The sky is dark and the streets are empty as I make my way past shuttered storefronts and dormant windows. Up since 4:30, I’m grateful for the coffee I drank before setting out; caffeine and anticipation course through my veins, keeping me going. Suddenly, I’m walking through a nondescript door and into another world.
The smell strikes me first. It’s wet and sweet, like fish mixed with diesel and stagnant water. Stalls stretch on for as far as I can see, laden with any species of sea life one could imagine. Live eels writhe in buckets. Boxes of uni are stacked like papers on a bureaucrat’s desk. Traders move giant tuna from carts with huge gaffs.
A man plucks a wriggling fish from a massive tank. A stroke of the cleaver, a gush of blood and the fish is still. Two more strokes and it is fillets. Meat to the left, slurry to the right and then on to the next. This is Tsukiji, the largest wholesale fish market in the world.
I had the opportunity to see Ted Bestor, Chair of Harvard’s Anthropology Department and expert on Japanese culture, speak last week. His words and pictures brought me right back to my 2005 trip to Japan and my pilgrimage to Tsukiji.
Blame it on my New England roots, or my Basque blood, but fish markets enthrall me. Once you get over the smell (which I find happens rather quickly- just breathe through your mouth), there’s so much to take in. The sea life, pulled from the depths that I would otherwise never come face to face with. The people, hardened by an unforgiving profession, yet completely in love with their livelihood (really, did you ever meet a fisherman who says he hates his job?). The years and years of knowledge passed down from one generation to the next… secrets about the best fishing grounds, the best way to tie a knot, bait a hook.
I wish I’d been to Bestor’s lecture before I went to Japan. Or at least read his book. Japan is a notoriously hard place for outsiders to understand… so much was a mystery on my journey there. Like, why do they put fried eggs on pizza and hamburgers but not eat eggs for breakfast? What is that brown stuff inside the rice ball I bought at 7-11? Why does a watermelon cost $100? And who thought shrimp flavored chips were a good idea?
Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee) was an extension of that. A delight to wander through, but impossible to make sense of, it is a veritable labyrinth consisting of more than 1,600 stalls selling the freshest and (often) most expensive fish in the world. More than 1.2 billion pound of fish go in and out every year, and more than 400 species fill the tanks, buckets and crates that line almost every visible inch of the space inside.
While I’m well aware of discussions regarding sustainability, and debates on over fishing, the romance of the tuna auction was not lost on me. It started back in the 17th Century, and since then, “other than the clothing people wear, it hasn’t changed terribly much since then,” Bestor said.
Fish the size of men are laid out like the casualties they are in long lines on the floor of an enormous warehouse. Mysterious men squat over them, piercing the tuna with long steel straws to draw out specimens of the flesh, which they examine for fat content and texture. Bestor explained that the way a tuna is caught affects the quality of its flesh quite a bit. A tuna caught on a long line, for example, may sit a full 24 hours. In that time, as the fish fights for its life, its high metabolism produces heat. Enough struggle and the fish will start to cook itself. Hence harpooned tuna fetch a higher price.
Bids are painted in red on the tuna’s belly, the Japanese characters all but indistinguishable to the untrained eye. An average fish goes for $10,000. An extraordinary one can go for $100,000. As the fish get rarer in the wild, they also get more expensive. In January, the market set a new record when a 754 lb fish sold for $396,000.
The tuna auction gets the most attention, but it’s just one on a long list of things to see. Workers use huge table saws to cut frozen fish, traders negotiate deals, and men whiz by on little motorized carts not even pausing for pedestrians. Most people are extraordinarily friendly, beckoning us with calls, hand gestures and broken English.
We see cephalopods and mollusks, live fish, and dried fish. There are fish the size of a man and fish smaller than my little finger. I also see whale, which the Japanese still hunt, but which the purveyor of this particular stand understandably isn’t much interested in talking about. Still, the whale stands out at Tsukiji, red cuts of meat in a sea of otherwise white fleshed creatures.
When we’ve had our fill we head out to one of the many sushi restaurants around the market for a sushi breakfast. We order toro, chutoro and otoro- different cuts of tuna belly with varying amounts of fat. All around traders chase their sashimi and nigiri with beer, despite the fact that it’s shortly after eight in the morning. Their workday is done.
After breakfast we head to Namiyoke Inari Shrine. Fishermen in the Western World have Saint Andrew to look after them and their fleets. In Japan, fishermen have Inari, the god of commercial prosperity and safe operations at sea. Located just outside of Tsukiji, the Namiyoke (meaning protection from waves) Inari Shrine serves as unofficial guardian shrine of the market and its traders, many of whom leave offerings and plaques in the hopes of attracting a bit of good luck.
The shrine is quiet and serene, shaded with trees and graced with sweet smelling breezes, a world away from the bustle of the market. As I glance over the dog-like face in the shrine and admire the tiny bowl of salt set as an offering in one of the altars, I can’t help but think of the universal hope that lies within the fishing industry. Whether they’re in Gloucester of Japan, they want nothing more than smooth seas, good catches and safe returns home. And they aren’t above kissing up to a few deities to get it.
My family lived in Tokyo for two years and during that time I was able to visit them twice- airfare is expensive and my vacation days were scant. Still, I lament that I didn’t try harder to figure out a way to spend more time there, to see and learn more about this fascinating country. I hope to get back to Japan one day, and you can bet that Tsukiji will be high on my list of places to return to.