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Dawn was fast approaching, and the famous tuna auction was still underway in Tsukiji Market, Tokyo’s biggest wholesale fish market which handles over 2,000 tons of marine products daily. As the bargaining became more frenetic, the tempers grew shorter. While the stocks were declining, there were still more people descending upon the area, haggling over what was left and hoping they would have some tuna to bring home.
Local history says that the first uogashi or riverside fish market was established by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun and founder of Edo, the present-day Tokyo. The shogun invited fishermen from Tsukudajima in Osaka and gave them a privilege to fish so that they could supply seafood to the Edo castle. Those that were not bought by the castle were sold in the uogashi near the Nihonbashi Bridge, which was considered then as one of the specialized wholesale markets that lined the canals of Edo.
But as the population increased and the demand for fish and other seafood rose, the uogashi evolved into a full-blown market led by wholesale merchants licensed by the shogunate. The merchants would buy fish from local ports and sell them to jobbers in the market. During that period, the price was determined by the sellers and buyers through negotiated transactions, not by public auctions.
In 1918, after the Kome Sodo (Rice Riots) which happened in over 100 cities and towns in protest against shortages and alleged corrupt practices of wholesalers, the Japanese government created new institutions on equal distribution of food. Things were beginning to normalize until the Great Kanto Earthquake happened in 1923. Following the destruction of the Nihonbashi fish market, the operation was transferred to the Tsukiji district.
Propelled by the Central Wholesale Market Law, the government constructed a modern market facility, which was completed in 1935, and stabilized the fish market operations, operating three major markets in Tsukiji, Kanda and Koto as well as smaller branch markets in Ebara, Toshima, and Adachi, among others. Today, the Tsukiji Market handles more than 400 different types of seafood, from inexpensive seaweed to the most expensive caviar, from tiny sardines to 300-kilogram tuna.
As early as 3 a.m., a circus begins with the arrival of seafood and other products by ship, truck and plane from all over the world. Slowly, the containers are emptied, revealing the fresh bounty of the sea. Tons of frozen tuna are unloaded and readied for display. Oroshi gyosha (wholesalers) prepare the incoming products and estimate their value for the auctions.
The auctions don’t start until 5:20 a.m. But by then, the licensed buyers — usually intermediate wholesalers or nakaoroshi gyosha who operate stalls in the marketplace and agents for restaurants, food companies and large retailers — have already inspected the fish, decided which fish they would like to bid for, and estimated at which price they would buy it.
If a tourist wants to witness the auctions, he has to apply at the Osakana Fukyu Center (Fish Information Center), located at the Kachidoki Gate. But one must be sure to be there before 5 a.m. because most tourists start lining up as early as 4:30 a.m. Since the number of visitors to the tuna auction is limited to 120 people per day, applications are on a first-come-first-served basis. They limit the visitors because market’s maximum capacity.
The successful applicants are divided into two groups of 60. The first group enters the auction area from 5:25 to 5:50 a.m., while the second group comes in next from 5:50 to 6:15 a.m. They are allowed to view the auction only from a designated area. They can take photos, but no flash photography. And definitely, no interfering with the business transactions.
A word of advice: there are days when they don’t allow visitors and tourists inside the market, so better check their website before going to the place itself. Visitors are also encouraged to visit the outer market, which consists of a few blocks filled with small retail shops and restaurants selling fresh seafood, produce and other food-related goods.
At 7 a.m., right after the auctions have ended, the purchased fish and seafood are then loaded to trucks that would take them to their next destination. Others are carried on small carts and sent to shops inside the market.
And the works (and the eating) begin. Shop owners prepare their haul and start opening their stores. Cutting and preparation is quite elaborate. Frozen tuna and swordfish are cut using large band saws. Meanwhile, extremely long knives called oroshihocho, maguro-bocho and hancho-hocho are used to carve the fresh tuna.
A visit without sampling what the market has to offer is truly a mistake. One of the most well-known Japanese dishes, sushi is made from vinegared rice, combined with fresh seasonal ingredients such as seafood, vegetables, mushroom, eggs and meat which may be raw, cooked, blanched or marinated. Best eaten with hands, sushi-making started as a practice to preserve salted fish by fermenting it in rice for months.
In the past, only rich people could afford sushi, as sushi then was quite expensive and seen as a luxurious food. But nowadays, with kaiten sushi restaurants and sushi-making machines, sushi is now within the reach of the commoners.
Some say that a serious sushi eater starts his culinary journey with sashimi. In Tsukiji, it is better to have the chu toro or the fatty tuna. Salmon is good, but they say that Japan still imports this kind of fish. Most tuna sold here are produced and procured locally, so better stick to it. And because it is often bought in the tuna auction, every morsel screams of freshness.
One can find plenty of sushi counters in the inner and outer market areas. To find the best ones, you need to explore a warren of narrow streets packed with stalls selling fresh seafood such as tuna, king crabs, scallops, oysters and other specialty items. Here, seafood are displayed like precious jewelry. Between the shops selling fresh produce, one can spot a restaurant or two offering fresh sushi and sashimi meals.
One of the best places to eat sushi is Sushizanmai. Probably the biggest sushi restaurant chain, it has 53 branches, with nine branches in Tsukiji alone. With its commitment to provide the best tuna, it records the bid wins for the best and freshest tuna at the year’s first auction. It serves tuna on the same day it buys the ingredients. One need not worry about overspending, as one can order as few as one piece of sushi here. Or one can try their sushi platter for as low as 900 yen.
Eating in a kaiten restaurant is a unique experience in itself. Upon sitting at the counter, you’ll notice that everything is self-service. Take a glass and put some green tea powder from a canister; then, using the glass, push the metal rod in front of you, and hot water would come pouring out. Also, in front are pickled ginger and daikon. You can take as many as you want – just be sure not to waste them. Then, you can start taking whatever sushi you fancy at the conveyor. Each plate corresponds to a certain price, so be careful with what you pick to avoid overspending.
Another must-try is the Marukita Seafood Restaurant. They have rice bowls with different fresh seafood toppings. Have a tuna rice bowl. If you feel like indulging, have a sea urchin bowl. Most restaurants here use fresh wasabi, scraping a long, pale green root right before serving the sashimi and sushi. Compared to the powdered ones, fresh wasabi has a much subtler flavor. You can buy fresh wasabi in some of the stalls in the market.
While wandering through the streets, the aroma of grilled seafood such as eel, tuna, oyster and scallops would assault your senses. Tea shops are also abundant, offering a steaming cup of tea to anyone who wants to sample it. Seaweeds are quite popular among the elderly people because these are believed to have high nutritional value.
In Tsukiji, every turn is a delight. Just make sure to be there before 9 a.m. to fully enjoy the market experience because at the stroke of 12 noon, the magic dissipates. Stores begin to close, and the activities start to die down.