We have already been awake for three and a half hours when the auction bell rings, having woken at 3:00 AM and bicycled across central Tokyo to be one of the first 120 people in line at the fish market. Finally we get our twenty minutes to blink back sleep in a chilled warehouse, watching men buy tuna. Sounds strange, but this is one of Tokyo’s hot tourist attractions.
Tsukiji is the largest wholesale fish market on earth, moving over 2,000 tons of seafood daily. The goods are caught around the world and arrive frozen during the night. The big-ticket item is Bluefin Tuna, with 80% of the world’s catch eaten right here in Japan. Once the fish are sorted by species and size, registered buyers can inspect a cross section of meat exposed on the tail. The men pick at the flesh with hooks, then rub the meat between their fingers and jot down notes. When the bell rings they already know what they want and how much they are willing to pay.
The auction starts with the smaller tuna, which seem to sell quickly at a more or less set price. In some cases a single buyer, perhaps representing a large restaurant chain or wholesale distributor, buys up nearly every fish in the group. It is hard to be certain, however; bids are indicated by just the lift of a finger, and the auctioneer barely takes a breath between sales. Flash photography is forbidden, lest it interfere with this subtle but significant interchange. It may just be fish, but you could buy a new car for less than some of these tuna.
On a regular auction day, a prime tuna fetches between $500 and $50,000 depending on the size. Prices reach absurd heights at the opening auction of each New Year, when large companies bid fiercely for the right to take home the first tuna. This year, a sushi restaurant set a new record of $1.78 million for that privilege. At a total weight of 222 kilograms, that is over $7,000 per kilo. This price is inflated for a public relations stunt; to make back that money the sushi would have to sell for about $350 per piece. The real price is closer to $3.50.
Most days, however, the market is all business: supplying fish to Tokyo’s millions, and most days, the Japanese media and public couldn’t care less about the goings-on at Tsukiji. In fact, the market is the only tourist attraction I have visited here that draws only foreign tourists. The exception is glaring when you consider the Japanese zeal for sightseeing. People will show up the night before to reserve a spot under blooming cherry trees, hike six hours to see a famous tree dying in the woods, line up around the block for the nation’s first taste of Krispy Kream, wait two hours to see a castle under renovation, and pay $40 to go up the world’s tallest self-supporting tower. Yet somehow the fish market just doesn’t capture the Japanese imagination, while Europeans and Americans are giddy to see frozen fish hauled around on hooks.
As soon as the auction is finished, the goods are carted to the next ring of the market, where they are disassembled with band saws for distribution. The visitors, who are very much unwelcome in the frantic wholesale area, are ushered between the rushing carts to the outer market. By midday the fish are on rice, the tourists are slowly walking off their sushi breakfast, and the market lulls. I, on the other hand, have just clocked in at the office, feeling about as lively as the frozen fish on the market floor.
More about Tsukiji: http://www.tsukiji-market.or.jp/youkoso/about_e.htm