by Dave Arnold
Tsukiji is the largest and most important of Tokyo’s wholesale markets. Unlike any other market I’ve visited, the selling at Tukiji is organized into auctions between large wholesalers and middlemen. These middlemen are still wholesalers in the US sense, and they resell their goods to smaller markets, restaurants, and consumers. You can read about the market structure in Tsukiji’s own words here.
Nastassia, Mark Ladner and I missed the famous tuna auction; but were able to see a vegetable auction:
It took quite a lot of control not to grab a box of wasabi and start running.
We also saw some nice fruit. The grapes on the right are Pione grapes — they cost 40 dollars a bunch, but they aren’t the most expensive grapes you can buy here. Some muscat grapes topped 260 dollars a bunch. I didn’t try those muscats, but piones are amazing. They have a concord-like nose and are perfectly balanced in sweetness and acidity. They are also very large and seedless, and their skins are thick but strangely pleasant. It was great experiencing the aroma of concord grapes –an early fall aroma for me — in early summer. Despite the expense, the Park Hyatt Tokyo bought flat after flat of these grapes for us to spin in the centrifuge and turn into clarified juice –thousands of dollars worth. We mixed the juice with vodka and carbonated it. We added no sugar and no acid. It was some good grape alco-soda.
Back to the main event: the fish market…
This place is extraordinarily clean. No part of it has any sort of off-smell.
The only detectable aroma in the fish section was that of the ocean. Not the slightly rotting aroma of the beach, just the dead clean smell of floating at sea. Neither Mark nor I could understand how the hell they pulled that off. How could the whole market be that well ventilated? This lack of smell was just one indication that the folks at Tsukiji were playing the market game on a completely different level than I’d seen before. At every step it seemed that the operators’ only considerations were how to increase the cleanliness and efficiency of the market and the quality of the product. Sounds great, but could have some bad ramifications if quality always trumps sustainability.
- Tsukiji uses more styrofoam than you can believe. Everything is packed in styrofoam –and many things are packed in plastic inside of styrofoam. The Tsukiji website says that all of the styro-packing is recycled daily, but I’d like to know more.
- Tsukiji uses crazy amounts of water. Everything is constantly hosed down and made immaculate. The floor of the market is so clean that the large blue-fin tuna are placed directly on it. When we eat tuna we are eating off that floor. I wish I could figure out how the water supply works.
- There does not seen to be any concern about the overfishing of certain species -most notably, blue-fin tuna. I asked my hosts if they were worried about the disappearance of the tuna — they said no, and joked that when they finally did run out everyone would be scrambling to eat the last one. Ha Ha…. wait.. That ain’t funny. I’d really wanted to know more about fishery conservation in Japan, but my ability to learn was hampered because I couldn’t speak Japanese. I’d love some informed comments.
All in all, the most impressive market I’ve ever seen.
Notice the yellow motorized cart in the upper left of the photo. These things are constantly zipping around the market. We had been warned — a warning I didn’t take too seriously — that we’d be in constant danger of getting run over. I should have been more afraid: these cart drivers are no joke. They won’t swerve out of their way to strike you, but they also won’t waver an inch off their desired path. They also don’t enjoy honking, warning, or yelling.
The whole “run you down” theme is evidence of the general fact that the folks at Tsukiji really don’t like tourists. We had to get favors pulled for us by the Park Hyatt in Tokyo to visit. Every year they tighten the tourism reigns a little tighter. Recently, I was told, flash photography was banned after a fish cutter hurt himself when a flash startled him. While safety should always come first, complaining about cutting yourself because someone took a photo is kinda sissy. Eventually I’m sure they’d like to abandon tourism at the market altogether, which would be a pity.
Here, a crew breaking down frozen tunas:
A video of that crew:
I particularly liked the way they manipulated the huge pieces of fish with these gaff-like knives:
The handles of these knives are awesome. They feel like a fine jewelry hammer in the hand. I almost bought one, but restrained myself — it is, sadly, not often that I am faced with band-sawing a whole frozen tuna at home.
The variety of fish on sale is mind boggling:
In particular, note the mussels as big as my head, the crabs in bondage, the crazy beak on that red fish, and the built in air-bubbler compartment in the Styrofoam prawn box.
Here is a video of individually packed live squid:
I love it but I’m not sure why.
And yes, I went to one of the great little sushi shops attached to the market:
I included a picture of the front — can someone identify this place for me?
Last but not least, the Ike Jime Man:
One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Tsukiji was to witness Japanese fish Killing (Ike Jime), first-hand. I was able to hang out and watch an expert for a few minutes. Here he is:
In my next post, I’ll share video of Ike Jime and discuss what I learned.