons of 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 each row. Once a promising specimen is spotted, the buyer will remove a chunk of 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.

“With deadpan expressions and flickering fingers they compete for the choicest fish.”

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. Almost 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 the space for spellbound tourists is limited. Just two groups of 60 are allowed in per day, each of whom must register at 5am 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 $117,000 USD to Kyoshi Kimura, who owns the well-known Sushi Zanmai restaurant chain. Mr. Kimura won the first fish in 2013 too, but only after engaging in a bidding war with a Hong Kong-based chain that ratcheted the price to $1.7 million USD.

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.

“Today’s market represents the modern distillation of a tradition.”

Properly butchering a bluefin involves years of apprenticeship and an arsenal of blades, including band saws, the positively sword-like maguro bōchō, and knives as small and precise as a surgeon’s scalpel. Some of these exquisite blades are made by artisans just next door in the outer market. One of the oldest on-site businesses, Masamoto, has been producing knives in Japan for 170 years and is run by seventh-generation owner Misao Hirano.

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, they grew and changed alongside the city, year by year, until Tsukiji was established. Today’s market represents the singular nature of Japan, the modern distillation of a tradition reaching back centuries.

Since 1935 Tsukiji has called central Tokyo home. Before that it was in Nihonbashi, until the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 leveled it. Soon it will move once more, but this time for man-made reasons.

In order to free up its prime real estate for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the bulk of Tsukiji’s operations will relocate to nearby Toyosu in 2017. It’s a controversial choice since the area once housed a gas plant, which has contaminated the surrounding soil and water. That said, extensive cleanup plans are in place and the new facilities will be twice as large, more sanitary, and will include temperature-controlled buildings to better ensure a cool environment for fresh seafood and produce.

The Tsukiji Market’s 80-year history will never be forgotten, and there’s no doubt that its successor will also be an integral part of life in Tokyo.

Written by Grady Mitchell
Photographed by Stephen Wilde

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