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Rob Perkins Writer
Experiencing the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo


You often hear it said that visitors at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo are tolerated rather than welcomed. The truth behind that sentiment becomes unnervingly apparent the first moment you hear the squeal of wet tyres behind you and spin around to see a forklift truck laden with polystyrene crates bearing down at speed and you realise that he’s not going to swerve, or brake, or even bother to shout a warning, and you’re either going to move or you’d better have good travel insurance. If you’re lucky then the wheels pass within a fish scale of your foot and you can breathe a sigh of relief and disappear back into the crowd, embarrassed but at least not roadkill.

 

This type of thing tends to happen a lot in the dark, crowded lanes of Tsukiji – concentration, spacial awareness and heightened senses are paramount, so you don’t wear headphones here. Nor do you wear open-toed shoes if you know what’s good for you, or sunglasses, and you certainly don’t wield a camera with a flash because there’s a lot of people in here swinging very sharp knives around with great dexterity and strength and skill and you really do not want to put one of them off their stroke.

 

We’d walked into Tsukiji around 6am, too late to queue for the famous tuna auction but too early still to have built up any kind of substantial appetite for the sushi served in the outer market, which is said to be the best, and certainly about the freshest, you could ever taste. Strictly speaking I’m a ramen guy all the way but I’d found a scrunched-up receipt in my pocket a few days earlier with the name “Okame” scrawled on it by and I saw it as some kind of prophecy we had to meet!

 

Tsukiji is one of those “raw and authentic” Tokyo experiences that everyone naturally wants to have, so you can find a hundred-and-one guides on “how to Do Tsukiji Right” but frankly there can be no right way because for most of us there’s never been anywhere quite like it on this earth and you haven’t the first idea how to deal with it, let alone escape it if you become trapped.

 

You might assume that a place like this would reek from some distance but in truth you don’t really notice the smell, at least not immediately, because a lot of the seafood is still frozen solid or not far off, and anyway it’s so fresh it probably thinks it’s still in the ocean. No, you experience Tsukiji first and foremost through your ears. The slops. The slits. The splashes. The curses. The cheers. The yells. The horns. Then you gradually become aware of the intense cold – that’s another reason why sightseers aren’t especially welcome here – all these warm bodies have a habit of fritzing with the sensitive climate-controlled atmosphere.

 

Tsukiji FIsh Market, Tokyo

Tsukiji FIsh Market, Tokyo

Dried octopus for sale

 

History of Tsukiji

 

Tokyo’s first food markets were established by the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu during the Edo period to feed the residents of his castle. In under 300 years Edo itself grew from a tiny coastal village to become a sprawling metropolis, largely on the strength of its fishing industry. Traders would hawk their leftover fish at the Nihonbashi bridge, which was the eastern terminus of the legendary Nakasendō and Tōkaidō roads. In 1923 the bridge and the market along with much of central Tokyo, were destroyed by the Great Kantō earthquake which was so powerful it apparently shifted the Great Buddha statue of Kamakura (93 tonnes) some two feet off its plinth, and it was decided to create several other fish markets in its stead. One of them, Tsukiji, was situated for convenience on the west bank of the Sumida River and today it ranks as the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. Recent efforts to shift the market to a more sanitised and less valuable stretch of real estate seem to have become bogged down in worries about safety and pollution, so for now at least Tsukiji and its place in Tokyo culture remain firmly rooted to the spot.

 

It is a sprawling, poorly lit maze of narrow alleys that are lined with rusty, filthy old corrugated iron sheds, many of them probably erected after the earthquake and never replaced. An easy place to get lost in, and not an unhappy one if you can cope with the woozy feeling of jetlagged mayhem that it sometimes induces. The red-eyed men and women that work here lifting and cutting and scraping and draining and packing were taught to do so by their parents, who were taught by their own parents in turn, and so on back through the mists of time. When one of these artisans, for that is surely what they are, rips a meaty chunk of swordfish from under the two-man band saw and flings it across the aisle to his partner, you can walk underneath with confidence because it has been aimed with precision, even if neither one was actually looking.

 

This fever dream of a place is not for those who squeam easily – there’s more blood and guts slopping and channeling around the uneven cobbled floor in Tsukiji fish market by 9am than you would have found at even Rome’s goriest gladiator spectaculars come sunset. Heads go in this bucket, tails go in that bucket, nothing is wasted.

 

And what do we have here? Polystyrene creates full of squishy sea cucumbers, giant spider crabs and crayfish; hollow-eyed squid sombrely resigned to their fate; huge tanks full of live oysters, sea urchins and prawns; ripe red salmon roe; tray after tray of mackerel packed in ice; predatory bonitos become the prey; thick clumps of translucent nori as densely green as the forest; tightly clenched clams being shelled rapid-fire by laser focused old women sporting darkly stained aprons; size-conscious sardines awkwardly positioned next to monstrous barracudas; disarmed swordfish in varying states of intactness; squirmy conger eels headed for the sushi stalls; the occasional octopus making a desperate crawl for freedom across the filthy floor before being noticed and flung derisively back into the tank alongside its doomed brethren; here and there a deadly toxic puffer fish to be carved with utmost care; sea squirts, lobsters and the ubiquitous and massive bluefin tuna fresh from both Pacific and Atlantic, its flesh either thickly sliced and frozen or shaved into feathery pink flakes, its eyes removed, bagged and sold as delicacies. And, it is said, blubbery slabs of whale meat if you know the right person to ask.

 

Tuna

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Tuna

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Tuna Slicing

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The Famous Tsukiji Tuna Auction

 

The tuna auction at Tsukiji begins around 5.30am, and with a maximum of 120 visitors invited to watch from the sidelines, places are granted strictly on a first-come, first-served basis. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the auction is the gargantuan size of the tuna themselves – I knew they grew big, but I didn’t know they got this big. It made me think about the guys who catch tuna with a pole out in the ocean, and how crazy you’d need to be to enter an arm-wrestling contest with one of them.

 

Tuna Auction

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After the auction finishes, you can move into the vast wholesale section and wander around pretty much at your leisure, so long as you don’t expect to be welcomed with open arms, or even acknowledged most of the time. The people who work here might not be wearing business dress but you’d better believe they have deadlines to meet too and they’re not going to risk missing them just to exchange a few pleasantries.

 

We made our way to the outer section, and found Okame without too much difficulty. The queue outside the little roadside shack was long but we figured it was worth waiting it out for a while, and sure enough within 20 minutes we were seated with trays of colourful nigiri in front of us, including some buttery sea urchin, dusted with salt for a little extra tang. Most of the other customers in the place had their heads down concentrating on their food so we bowed to their wisdom and followed suit.

 

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