If doubts remained, the attraction exerted on gaijin (foreigners) visiting Tokyo proved the eccentricity of Tsukiji's vast market.
As we ourselves experienced, every day, hundreds of curious souls from the four corners of the world came out of their hotels and guest-houses in the still dark hours of the dawn.
they left us as sleepy as they were excited by the new incursion into the civilizational particularities of the Japanese capital.
The shutdown of the subway system shortly after midnight forced most foreigners to use the city's expensive taxis. But it wasn't long before the extra hundreds of yen and lost hours of sleep were made up for.
The Early Rise Activation of Tsukiji Market
Around three in the morning, around 2300 tons of fish, shellfish and seaweed began arriving at the Tsukiji complex in incessant discharges. Once unloaded, they were prepared for the auction sale that follows.
Workers hauled huge tuna and swordfish, cut and transported blocks of ice in small carts they pulled, or over the back grille of old pastry makers. Boxes and tanks with specimens of fish and molluscs as strange as they were alive were passed from hand to hand.
This same energy feeds and mobilizes the largest city in the world.
The Controversial Incursions of the Gaijin into Tsukiji
From March 11th to July 26th 2011, foreigners' access was banned due to damage to buildings in Tsukiji caused by the great earthquake in Sendai. When we visited the market, it was only possible to enter from five in the morning.
Access to the tuna fish market – one of the most sought after spaces – was only granted to a few dozen lucky people a day.
There appeared, lined up according to type and origin, hundreds of specimens of frozen and smoking tuna, due to the difference in their temperature compared to the environment.
Tuna and Swordfish: Food Treasures Fished from the Seas
From the moment the opening bell rang, they were sold there for exorbitant prices that, depending on the excellence of their meat, could amount to 8.000 euros.
This was the case with certain swordfish and with large bluefin tuna and a otorus (the fattest part of the belly, located below the pectoral fin) irreproachable, the always sought after raw material for the best sushi and sashimi in the nation of emperors.
The families of some vendors and employees worked in the market for over ten generations. Shiro Kamoshita's, 61, had been present for just three years, which did not stop him from establishing himself as a successful intermediary, able like few others to assess the fish that passed his eyes: “A good tuna is like a sumo wrestler .
A sumo wrestler eats a lot but because he exercises a lot he has a lot of muscle and the fat around him is soft. With tuna, it's exactly the same thing.”
Shouted in Japanese more imperceptible than ever, business was carried out in Tsukiji according to a sacred protocol, not always respected by tourists.
From time to time, they couldn't resist touching the pieces on display. They irritated owners, buyers and market authorities, and brought about new restrictions on access.
Allowing or Prohibiting Foreign Visits, the Persistent Issue
As we were informed, the rules changed depending on events and pressure from two types of market agents: those who had no advantage in the presence of foreigners. And those of the owners of the restaurants in the complex.
These increased their invoicing whenever the gaijin were attacked by hunger and devoured their meals. When they attend with the superior purpose of tasting the freshest and most genuine sushi and sashimi in Japan, the same sushi and sashimi that is sold in the upscale restaurants of the multi-million dollar Ginza district, more than 12 hours later (part of late dinners), the 400 euros per dose.
Or they sold a series of other less famous but much more challenging dishes such as fugu, a delicacy made from balloon fish and which can be lethal if the cook in charge does not conveniently remove the organs that concentrate a poison for which there is no antidote, tetrodotoxin.
Tsukiji's Inevitable Risks and Tight Hygiene Criteria
Other accidents were permanently avoided at the Tsukiji fish market: hundreds of small electric cars with a rusty look of “Space 1999” props were driven by workers who kept on alert to bypass us and busy or distracted colleagues.
Knife-wielding fishmongers cut huge fins into bloody containers. Meanwhile, distinguished employees were preventing avalanches from piles of empty Styrofoam boxes.
Despite the amount of fish and seafood present, the characteristic aroma of these sea creatures was faint in Tsukiji. Such softness to the sense of smell stemmed from the Japanese obsession with hygiene and antisepsis.
The stalls appeared organized without blemish. The products – including some from the controversial Japanese whaling – on generous layers of crushed ice, packed in cellophane and in sophisticated freezers. Or, if still alive, in salt water containers.
Thick cardboard sheets ensured species identification with large, clearly visible characters as well as a price that should not be haggled.
The High Consumption of Fish and Seafood. Both Japanese and Portuguese
One of the few sellers who spoke English asked us, Tsukiji, where we were from. He hastened to identify Portugal on a planisphere that he kept affixed to the low ceiling of his bench. "Portugal? Very good fish and seafood! And if I remember my times spent at sea, they eat almost as much as we do.”
The per capita consumption of Japanese fish, like Portuguese, is exemplary, surpassed only by island nations with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants like the Iceland. Or for smaller ones like the Maldives and Kiribati.
Despite the tonnage that was supplied by the Tsukiji market until its closure, since the end of the 10th century, the quantity of tuna sold there – of which Japan consumes about a third of world production – has been around 11%, XNUMX %.
Tsukiji Market: The Gradual Loss of Freshness and Influence
It was hindered by the option of large stores to buy directly at source, something that was facilitated by the evolution in communications and the consolidation of retail
On the other hand, fish purchased by Kamoshita and colleagues were no longer exclusively caught in the waters off the nearly 7000 Japanese islands. More than half came from vendors as far away as those in Port Lincoln, in the Australia or Gloucester, Massachusetts.
To aggravate the loss of relevance of the Tsukiji market, Japanese women are increasingly working outside the home. As they have less time to buy fresh fish, opt for the convenience of processed fish.
These changes threatened the livelihoods of Japanese fishermen, middlemen and sellers. They also threatened the quality of the fish in general.
Fishermen and stevedores clipped the tails of tuna exposed at the auction so buyers could examine the fat content and color of the meat. The origin of tuna was written in Japanese on labels placed on the carcasses.
As a rule, when the tuna came from non-Japanese waters, an extra portion was cut. These were fish that spent more time out of water until they reached Tsukiji. As such, sellers granted some extra access to the piece so buyers could conveniently investigate their meat.
The great earthquake in Sendai, the respective tsunamis and the catastrophe in Fukushima led to the loss of fishermen and boats that supplied the capital. In addition, fears of contamination have become nuclear.
Even though the government has banned fishing in the waters off the northeast of Japan, in recent times, transactions in the Tsukiji market and imports of Japanese fish and seafood have decreased mainly as a result of popularization and internationalization of fears.
After the great earthquake in Sendai, the Tsukiji market, like Japan in general, started to supply the great Japanese capital. Following a long controversy, the Tsukiji market was transferred to Toyosu.
Among the reasons given, there was the excessive antiquity of the buildings. The real reason might have been the real estate value of the relatively central and seaside land occupied by Tsukiji.