Little Adventures in Tokyo

Features Tokyo Life - February 26th, 1988

by Rick Kennedy

Sushi for breakfast

A visit to Tsukiji, Tokyo’s extraordinary fish market, offers an insight into how things work in this country. The rou­tine of the place, even as it tiptoes lightly along the edge of chaos, is as tightly organized as a military invasion and everyone knows that they must work together or the whole thing will collapse.

Besides, a visit to Tsukiji is a lark, Tsukiji is open to any­one, and so it has the aspect of an Italian street fair, or rather a couple dozen Italian street fairs crammed into space for one. You go to Tsukiji as an adventurer, a seeker after early-morning exoticism, but such is the pace of business that no one has time to pay you the slightest attention, unless you happen to be in the way. Only toward the end of Tsuki­ji’s day (around 8 in the morn­ing), will things have slackened to the point that Tsukiji people will have time for a cup of tea or a can of beer and gentle jokes about your earnest curi­osity.

“Where do those come from?” you ask, pointing to tray of prickly black molluscs as big as softballs.

“From the sea, I suppose,” says the grizzled stall owner with a wink. “Can’t hardly find that sort of thing in the moun­tains anymore.” In fact, as you find out later, the molluscs are found in only one place in the world, off the coast of Ceylon, and they are available for sale only one place in the world, right here. To the people who work here, Tsukiji—although it is the largest of Japan’s 50 or so municipal markets and quite possibly the most sophisticated market in the world—is a perfectly ordinary place to work, and this in the end may be the most extraordinary thing about it.

A third of all the fish consumed in Japan (and Japan consumes a sixth of the world’s fish) comes through Tsukiji— more than 2,500 tons a day. Such is the drawing power of the market that it is not un­usual for a catch of high-grade fish taken off the coast of Kyu­shu to be iced and rushed to Tokyo to be sold the next morning to buyers representing a fish wholesaler in Kyushu. Tsukiji is as efficient as an electrical circuit. It can put a lobster crawling on the ocean floor off Gloucester, Mass., on your plate in Tokyo in 24 hours.

The Central Wholesale Mar­ket (Tsukiji’s formal name) stands on land reclaimed 300 years ago from Tokyo Bay. It occupies about as much space as the grounds of the football stadium of a large American university, but on an average day 17,000 trucks come and go through its two gates, to say nothing of the motorized bat­talions of motorcycles, bicycles and solid-tired delivery carts that manage to plug in any remaining gaps in the swarm of traffic.

The market is organized into tiers. Only seven old-establish­ed wholesaling companies call­ed niyuke are authorized to buy directly from the boats. The niyuke sell to second-level wholesalers called nakaoroshi. Each of the 1,152 authorized nakaoroshi, most of whom specialize in a particular species of fish, is allotted just seven square meters of selling space under Tsukiji’s great curving sheds, and the location of their stalls is changed by lot every four years in the interest of fairness.

(Try to imagine the unholy chaos that occurs when this happens and the sushi shops, local fish markets and the gen­eral public all must search for the new location of their ac­customed suppliers in a brand-new maze!) This tiered organization insures that fish change hands at least three times be­fore they even get out of the gate, but is the secret of Tsuki­ji’s efficiency.

 Rows of frozen tuna stretch the length of the massive indoor Tsukiji

The classic Tsukiji set piece is the tuna auction, which begins around 5 in the morning and continues to between 6 and 6:30. Most of the tuna are frozen, because freezing doesn’t significantly effect the taste of such a large, red-blooded fish, and hundreds of headless and tailless carcasses frozen as hard as bricks, some from as far away as New York and all dabbed with runes of red paint to indicate their weight and provenance, are laid out in rows on an open expanse of cold concrete out back next to the river.

An eerie fog emanates from the frozen tuna as the gravel-voiced auctioneer get to work. Under the dim lights it seems the scene of an ancient druidical rite. The auctioneers communicate with the buyers in a series of smirks and twitches —ordinary language is too languid to sell a tuna every four seconds. The concentration of the auctioneers is so intense that sweat pours down their cheeks, even in the dead of winter.

