Dateline: 4:00am - Main Entrance to Tsukiji Market.
It's a name that invokes awe and wonder.
As a young lad, I went with my mom on regular trips to the Baltimore fish market. While living in New York, I made my way down to Fulton Street. And I've been to the Honolulu fish auction in an attempt to score shark skin.
But none of that prepares you for the adventure that is Tsukiji.
I had been to Tokyo before and had wanted to check out the market but just never made it there. This time, I was going to make it. I was going to see the tuna auction and see for myself what the hoopla is all about.
Quite simply, nothing prepares you for what you are about to experience. It's amazing. It's part Willy Wonka, part 9 1/2 Weeks, part Kung Fu Theatre and part Blade Runner, all rolled into one. Let me just tell you now: it's well worth the visit.
About to get run over.
However, getting there at the right time requires serious commitment. At Bronwen's behest, we were to meet at 3:30am in the lobby of our hotel. Never mind that I had been out tripping the Light Fantastic with Ana in Shinjuku until 1am, Sanders was hell-bent on waking me up at 3am and I'm sure he took extreme pleasure in my discomfort.
Seafood in foam containers packed on high.
While Tokyo has an amazing train/subway system to take you just about everywhere in the country, it doesn't open until 5am. This means that early morning excursions rely on taxis. Tokyo taxis are notoriously expensive and our short jaunt to the market cost us $22. I could get from the airport to downtown in most cities on twenty bucks. Not here.
Some of the bounty ready for purchase.
Our cab driver dropped us off in front of the Tsukikishijo subway station. From this vantage point, the market doesn't look like much. Just a couple of buildings in the faint morning light with a number of box trucks driving in and out. Walking past rows of box trucks with their contents spilling out only gives a hint of what's to come. Beyond the trucks are more buildings that house many of the market shops that sell everything but fish. At 4am some of them are starting to stir but the trucks keep rolling.
So much tuna, there's bits and pieces everywhere.
Past the shops is a sizeable parking lot with more trucks unloading styrofoam boxes of seafood creating massive walls of white filled with succulent goodness unknown to our intrepid crew.
That tuna must have been 1,500 pounds!
A narrow worn concrete ramp leads to the open-air loading dock. Tsukiji market doesn't use forklifts like you'd expect to see in U.S. markets. They've got their own narrow-bodied flatbed vehicles. The driver stands behind a cylindrical motor housing with a large, round steering wheel mounted on top and a flatbed behind him to carry whatever fish product needs to move. They're narrow, they're fast, and they're fucking everywhere -cooting in and out of the narrowest pathways. Nearly running over anyone brave enough to get in the way. In your mind's eye you might imagine a few running about but that's incorrect. There are mad hordes of these flatbed vehicles, their motors churning into an unbelieveable cacophony.
Rolling, rolling, rolling.
Forget Blade Runner, this is a Japanese Mad Max surrounded by fish.
Like what you'd expect, there's fish. Lots of fish. You couldn't imagine how much fish. Fish of all kinds. Some I recognized. Most I didn't. So many fishes to explore. I wish I knew what to do with any of them. The incredible range of fish and seafood makes me realize just how much a simpleton I really am. I like fish. And I like it raw. Throw some of these fish at me and I wouldn't know what to do with them.
Don't know what that is, but I think I'd like to eat it!
While the number of fish and seafood available on the floor is immense, the main reason tourists like me come here is to see the live tuna auction. We really had no idea what time the auction started (6am) and got there a bit early. There's both a fresh tuna and frozen tuna auction. My understanding is that the frozen tuna comes from the far parts of the world where the tuna is caught and flash frozen for the long journey back to Japan, with North Atlantic tuna being some of the most desireable due to the high fat content in the meat. Fresh is on one side of the warehouse, frozen is on the other.
This guy is cutting into the tail end of a frozen tuna to expose the flesh that the graders and bidders will use to determine how much they're willing to pay.
