Visit the World’s Largest Fish Market
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN JAPAN
DO YOU enjoy the bustle of a market? One that might excite you and certainly attracts tourists from all over the world is Tsukiji, the fish market just a few minutes’ walk from the center of Tokyo. It boasts of being the largest fish market in the world.
The time to go there is in the early morning. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, the market springs to life. Trucks deliver up to two thousand tons of fish a day, and all of it has to be unloaded early because by 3:00 a.m., the buyers start coming. The sellers rush to set out their boxes of fish, giving each box a label bearing a lot number, the weight of the fish, and the place where it was caught. The buyers are easy to spot. They wear rubber boots and caps that display their license numbers. Unlike the slow-moving tourists, the buyers race around examining the quality of the fish and deciding how much to bid. Those carrying a hook, flashlight, and towel are the tuna buyers. Their tools are indispensable for checking the quality of the massive tuna, and the towel is for wiping their hands after touching the fish.
Pandemonium breaks out at 5:30 a.m. From all directions comes the clanging of handbells as the auctioneers call the buyers to start the bidding. Auctioneers seem to be everywhere. In actual fact, there are seven wholesalers that conduct auctions simultaneously, but some have two or more auctioneers selling different products at the same time. All these auctioneers yell out the lot numbers in their own distinctive chant, and the authorized buyers bid against one another using unique finger movements. The bidding is so rapid that the price of each lot is decided in seconds. Some buyers bid with two auctioneers at the same time. Each shop is allowed only one buyer, so the buyers have to rush from one section to another to get the fish they want. Those purchasing large quantities and many varieties of fish for resale to several shops are, perhaps, the most frantic of all.
As soon as the price is decided, the buyers are anxious to get each fish to its destination as quickly as possible. Porters using handcarts and small trucks race around the narrow streets taking the fish away. Hustle, bustle, and noise are everywhere. To the onlooker, it appears to be mass confusion. In fact, it is controlled and organized down to the last detail. Within a couple of hours, over one thousand tons of fish are sold and hauled away. Some of the fish is taken to small shops located in another part of the market and will be sold during the morning hours to thousands of eager buyers.
As you can imagine, Tsukiji Market is huge. The seven giant wholesale companies that hold the auctions and over one thousand smaller merchants are registered to do business here. Throughout the year, they are kept busy serving at least 40,000 customers who visit the market each day.
Who are the customers? Among them are volume buyers for large hotels, restaurants, department stores, and supermarkets. Also, there are the proprietors of smaller food shops, neighborhood fish markets and, oh, yes, owners of quaint but thriving sushi shops. All these customers compete for the choice products. It is estimated that altogether, they buy some 600,000 tons of seafood a year, spending over $5 billion.
Actually, Tsukiji is not just a fish market. It is a wholesale market handling fruit and vegetables as well. It is one of 11 central wholesale markets in Tokyo that operate under the supervision of the Tokyo metropolitan government. The history of markets handling fresh food can be traced back as far as 1603. To ensure better hygiene and quality, in 1877 these markets came under government supervision. The Tokyo earthquake of 1923 devastated Tokyo’s markets, resulting in the formation of today’s Tsukiji Market, which began operating in 1935.
Since then, the market has grown tremendously. Where else in the world could you find this volume and variety of fish changing hands daily? It is estimated that such fish as salmon, cod, sea bream, mackerel, sole, and herring as well as sea urchin, sea cucumber, and shellfish—as many as 450 varieties from all over the world—are sold here. Some of the smaller shops in the market specialize in just one variety of seafood, such as octopus or shrimp.
One fish here, however, is king. It is the large tuna, flown in by jet from such distant places as the Mediterranean Sea and North America. No other fish can compare to it in volume or in price. One large tuna can cost several thousand dollars. Hundreds of fresh and frozen tuna are sold here daily. The buyers will cut up the tuna into convenient portions for the local merchants. The choice fatty portions called toro, taken from around the rib cage, will probably end up as delicious topping for sushi.
That the world’s largest fish market should be in Japan comes as no surprise. The country is surrounded by an ocean and three seas, and the Japanese learned to love sea products a long time ago. Fish is often the center of a delicious Japanese meal. Each year, the average Japanese consumes about 150 pounds [70 kg] of fish and seafood, and much of it comes from the Tsukiji Market. So if you ever visit Tokyo, why not join the increasing number of tourists who visit the world’s largest fish market?
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Fish artwork: From the book L’Art Pour Tous, Encyclopedie de l’Art Industriel et Decoratif, Vol. 31, 1861-1906
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James L. Stanfield/NGS Image Collection
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© Jeff Rotman/www.JeffRotman.com
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Courtesy of Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market