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Tsukiji: ‘Tokyo’s Kitchen’

  • A cart carries a fish through Tsukiji
    A cart carries a fish through Tsukiji
  • Tuna meets knife
    Tuna meets knife
  • Shellfish on sale
    Shellfish on sale
  • Outside the market
    Outside the market
  • Moving through Tsukiji by cart
    Moving through Tsukiji by cart
  • Frozen tuna lined up
    Frozen tuna lined up
  • Ice is important in the sale of fish
    Ice is important in the sale of fish
  • Frozen tuna for sale
    Frozen tuna for sale
  • A frozen tuna on the pavement
    A frozen tuna on the pavement
  • Fish heads, fish heads
    Fish heads, fish heads
  • Tuna auction at Tsukiji
    Tuna auction at Tsukiji

TOKYO (TR) – Outside the tiny Yamato sushi shop within Tokyo’s bustling Tsukiji Fish Market, a long line of customers forms down a narrow alley. The reputation of this shop for delivering some of the city’s best — and freshest — sushi is legendary.

Inside, one of the chefs behind the counter takes two live shrimp into his hand and sets them on the rack above the counter to enable his patrons a clear view. A couple sitting on two of the shop’s twenty stools giggle as the shrimp flap their tail fans and squirm atop the perch. He then moves both below to his cutting board where he quickly takes two chops with his knife. The shrimp are once again set in front of the pair, this time mounted on slabs of rice with a bit a wasabi. The sushi master grins from beneath his white paper hat. “What do you want next?” he asks.

Freshness is indeed a necessity for customer satisfaction in the seafood trade, and it is a general assumption in Tokyo that the closer one is to the Tsukiji Fish Market, located on a 22-hectare plot on the banks of the Sumida River, the fresher the fish must be. Whether this geographic relationship is more myth than fact is best left to trial and error. In whatever case, early mornings at “Tokyo’s Kitchen” are typically comprised of 15,000 workers engaging in a chaotic environment of buying and selling to supply seafood that is the freshest possible.

If Tsukiji were to be considered an economy all its own — which many do — the auction of its bluefin tuna would be its blue-chip stock index. Set out in rows on the wet concrete floor in the back of the market are hundreds of frozen carcasses weighing up to 200 kilograms and coming from waters as far off as the Indonesia and Europe. Their size is so massive as to be easily confused for sacks of cement or torpedoes.

The tails have been lopped off so that prospective buyers can examine the flesh. By rubbing bits of the red meat in their hands, experts with years of experience under their belts can immediately determine tuna that is worth 10,000 yen a kilogram from a specimen worth one-tenth that.

The auction kicks off around 5 a.m. Auctioneers lead the charge by barking in rapid Japanese. Bidders respond with complicated hand signals, hoping to outbid all others for the fish they feel has the perfect fatty flesh for top-grade sushi or sashimi.

On auction

This is big business, and the first auction of the year in January is the marquee event that usually sets the stage for what will transpire over the rest of the year. In this year’s auction, a tuna from Oma in Aomori Prefecture, weighing in at 228 kilograms, netted 6.38 million yen.

As the morning moves closer to 7 a.m., the market’s activity shifts to its central area. Here, hundreds of gasoline-powered carts with headlights mounted on their front steering columns haul the frozen tuna through an extremely dark and narrow canopy-covered maze of stalls, shoppers, wholesalers, and ice haulers. Bandana-wearing men with wooden pushcarts loaded down with sweat and determination, as well as Styrofoam boxes filled with iced seafood, nudge, push, and pull their way through the fray. It is something like entering battle.

Tsukiji vendor with ise ebi (spiny lobster)
Tsukiji vendor with ise ebi (spiny lobster)

At the various wholesaler stalls, meanwhile, the catch of the day is prepared as buyers peruse. Bandsaw blades carve frozen tuna into wedges; lobsters fill boxes; and fish are set upon ice. Prices are usually handwritten on slips of paper and tossed into the container with the seafood or attached directly.

Seafood products

With the nature of the business being so mercurial, wholesalers are in continual motion in front of their merchandise. Hands are always moving — whether to make a call on a mobile phone to relay price information or to dispense bills from wallets to purchase ice from vendors.

This degree of activity is only matched by the sheer quantity of seafood products. Trays of silver unagi (eel), buckets of kani (crabs), mounds of purple tako (octopus), bagged hamaguri (clams), endless varieties of fish, and tables of mollusks and seaweed form but a fraction of what Tsukiji has to offer — and from sources that stretch all around the world.

When there is a lull in the action, wholesalers will often wipe counters or splash buckets of water onto the pavement to wash down any stray fish innards. Some might choose to chat with a neighbor, many of whom have called Tsukiji their home for decades.

Including the produce sold in the adjacent fruit and vegetable market, a day’s business will amount to 2.4 billion yen. This turnover also results in a depth of used Styrofoam boxes exceeding the height of the average Tokyo living room ceiling. Mounds of bones, fish heads, and sheets of skin form rather sizable amounts of other undesirable byproducts as well.

Given the early working hours and nature of the work, exhaustion is common. Workers in rubber boots and aprons taking drags on cigarettes as they prop themselves against their carts is not an unusual sight.

Fukuryu Maru V

Though accidents of all kinds imaginable are reputed to occur quite frequently in this fast-paced world where caution is often thrown to the wind, perhaps the greatest threat during the market’s 65 years in existence was its encounter with the hydrogen bomb. The Japanese fishing boat Fukuryu Maru V was accidentally exposed to radiation during hydrogen bomb testing by the U.S. at Bikini Atoll (a part of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific) in 1954. After one sailor perished, the catch was returned to Japan, where dangerous radiation levels were detected. The exposed tuna and sharks were then buried at Tsukiji.

Rumors have swirled that Tsukiji might soon be relocating to friendlier confines. But to the average denizen of this bit of Tokyo history, the leaking roofs, uneven asphalt floors, and narrow passages bring forth a sense of old-style charm that all the modern conveniences in the world will never replace.

Note: This article originally appeared in June 2000 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.