Throughout the night, the fish arrives from around the planet. My understanding is that the best tuna in the world comes here because the Japanese are so seriously fanatical about their tuna that they'll pay almost any price. Evidently, there's a tuna shortage in Japan (though you wouldn't think so looking at the pics). They say that because of the rising popularity on sushi around the world and increased demand for quality fish, it's putting a squeeze on the supply coming into Japan. This is sure to make a lot of Nijon-jin rather angry and I suggest we not cut off their supply like we did in the early 1940s...
Fish so serious, it's enough to start a war over.
As the fish arrive in the auction room, various graders mill about, cutting into the tail end to expose the meat, health inspectors toil about, auction workers move and position the fish, and bidders come in to taste, judge and buy. If you've every seen yellowfin tuna, you're probably used to them being about 100-200 pounds in size. Some of the fish here today are over 1,600 pounds. They're incredible. They're immaculate. I wish I was savvy enough to buy one.
Identifying the fish.
Checking out the fish.
Inspecting the flesh.
Folks gather round and the bidding starts. It's fast and it's furious but in a reserved, Japanese way. It's not the raucous, rambunctious showcase that is an American livestock auction. It's kinda loud, the auctioneer makes funny noises, faces and gestures. He makes weird, strange sounds. But the rest is pretty reserved. Bing, bam, boom, the fish in each row are sold. There's a big guy, standing on a stool towards the back, who's buying most of the fish. He's controlling the flow now. He buys more fish. Passes on one, then buys three more.
That's the big guy wearing red bidding up a storm.
Thousands of dollars and millions of Yen are flying around now. If my comprehension was better, I'd probably be dizzy. In twenty minutes, it's all over. The fish have been sold, the warehouse doors are open and those little mosquito trucks are buzzing in and out, carrying their purchases to whichever stall they now belong.
A glimpse of the fresh auction.
Hey, that's not up for auction!
Walking back out into the wildlands of the market, we're nearly run over by a multitude of these trucks. It's insanity. Mixed in with the trucks are guys pulling the old school wooden carts with even more fish on them.
Tuna on the move.
As we wander along the aisles again, we come across a booth whose owners have purchased a large tuna. Not large in the sense that we might think "large", but large in the sense that when you see it, you think: "Whoa, that's fuckin' HUGE!!!"
The Man With The Knife begins his magic with the first cut.
Carefully eyeing this immensely large tuna is The Man With The Knife. He looks to be in his sixties. A bit of a tummy. But he's watching the tuna quite intently, seeking the right moment and place for the incision. Even the casual observer can tell that this guy has been doing this for years. He's a master. The sensei.
Now it's time for The Big Knife!!!
A yellowfin tuna can be cut into four loins. This guy is going to do it in as few cuts as possible. First he takes the "small" knife - it's about three feet long - and he cuts along the side of the tuna, between the loins on the right side of the fish, separating them. Once that's done, he takes out the "Big Knife". And when I say "big", I mean bloody, fricken, huge. This knife is longer than I am tall. And he's wielding it like a pro.
Wedging the blade into the tuna, it takes two more helpers to follow the bone and slice out the loin.
This "Big Knife" actually flexes and it's going to take the sensei and at least two helpers to cut the loin out. Once they slide the knife into the cut left by the first knife, they carefully hook it to the left, cutting up the bones of the fish and carving out the top loin. It's a smooth cut and they plop the beautiful deep red loin onto a large board where two people cart it away.
Loins so big, it takes two to carry it.
A few more cuts and the loins fall away, leaving the bones intact and ready for some other use. We stand there amazed and in awe of the spectacle and the miracle of food coming to life.
Inspecting the first cut.
Cutting out the top loin. Look how many people it takes. That's a big fish!
Carting the loin away. If only my loins were that big...
Hunger pangs start to lurch in our bellies. Bronwen knows we've got a sushi breakfast going on somewhere here in the market and we just have to find it...