At Tsukiji


This winter vacation, six friends of mine (six!) came out for a visit — first to Tokyo, and then down to the Kansai area, where I live. Since jet lag is a wonderful thing and WILL get you out of bed so delightfully early in the morning, my friends and I decided that a 5 a.m. trip to the fish market at Tsukiji would be the perfect first-day’s activity. We arrived at the market at around six in the morning, still dark outside but with that strange feeling of anticipation that buzzes around in the pre-dawn. The market itself was already at full tilt (fish begin arriving from all over the world at about three in the morning) and walking into the central market was like walking into a different kind of terrain: factory and farm, machine and gut, a magical bounty of fish and an incredible high-speed bustle of forklifts, fish-cutting saws, trolleys, and styrofoam boxes. The feeling of the outer market is something like walking through a massive farmer’s market packed with people and strange deep-sea creations, many of them still breathing and moving in their ice baths and crab buckets.

The fish market at Tsukiji is, of course, the largest in the world and, according to Wikipedia, “Tsukiji alone handles over 2000 metric tons of seafood per day.” Especially impressive is the room upon room, row upon row, of huge, frozen tuna — all with slices in their tails to reveal the rings and quality of the meat inside. We arrived just in time to view a portion of one of the tuna auctions. In a huge warehouse room, two auctioneers were barking at an incredible pace while the buyers shot fingers up in the air and a second tier of employees scrambled around tacking the huge fish carcasses with the names of the buyers. This scramble was intense and lasted for about 15 minutes before the room emptied and the tuna began to be sent off to their respective destinations. I’m not sure how many of these auctions there are in one morning, but there seemed to be room after room of tuna, and we never even got a chance to see any of the rooms with the fresh tuna caught off of Hokkaido that fetch the highest prices in Japan.

Something like 60,000 people work at Tsukiji, which should give you some idea of its size, and it’s really important to remember that you’re a tourist in the middle of someone else’s work day while you’re there. While you’re wandering through the aisles and aisles of fish (which sparkle like jewels or gems) you’re constantly being passed by forklifts and trolleys that are moving through the market at high speed, sometimes just barely squeezing through between stalls. In all of this hustle there’s very little of the aggression you might expect to feel in such a high-intensity work environment; instead there seems to be an almost improvisatory festival air that intermingles with the everydayness of labor. I think this has to do with the incredible, almost overwhelming sense of food-life and abundance that permeates the place. I’ve never been anywhere else where the idea of the harvest fair seemed more appropriate (not even the produce department at the Berkeley Bowl).

The festival culture of abundance that you can feel at Tsukiji (if you’re awake enough!) is really amazing, but I’m not sure how long it can last. World overfishing is, of course, an immense problem and the Japanese — who account for about 25% of world tuna consumption — are beginning to worry about what overfishing is going to mean for Japan’s seafood-centered food culture. Of course, worry isn’t enough and instead strong measures need to be taken, unless the world tuna fishery wants to go the way of the Atlantic cod fishery.

Of course, we had a sashimi breakfast, and then — since it was still only around 9:00 in the morning — we walked over to the Hama Rikyu Onshi Teien gardens (often called the Hama Detached Palace Gardens) where we had tea with tsubaki-shaped tea sweets. The woman working at the teahouse also gave each of us a colorful origami present, including origami boxes, birds, and of course, tsubaki. And since it was a beautiful day, we decided to take the long way back via the Sumidagawa river cruise. Lovely clouds and blue skies.

Click here to see the complete set of Tsukiji fish market photos.


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