Tsukiji -Tokyo Fish Market

I had gone to Tokyo on a business trip and was asked was there anything I would like to see. Having a habit of finding old Tourist Books to search for interesting places I was well prepared. For this purpose, old Fodor Guides are marvellous, for they were written for travellers, not for tourists.

My definition of the difference between a traveller and a tourist is quite clear:

A traveller is someone who goes to explore and experience the place and interact with the everyday people, responding to the unexpected with humour and curiosity, and returning with a suitcase full of memories.

A tourist is satisfied to travel only within the small circle of things that operate within his own language and habits - so although he leaves home, neither his money nor his mind do.

In a Fodor’s Guide from the fifties I had read about Tsukijii (pronounced rather like ‘Skeejee’), the Fish Market of Tokyo, established after The Great Kantō earthquake on September 1, 1923 – and of the Bonsai Village on the outskirts of the city, so when asked what I would like to see, I was quick to give these two destinations. It was before I had a quality camera but the pictures are none-the-less evocative of the strange magic of each place.

Although officially named the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, the Tokyo Fish Market it is universally known just by the name Tsukiji and is one of the largest wholesale food markets of any sort in the world – but it is solely for fish.

I was fortunate to go there before this once secret destination became so popular, and the visitors caused so much disruption to the business of fish, that times and access for tourists were restricted.

When I was there I was also able to freely attend the Tuna Auction run by the oroshi gyousha or Auction Houses, with tuna laid out on the docks with the fishing ships moored beside.

Tokyo Fish Market Tuna for Auction

We arrived at Tsukijii at 03:15 and Tsukijii was already bustling.

The frozen tuna were lined up for sale, each with an identification mark being painted onto it.

Tokyo Fish Market Tuna numbering the tuna

The tuna buyers walked between the frozen tuna, occasionally probing a fish with a small pick at the end of a handle about as long as from one’s elbow to hand.

Tokyo Fish Market Tuna laid out for auction

When the auction began, buyers lined up on a series of wooden tiered steps while others watched, turning their tuna pick upside down and using them as miniature ‘shooting sticks’ or precariously balanced seats.

Tokyo Fish Market Tuna Auction

An auction in any language is a small piece of theatre in itself.

The hallmark rapid-fire speech of the auctioneer seems a parody of whatever language is its base.

At Tsukijii this was amplified to my ill-tuned ear when heard in Japanese.

Tokyo Fish Market Tuna Auction testing the tuna

It was hard to drag ourselves away, but there was a lot to explore with over 900 stallholders within the inner commercial market section and many others in the surrounding market area (jogai shijo).

Because this outer area is a mixture of wholesale and retail shops, here you can pick up a proper steel knife or any of a myriad of kitchen tools and accessories, or a range of groceries, as well as fish of every sort. Naturally there are also restaurants serving sushi and other seafood, the best with 10-12 seats. be patient. It's worth he wait

This area closes later than the inner market – everything being shut by early afternoon.

There are more than 400 different types of seafood being sold at Tsukijii every day, and I saw a fair sampling.

It made me think of someone’s anonymous contribution to a quotation collection:

Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day;

give him a religion,

and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish.

I wondered what sort of fish people prayed for. There were so many varieties displayed here.

There were boxes of shellfish, sea anemones.

Tokyo Fish Market shellfish and sea anemones

… squid tentacles…

Tokyo Fish Market Red Squid

…and many types of shrimp and prawns, in all sizes.

I have always wondered about what was the difference between shrimps and prawns.

Despite the terminology seeming to vary by country, I discovered that there are, in fact, biological differences. You would have to be keen to note them, as it is primarily a difference of the gill structure and the pincers. Shrimp have branching gills and larger front pincers, while prawn gills are a bit more plate-like. They also generally have larger second pincers and longer legs.

Either taste delicious!

At Tsukijii there were so many varieties: northern, spot, pink, white and brown shrimp lying on ice beside tiger, bay, deep water and my favourite – king prawns.

Tokyo Fish Market Shrimp and Prawns

There were rows of boxes of shellfish of all varieties, and eels.

Tokyo Fish Market Shellfish and Eels

Fish were laid out under low hanging lamps so they could be precisely cut to order…

Tokyo Fish Market Fish to be Cut

…and the methods of cutting were unexpected.

Frozen tuna required an electric band saw, the operator and bystanders wearing rubber boots as one man held a hose so that the water struck the fish at the cut!

It reminded me of the warnings “Do not do this at home.”

Electric shock seemed an imminent possibility.

Tokyo Fish Market cutting tuna with electric saw

The fresh tuna was cut by what looked like swords but are actually long knives, some over a metre long. These are called oroshi hocho, maguro-bocho or hancho hocho and are not the sort of thing you would want to argue with if confronted by someone carrying one in a dark alley at night!

Tokyo Fish Market cutting tuna with sword

The play of light on the wet tiles highlighted these fish carts in a lovely “Still Life in Fish”.

It made me think of the quotation by the Pennsylvania artist Martha Mayer Erlebacher

Don't just use light to illuminate...

think about what light means in the context of the painting

These images of fish and fire were worthy of a Velázquez painting, each seeming to tell its own story.

Tokyo Fish Market fish heads

Men stopped to warm at this small brazier – a portable fire place burning superfluous wooden crates and sending its own light onto the glistening wet floors.

Tokyo Fish Market fire in brazier

One lot of clams looked particularly unusual.

These were the Goeduck clams and the vendor was not unaware of its visual likeness to a part of anatomy and held the most spectacular specimen aloft, laughing.

Tokyo Fish Market box of Geoduck Clams

They may have come to Tsukijii from the west coast of the USA, Alaska, Canada or even New Zealand.

The name “Geoduck” has nothing to do with ducks. Instead it appears to be a poorly translated Lushootseed word meaning “dig deep” used by the Salish Native Americans around Puget Sound, on the west coast of Canada.

Sometimes called the mud duck, king, or elephant trunk clam, these strange creatures live longer than anything else in the animal kingdom. I learned that they have an average age of 146 years - the oldest on record being 168 years old.

I am always fascinated about how such statistics are gathered. Did they find a 146 year old talking clam?

The Geoduck Clams have a distinctively phallic shape. The long necks or siphons can be up to 1 metre long (3.3 ft). It's not remarkable then, that they draw a high price – whether for the flavour or for their presumed aphrodisiac effects.

Tokyo Fish Market Geoduck Clam

Fish from all over the world are sold here. Tsukijii is to fish what Amsterdam is to flowers.

I remember that one of the earliest uses of the internet from a community “Telecentre” in Australia was by fishermen in Tasmania who through their Community Telecentre had direct access to selling prices at Tsukijii, freighting their catches direct from their port to market in Japan, on demand.

Australia is not alone as an exporter to Tsukijii: over 2000 metric tons of seafood passes through Tokyo Fish Market every day.

It's a huge business, employing around 65,000 people:market stall owners, auction houses, and all the various support industries and professional services – and that does not include the thousands of fishermen who supply it directly.

That wit named “anonymous” who came up with so many memorable quotes, once stated that

There are two types of fisherman:

those who fish for sport and those who fish for fish.

Tsukijii, the Tokyo Fish Market, is an interesting place for the traveller with a fascination for the “out-of-the-ordinary”. Here you can review the catch of the second of these two types of fishermen. It seems surreal to enter this very different world that sits beside the busy business centre of Tokyo.

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