Some nakaoroshi will buy four or five perfect specimens of tuna every day. which they take back to their stalls and cut up with long swords and arrange under lights on a bod of ice, like diamonds. The very best tuna goes for ¥10,000 a kilo wholesale, six or seven times as expensive as premium beef.

Tsukiji handles about 400 species of fish, and most are kept alive in plastic tubs of running water (which is why everyone wears rubber boots) so they can be killed at the last possible moment, by a needle through the central nerve, because it is felt that the taste of a fish which has been allowed to expire on its own is less well defined.

The tendency for nakaoroshi to specialize can be bewildering. The amateur buyer inquires: “Where can I buy some crab?,” only to be asked. “What kind? Kegani? Zuai? Watari?” Dif­ferent nakaoroshi specialize in each kind. The most expensive food sold at Tsukiji is hamako no kodomo no hoshiteru, dried sea-slug roe, at ¥100,000 a kilo. It is available through nakaoroshi called chinmiya who supply gourmet restaurants and drinking places. (I have no idea what it tastes like; pretty pun gent I suppose.)

Tsukiji also sells vegetables (last year 120,000 tons of cucumbers), plus fruit, meat, eggs and pickles, as well as exotic comestibles, like foie gras and maple syrup, from 48 countries. Tsukiji has its own bookstore (slocked with books about fish), museum (of fish­ing), hotel and public bath. If you arc running a restaurant, you can buy here your knives, uniforms, plates, scales and chopsticks.

You don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to see Tsuki­ji in action. If you get there by 6 in the morning you’ll see whole operas. By then, Tsukiji’s little shops are serving bowls of Chinese and Japanese noo­dles and selling buckets and fish gaffs and thick felt insoles to go in your boots. Tsukiji’s rhythm is six hours out of phase with the rest of the city.

The vegetable auction, a slightly more relaxed affair than the pandemoniac tuna auction, begins at 7 o’clock. The couple dozen auctioneers line up before the bleachers where the buyers have taken up their positions, and when the bell rings doff their caps and bow, giving out with a lusty “Ohayo gozaimasu!

They all start selling at once, shoulder to shoulder—grapes as big as golf balls, apples as big as boules, and the fabulously expensive Japanese melons — the most pampered fruit in the world, fruit to be given away as gifts to the boss and to valued customers, fruit which has been grown and packaged with fanatical care.

The lots come in, are bid for, and knocked down in seconds, and are whisked away by scurrying minions with flash­lights tucked in their boots. Bags of chestnuts, mushrooms from Korea and Iwate Prefec­ture, chingensai, myoga, konasu, ginan  nuts, yamatoimo, fresh wasabi and huge knuckles of new ginger; anything, everything, the best, the very best.

Tsukiji’s writing instrument is the blunt felt-tip pen. Its ef­fluvia is broken shards of white styrofoam containers, which as the day winds down are bull­dozed into mountains and com­pressed into evil-looking discs. The Tsukiji obbligato is the buzz of the bandsaw and the chatter of the marketplace: “Welcome, welcome! Only  ¥800. ¥800! Going fast. How about it? Welcome, welcome!”

Tsukiji’s buildings are of a Dickensian cast as the market has no time to think of renova­tion. Tsukiji is where you can see a huge frozen tuna slid across the cobblestone to act as a temporary doorstop.

There is something delight­fully raffish about sushi for breakfast, like Champagne and strawberries. A sushi breakfast breaks the routine, jars you out of the tracks. A good place, among many good places, for Tsukiji knows its fish, is Dai-zushi. well-known to everyone here. Sit at the counter and order jo-zushi, the top course for ¥1,300, then order a la carte as you fancy after that.

And here you are, right in the middle of Tokyo, wide awake and exhilarated at 8 in the morning, with the whole day ahead of you. It’s an easy walk to Shimbashi or the Ginza, passing people on their way to workaday jobs.

External Link:
Tsukiji Market