The fifth instalment of our (not-so) recent adventures in Japan.
May 15, 2015: The Tsukiji Fish Market is the real deal…a wholesale fish market that is one of the world’s largest. It handles about 2,000 tons of marine products each day. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Japanese people love their seafood. After all, they gave the world sushi and sashimi and love to stick seaweed in a wide assortment of dishes. I’m not complaining. It’s healthy and I love it! Well, most of it anyway.
The tuna auction is supposed to be something to see, but that starts at five in the morning. And since they only allow about 120 people to watch, you have to get there even earlier to join the queue. We gave that a miss.
We took the metro to the Tsukiji Shijo station tucked in a corner of town between the Sumida River and the Ginza district. Even before we were back up at street level, the air was permeated by a thick fishy smell. We wandered back and forth along the street until we finally found the main gate. It isn’t well marked. Then again, maybe it is well marked in Japanese and we just didn’t know what to look for.
Here we found a security guard handing out maps and signs posted with a long list of do’s and don’ts. There was the usual stuff like no smoking and no pets, but they also added no sandals, no large bags or luggage, no babies, small children or strollers, no tour guides, no big groups, no drunks, no obstruction of workers and no touching the fish or the equipment.
Once you get inside, you understand why. Tsukiji was never meant to be a tourist destination, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see lots of tourists wandering about. This is a fast-paced, busy working fish market and we are in their space. The buyers and sellers are professionals and put up with the likes of us as long as we don’t get in their way. The floors are wet and slippery. In fact, you often see the workers wearing rubber boots as they hose muck off the floors. There are sharp knives and blades everywhere you turn. Not to mention stacks of bins that could easily topple over and make a big mess.
Despite the warnings, we saw people breaking pretty much every rule, us included. There were workers taking a smoke break inside the hall and tourists sporting large backpacks and pulling wheeled suitcases behind them. Chris was wearing his flip flops and I was often obliviously in the way of the workers as they whizzed by on their LPG powered carts. Situational awareness? Not me.
They don’t let us inside until nine o’clock in the morning. By that time, most of the big action is already finished and the men are busy starting their daily clean up. Yes, it is mostly men. The only women we saw working there were the ones handling the money.
But there is still a lot to see. From expert fish cutters carefully separating fillets off the large tunas (maguro) with long sharp swords, to the men operating band saws to cut frozen fish. From the clean-up already in progress, to the bins and coolers and tanks filled with a wide assorted of identifiable and often unidentifiable species of fish, shellfish, seaweed and other dwellers of the deep. Some frozen. Some fresh. Some still alive.
It’s interesting to stand back and watch everybody do their work. But with that volume of fish and other sea products passing through every day, it does make you stop and wonder about the sustainability of it. Where does it all come from? We saw salmon from Norway. I suspect some of the tuna comes from the Philippines. And I’ve heard stories about geoducks and giant spotted prawns sent by air freight straight to Tokyo on the same day they are harvested from the waters of British Columbia. I’m sure they fetch incredible prices.
Much to my relief, we didn’t see any evidence of dolphin meat, shark fins, whale meat or the notoriously poisonous if not prepared properly fugu (pufferfish). But we did see turtles and live cuttlefish and a wide range of other sea critters that I love to spot when we go diving. Sigh. Certainly makes me want to reconsider which dishes to pick when we are confronted with a conveyor belt full of cheap sushi.
I understand the market is supposed to move in the latter part of 2016. So if you want to see it in all its crazy glory, you best plan your trip to Tokyo soon.
Next up, we take a look at the overly cute side of Japanese culture. There’s a whole lot more to it than Hello Kitty.