One of the must-see items on most guide books lists, and on most peoples lips is Tsujiki Market. Also known as “Tsujiki Fish Market“, it is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market on the planet, but also trades fruit and veg.
Particularly famous is the tuna auction. Tuna auction prices regularly range up to 2 million Yen (£15,000) per fish. In order to view the auctions, you need to arrive early and get in a queue as places are limited.
I am currently staying at a Ryokan in NW Tokyo. In order to stand a chance of getting to see the auctions, I would have had to have left my room at 0330 – not a problem with my jetlag. The real problem was transport: the first train does not run until 5am, and a cab fare from my ryokan to the market would have well exceeded £60. I decided to make my own way there by train, sharing a carriage with sleeping commuters.
I knew I was at the right tube station, because the station smelled of fish. The market was a short walk away from the station. When I arrived, the contrast between the sleepy and silent commuters and the 6am hustle and bustle of the market was immense.
I had a map of the market, provided by my hosts at my ryokan. It very clearly indicated that the “Intermediate Wholesale” part of the market was off limits to visitors until 9am. This is because there is preparation work to be done and visitors would just get in the way. I decided I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way and tried to find the right place to go.
One common theme throughout my stay in Tokyo has been that I’m brilliant at getting lost. I walked straight into the wholesale vegetable market. In my defence, I didn’t exactly walk. My progress was more the result of my attempts to avoid getting run over by motorbikes, bicycles, minivans and fast-moving electrical warehouse carts that zipped back and forth and around each other with balletic precision.
Pressed with my back to some crates, I noticed a hubbub further ahead. As I got closer, I saw that some kind of auction was happening. Nobody seemed to mind as I got close, but at some stage it did dawn on me that I was the only tourist in the room and probably shouldn’t have been there. At one point, one of the market traders did react to me, by giving me a V-for-victory salute as he drove by on his cart.
A group of official-looking men would walk from pallet to pallet of produce in the warehouse building and those interested in the produce would follow them. Bidding was noisy and frantic, often with two or three officials simultaneously auctioning, with assistants keeping track over who won what. The bidders all wore baseball caps with their trader number, so could be easily identified:
The auction ran box-by-box. Once a bidder was satisfied with what he had bought, he would simply pick up one of the boxes and walk off with it.
By this point, I’d got the idea of what was going on at the vegetable market and figured if no-one had objected to my presence there, they probably wouldn’t notice me at the fish market either.
The fish market was a whole different kettle of. The auctions had finished, and now the grim task of killing (where required) and preparing was under way. There were a lot of fish here that I didn’t recognise, and there was even less room to hide out of the way of the market workers. Not only that, but there was a lot of bloody fishy water sloshing around, so I had to roll my trousers up.
As long as I kept out of the way, the traders didn’t seem to mind my presence. They were busy preparing their stalls and their produce:
One of the more impressive sights was the preparation of tuna in boths its frozen and unfrozen states. The frozen tuna is cut into pieces using a bandsaw.
The unfrozen tuna is butchered using sword-sized Maguro Bocho knives. It takes two men to do the work of cutting and filleting the fish.
The bones are passed onto another man who claims as much of the scraps as possible from the carcass.
I spent more time wandering around the marketplace. I hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I was now getting hungry. Just as this thought crossed my mind, a policeman caught up with me and asked me to leave the marketplace because no visitors are allowed before 9am.
Just next to the market is a set of shops and restaurants. I found a small sushi bar and settled down to the freshest sushi money can buy. The bar was all steel, ceramic and melamine. It made me thing of a seaside fish and chip shop blended with Brick Lane’s Beigel Bakery. The sushi chef was incredibly friendly and was happy for me to take his photograph as he worked, commenting, “Nikon! Good camera!”
I ordered a set menu. Tea and fishy miso came with it. The tea was good, but I wasn’t a fan of the fishy miso. The food came in batches as the chef prepared the fish and dropped it onto my plate when ready. The revelation was the tuna belly – the fattest part of the fish (pictured below). The meat was not cold, but bordered on lukewarm, and really did melt in the mouth:
It can be easy to forget just how much work goes into getting food from fields and the sea onto our plates. The market was a sensory-overload of a reminder of this.