Last Call for Tsukiji - Chad Lue Choy Photography

Last Call for Tsukiji

“They are going to tear it down. Put up apartments” says Kazuo Okada, “Before the Olympics”. He squints so his eyes can adjust to the light as he absorbs the familiar scene unfolding all around him. There is an elderly man with thin wispy hair in a blue apron and black rubber boots cutting a pale gray frozen tuna in half on a shiny stainless steel band saw-his gloved hands effortlessly guiding his quarry with routine precision, leaving behind a trail of pink fleshy sawdust. Next to him is a pitted wooden table stacked with white Styrofoam boxes lined with blue plastic bags; they are filled with deep purple and white madako octopuses that have been expertly turned inside out exposing the suckers on the underside of their tentacles, like perfect rows of some alien fruit. A ta-ray pulling a cart overflowing with fish heads, fins, tails and other discarded bits drives by unnervingly close, splashing our shoes and the cuffs of our pants with some brown cocktail of melted ice and fish entrails. But this is to be expected as we stand wide-eyed in the middle of the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, the world famous Tsukiji (pronounced skee-gee) Fish Market.

I met Kazuo the night before through a Japanese friend at Hicho restaurant in the upscale Aoyama neighbourhood. Kazuo works as a server there. Like many spectacular restaurants in Tokyo, you won’t find Hicho in any guide books. This is a local secret and a precious rare find for a transient visitor. My friend Yukio does the ordering. Over plates of amazing creamy maguro tuna sashimi that dissolves on your tongue before sliding down your throat, salty sweet firefly squid, milky white cubes of tofu topped with fresh grated ginger and chives and tea green ceramic tumblers filled to the brim with deliciously smooth cold filtered sake we find out Kazuo has a resume more interesting than most. His small frame and big smile do well to hide it, but ten years ago he was a professional boxer with an impressive 13-2-1 record and ranked as the No. 4 flyweight in the country by the Japanese Boxing Commission. After hanging up his gloves in 2003, he worked at Tsukiji market before eventually coming to Hicho. He has offered to take us on an insider’s tour of Tsukiji the following morning.

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu established a market sometime during the Edo period to provide food for the Imperial Castle. Fish not bought by the castle was sold at the nearby Nihonbashi Bridge which eventually developed into the first fish market. It was during this time that nigiri zushi which we now most associate with modern sushi was first invented. The present day market in Tsukiji began operation in 1935 following the destruction of this old Nihonbashi market during the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. The present market has been at this spot for over 80 years.

It’s 5:30 on a clear March morning and I’m still half asleep as we drive from our hotel in Shinjuku to the market. There’s a delicate truce being negotiated between my stomach and the sake from the night before. The early morning light filters in through the windshield of the cab. The cherry blossoms aren’t supposed to be due until next week but I can see some early pink and white blooms are peeking out at us from across the moat as we pass the Imperial Palace. At the main market gate, the cartoon signs, conspicuously displayed, both act as a warning of what not to do during your sojourn here, while at the same time mirroring the asinine behavior market employees have come to expect of visiting tourists-don’t poke, prod, fondle the seafood; don’t grab or reach for the razor-edged knives; don’t block the walkways while taking selfies and lastly don’t be drunk and disorderly and pass out among the produce. It’s already after 6 AM and we are too late for the legendary tuna auction which started since 5, so we proceed directly into the middle market although this area is technically off limits to casual visitors until 9 AM. But it’s ok, we are with Kazuo. He stops and chats with fishmongers and fishermen, women driving ta-rays and stocky guys wearing white bandanas cutting fish. Bowing and smiling as we navigate the maze that is the market. I wonder how many recognize him as Kazuo the fishmonger or Kazuo the boxer. The air is cool and there is no overwhelming fishy smell, only the cool briny scent of the ocean. Light glitters off the wet slippery cobbled floor. In every direction, there are rows of wooden tables and white polystyrene foam containers and blue plastic crates holding every fish, crustacean, mollusc, cephalopod or echinoid that ever walked, crawled, swam or simply sat in the world’s lakes, seas and vast oceans.

The market is laid out in a fairly tight grid pattern with passageways just wide enough to accommodate the motorized three-wheeled mini-trucks called ta-rays and the wooden hand carts that are still used by many. We walk confidently through the market stopping at different vendors for Kazuo to talk to old acquaintances or to show us some unfamiliar quarry. At one time we are stopped by a security guard who motions that we are not supposed to be here. Kazuo goes over to talk to him and soon the guard’s agitation gives way to smiles and bows and handshakes and we are left to continue our wandering. To say the market is busy is like saying you might find a couple casinos in Las Vegas. Tsukiji is a real working wet market. Nothing quite prepares you for the frenzy of that first visit. There is nary room to stand and it seems anywhere you stop, if even for a moment to take a photo or gain closer inspection of some sea creature, there is a ta-ray or cart or person carry a crate of seafood with an annoyed scowl on their face shouting to get out of the way. I may not know much Japanese but through my years in manufacturing, I’ve learned to recognize “industrial language” when I hear it. The Japanese culture of maintaining a quiet reserved demeanour and reverend respect that I’ve come to know these past few days gives way to a more boisterous, aggressive and vocal form of interaction I had not previously observed. Not that the market is loud though given the apparent chaos all around. It’s actually remarkably quiet for the beehive of activity taking place everywhere-gigantic maguro tuna being surgically dissected with 4’ long samurai sword-like instruments; huge orange king crab the size of your head being weighed out, their longs spiny legs dangling precariously off the tray of the scale, and enormous shiny snapper being lobotomized with thin wire rods (iki jime) at assembly line speed to delay rigor mortis from setting in. Kazuo explains this is to keep the fish fresher longer and makes for better sashimi. Everyone just seems to know exactly what they are supposed to be doing, how they are supposed to do it and precisely when it’s to be done. I’m yet to see a computer or a laptop or an iPad at any of the stalls. There are no ERP systems or purchase orders or bar codes. The whole machine seems to operate on a system predicated around red and blue markers and handwritten notes on the Styrofoam containers or directly onto the bellies of the frozen fish. In the turmoil of activity I step back and for a moment I see a well-choreographed ballet of fishmongers, sellers, men pulling carts and men laboring over white foam containers, being played out to the hum of ta-rays zipping by, all under the cool glow of fluorescent lights. Even the occasional reluctant dance with the ill-footed tourist appears well rehearsed.

