Tsukiji in Tokyo

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  • Wednesday, 08 May 2013 10:28
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The world’s largest fish market thrills the senses

WHEN the new facilities for Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market were opened in 1935, the architects probably never imagined it would become such a popular tourist attraction. People from all over the world come in vast numbers to see the globe’s largest fish market, employing more than 60,000 people.

Especially popular is the early morning tuna auction. Men clad in blue and wearing black rain boots yank steel hooks into the exposed rear ends of hundreds of frozen tunas laid out on the concrete floor of one section of the market. With small flashlights, they quickly check the quality of the tuna. Few words are uttered. Most men walk quietly from fish to fish, careful not to let competitors know which tuna they like best.

As the auction starts, a man standing on a wooden stool shouts identification numbers and prices. Brokers place their bids, almost unnoticeably. It’s quiet, restrained, organized. You wouldn’t know that enormous amounts of money change hands. In January, a single bluefin tuna fetched a record price of 155 million yen ($1.7 million or £1.05 million).

The austere and subdued auction has become so popular that market officials have had to limit access to tourists to 120 people per day, divided into two groups of 60 herded into a small roped off area. The first group is admitted at 5:25 a.m., but you have to get there earlier. When I arrived at around 4 a.m. I was already the last person allowed in. Interestingly, no Japanese were among the visitors. All were foreign tourists.

Although the seemingly endless rows of huge tunas are impressive, the rest of the market offers an even more interesting spectacle. It almost explodes with energy. In thousands of small electric turret trucks, drivers behind huge steering wheels weave through streets and alleys, passing and holding up an even greater number of delivery vans and trucks.

In the middle of all this feverish action, a neatly uniformed man in a white hat and gloves stands on a yellow and black-striped wooden box. He commands the chaos with his traffic whistle and ever-moving arms. It seems impossible that people even notice him. But the traffic flows as water in a mountain stream, swiftly avoiding the many obstructions in its way.

On the periphery of the main market is the outer market with dozens of tiny shops and restaurants. In front of many restaurants, often not much more than a hole in a wall, long lines of waiting customers stretch down the street. They wait patiently, sometimes for hours, to eat the freshest and best seafood in Tokyo at unbeatable prices. The backstreets offer peeks into their kitchens, where men furiously work to keep up with the hungry hordes.

The outer market shops are a feast for the eyes. Anything related to food is for sale, from baskets brimming with Japanese horseradish to pottery and wide selections of knives, some looking like swords. Although Tsukiji is best known for its fish market, it also is home to a fruit and vegetable market and shops that offer fresh produce in nonwholesale portions.

In spite of the crowds, shopkeepers are friendly and many love to chat. An old lady running a tea and rice cake shop invited me in and offered me free green tea in tasteful porcelain cups while chatting away about her life at the market. For a moment, life ground to a pleasingly slow pace, and the frenzied action of the market faded into the background.

At 9 a.m., the inner market opens to the public, a highlight for any visitor. Down long cobblestoned alleys, you can walk past seemingly endless rows of shops displaying everything the sea has to offer. Squeeze past old-fashioned wooden delivery carts, and you will see white Styrofoam boxes filled with fish shiningly silver, bright red and all other colors of the rainbow. Live crabs try to escape rubber chains while shrimp splash in seawater. Some sights are not for the squeamish: heaps of fish heads, a knife in a pool of blood, bodkins jammed into wooden cutting boards littered with goo.

By noon, the market slowly winds down. Men clean their shops, others sharpen sword-like knives. Some discuss the news or sit quietly eating a welcome meal. In one corner, a man dozes, precariously balanced on a tiny stool. In their small booths, women count their profits and write invoices.

In a way, Tsukiji seems like the street markets in provincial towns of France and Italy, but it is more than that. Tsukiji feeds one of the largest cities in the world, and imports and exports fish worldwide.

As Japan started modernizing in the 1868- 1912 Meiji period, the Japanese fish industry followed suit and became increasingly important to the country’s economy and food supply. After the 1904-05 Russo- Japanese War, Japan gained significant fishing rights in sections of Siberian waters through the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth. By the late 1930s this area accounted for a quarter of Japan’s catch. Its fishing industry grew to employ 1.5 million people.

With this growth, Tsukiji’s role gained as well. It is now the spill of an intricate distribution system. Today, Japan has the highest per-capita consumption of fish in the world. The average Japanese eats close to 70 kilograms (154 pounds) of fish per year. A lot of that fish moves through the hands of the dealers at Tsukiji.

So big has the fish industry become that Tsukiji has outgrown itself. In 2015, the market will move to reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, a location 40% larger than the current market. So if you want to experience the unique scenes in these photos, you must hurry. Like the original fish market in Nihonbashi (see previous story), it will soon be all history. tj

Visitor Information
The Tsukiji Market is located near Ginza. To see the tuna auction, apply at the O-Sakana Fukyu Center (Fish Information Center) near the Kachidoki Bridge entrance. The auction opens at 5 a.m. on a first-come, first-serve basis. But get there earlier. Only 120 visitors are allowed in every day, in shifts from 5:25 to 5:50 a.m and 5:50 to 6:15 a.m. The inner market opens at 9 a.m. The market is closed Sundays, national holidays and some Wednesdays.

Buyers size up tuna   At many places in the market there is barely enough space to walk
Market employees prepare tuna for transport   Roads and passageways at Tsukiji Market form a chaotic crowded maze
By the afternoon the market slowly falls quiet and the passageways exude a feeling of mystery    



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Written By:

Kjeld Duits

Residing in Japan for over 30 years, Dutch photojournalist Kjeld Duits is Tokyo Journal's Street Editor. In addition to managing one of the first fashion blogs on the net, and the first to cover Japanese street fashion in English, he owns a vast collection of vintage photographs, illustrations and maps of Japan between the 1860s and 1930s (Meiji, Taisho, and early Showa periods) and covers news stories and natural disasters for media organizations worldwide.


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