Japan 1: Welcome to Tokyo! (and a killer okonomiyaki)
Japan 2: Yokohama and Omuraisu
Japan 3: What Makes Japan One Of A Kind
Japan 4: Special Japanese Neighborhoods + Those Famous Food Floors
Japan 5: A Gourmet Japanese Lunch + Roppongi Hills
Japan 6: Kyoto (1st installment, 2nd installment)
Japan 7: Disneyland and DisneySea
Japan 8: Tsukiji Fish Market & Tsukiji neighborhood
On my last day in Japan, I wake up and immediately feel shots of pain coursing up my calves. The nonstop walking of the past nine days is catching up with me and my body is threatening to shut down. Still bleary eyed and trying to ignore my discomfort, I momentarily consider canceling my trip to Tsukiji, Japan’s, no — the world’s — largest seafood marketplace. I’d be crazy not to go, it’s akin to blasphemy for this food lover. “Ack, no sleep for the wicked,” I think as I pull on some clothes that I know will smell like fish when I return.
Tsukiji (pronounced SKEE-gee) is just a short brisk walk from our apartment and Ginza. We walk past shuttered stores at this early hour (6:30 am), coffee places like Doutor and Starbucks are still brewing their joes. As we get closer to Tsukiji, my Bin and I are quickly followed by a mass of tourists all toting cameras in assorted sizes. Like us, they’re all red-eyed and chattering excitedly in various accents.
When it comes to wholesale fish markets, Tsukiji is in a class of its own: it handles over 2,000 tons of marine products daily, offers more than 400 different types of seafood, and imports from 60 countries on six continents. The statistics are staggering, the experience of actually being there: mind-numbing. It’s a constellation of color, chaos, and cacophony on an ineffably immense scale. This is where 50,000 workers attend to the needs of 14,000 retailers; their business transactions a wild assimilation of high-tech and pre-tech trade.
There’s but one simple rule that my Bin and I must follow if we’re to make it past the winding maze of little stores leading up to the Tsukiji Fish Market: avoid getting run over. Scurrying motorcycle porters (I dub them the Tsukiji scooters) zip to and fro and some hapless tourist intent on getting that perfect shot is in real danger of getting mowed down by a ton of tuna. While Tsukiji is a famous tourist attraction, it can’t be forgotten that this is a place where serious business is done and where millions of yen change hands by the minute. Presence of mind is key.
notice the warning sign. Click here for a larger version.
Tsukiji is comprised of an inner and outer market. The latter is where the tuna auctions are held, and which require a special permit for entry. It’s been closed to tourists since May 2005 due to the interference caused by countless spectators and cases of misbehaving tourists (touching/hugging the tuna, obstructing people at work and using flash photography which is prohibited.)
The labyrinth of stalls ”“ over 1,600 of them ”“ sell more than 450 varieties of seafood. It’s a tremendous display: My jaw drops to the wet floor when I see fishmongers prefabricating cuts from hundred-pound tunas; rare seafood varieties like fugu and sea slug caviar and bluefin tuna abound at prices that are a bargain compared to what they’d sell overseas; clams and crabs of every kind are everywhere, swimming in shallow pools in Styrofoam boxes; men are shucking oysters and circular saws whirr as they slice the heads off of large fish, their carcasses immediately divvied up into fillets for sushi chefs; frozen fish that have been bought at the auction are marked with the buyer’s name. These are scenes unlike any I’ve ever witnessed in my life.
I’m only vaguely aware that I’m walking around with my mouth half agape. How can I not be? I’m agog at the well-ordered confusion and half terrified of getting mowed down by men on scooters and large wheelbarrow types transporting massive Styrofoam boxes. All around, sushi chefs, restaurant owners, and the average Japanese homemaker dart from stall to stall trying to wangle the best deals. There are no high-pitched “palengkera” antics going on here, just hushed conversations and the silent handing over of money. This is Japanese society for you.
As I angle to take photos, my Bin is kept busy making sure that my toes don’t get sliced off in the hustle and bustle. As I take in the scene and feel the vibe through my lens, it crosses my mind that this market is the mother of all examples of how over-fished the world’s waters are. In a few decades, there may be nothing left. Sometimes my “earth mother” side emerges without warning and I’m left with a momentary pang of sadness. Perhaps we should all live on fruits and vegetables instead.
But the feeling goes away as quickly as it comes. Soon, I’m hankering for a sushi breakfast.