Tsukiji is not just another fish market. The market is undeniably the largest of its kind in the world. Fish from over 60 countries on 6 continents are imported, sold, processed and shipped out to customers every day. The market sells over 600,000 tons of fish annually. That’s a staggering US$4.25 billion or over $15 million every day. In 2013 the record was set at US$1.76 million dollars for a single 489-lb Bluefin tuna. The odds are high that the fish in that spicy tuna roll you ate last week at that fancy sushi restaurant in Toronto or Miami or London was sitting on this very floor not too long before. Tsukiji is the “engine room” that helped power sushi‘s growth and acceptance worldwide. From Tsukiji, long invisible tentacles of trucks, ships and planes stretch out across the globe to every seafood and sushi restaurant. The tradition of chefs making the daily pilgrimage to the market to select the best produce they can afford is as old as the market itself. Tsukiji’s international reach allowed sushi and seafood chefs anywhere in the world to do virtually the same.

And it’s not only about the fish. Inextricably linked to the market are the produce market and the outer market. The produce market, like the fish market, sells fruits and vegetables from all over Japan and around the world. Kiwi fruit from New Zealand, enormous carrots, perfectly formed mangoes and unassuming wasabi root. The outer market is home to a myriad of shops selling everything from Japanese tea and dried seaweed (nori), to chopsticks, T-shirts, knives and rubber boots. Also in the outer market, you can find food stalls and restaurants selling fish cakes, shrimp tempura, bbq eel, ramen and just about any other dish that could be freshly prepared with ingredients from the market. Produce arrives all through the night and by 3 AM wholesalers are laying out goods for the morning’s auction. These restaurants originally grew out of the need to feed the early morning community. Through the reach of social media and travel guide books, several of the restaurants in the outer market like Sushi Dai have now become must-stop eating spots for globe-trekking foodies, and waiting times to get a table are now measured in hours with orderly lines of salivating patrons stretching around the block. I am naively surprised to see a familiar Trip Advisor sticker proudly displayed on the door of the tiny 12-seater tempura restaurant Tenfusa where Kazuo takes us for breakfast. We are greeted by shouts of “Irasshaimasse”. Kazuo orders the tempura set and I follow suit. I have a bird’s eye view into the kitchen from my seat and every movement of the cook fills me with hungry anticipation. Soon enough, miso soup and bowls of steaming Japanese rice topped with shrimp, eel and vegetables tempura are being served. The food is simple but hearty and plentiful; delicate yet crunchy. And cheap too at ¥1,500 a person –that’s just under $15 at today’s rates. It’s easy to appreciate the natural synergy that exists between the inner and outer markets and restaurants, how needs developed into opportunities over time-how each serves and is in turn served by the others. They seem inextricably intertwined. But this may all soon change.

With my understanding of project management and construction schedules, I tell Kazuo it’s probably a lot sooner than “before the Olympics”. The plans to relocate the market have been ongoing for over a decade. Tsukiji market is situated within walking distance of the upscale Ginza district. It’s situated on prime waterfront real estate and backs right on to the Sumida River. With Tokyo having won the honour of hosting the summer Olympics in 2020, plans for the relocation have ploughed ahead. But the plans are not without controversy. The proposed site in Toyosu was formerly a coal to gas conversion plant. The soil there has been found to be contaminated with industrial pollutants the likes of lead, arsenic and benzene heading the list. Crews have been working fastidiously at the site removing contaminated soil and replacing it with clean virgin soil. Many in the market community are understandably concerned how this would affect the freshness, safety and reputation of the fish sold there. The proposal calls for the construction of a state of the art facility to meet the needs of the market. The new market is slated to be bigger, brighter, cleaner and more high-tech, a shining example of transportation and logistics excellence, refrigeration efficiency and the highest hygiene standards. But critics of the plan say this will dissolve the very soul of the market. The traditions and nostalgia associated with the historic market-it’s wooden tables, its cobble-stoned floor, and the organic community will be forever lost when the market is relocated and modernized. Not only that, but the plan calls for leaving the outer market where it is. Moving one and not the other threatens to completely tear at the very synergy upon which the present community is built condemning the outer market to a simple tourist attraction. Many question the very survivability of the outer market and neighboring restaurants once the inner fish market is moved. Sentiments remain divided.

Three years on and the market still awaits its fate. The move was scheduled to happen in November 2016 but the latest battery of groundwater testing showed the toxic levels of benzene and other pollutants to be above acceptable levels, some as much as 79 times the safe limits. Additionally, the present and former mayors of Tokyo are engaged in a highly publicized sparring match over the selection and approval method used for the Toyosu site. As it stands today, the move is still up in the air with market tenants split between those who prefer to move and those who desire to remain.

Inevitably it seems the days of the market at Tsukiji are numbered. With new reports surfacing that even the groundwater at the existing site may be contaminated forces seem to be catapulting the market towards its final days in the name of progress. If you want to see Tsukiji Market, don’t delay. Come now. Come soon. Because if you’re waiting to visit Tokyo for the Olympics in 2020, it’s too late, the final curtain would have long since fallen on the ethereal Tsukiji Market ballet.

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