Tsukiji (Tokyo) – The Sea Burst onto the Ground
Tsukiji is the world’s largest fish market – 10x the size of its nearest competitor. This had to be a stop on my trip in Tokyo. Tourists are tolerated but it’s a stressful time – narrow aisles, slippery floors, packed crowds of busy shoppers, and motorized vehicles that are aiming for you from every direction – you have to be alert. And mindful that these people scurrying around are trying to make a living, many owners of small mom and pop shops across Tokyo.
Most of the fish is housed under one gigantic roof that runs seemingly forever. There are hundreds (thousands?) of stalls, most themselves mom and pop operations, that have about 100-150 sqft of “retail” space; and a very tiny office, usually large enough for just a chair and a cash register. The stalls and aisles are generally organized by type of seafood.
You will obviously see a lot of blood and death – not to mention corpses being hacked by knife and power saws. The seafood runs the entire gamut of possibilities – from the familiar to monstrosities straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It is fascinating to think of all the permutations of shrimp and fish – and it certainly provides ample excuse for repeat trips to Tokyo sushi spots.
For me, despite salivating over fish and anticipating my upcoming sushi meals, the logistics of this daily operation were one of the most impressive things I saw in Japan, if not ever. Fish is caught around the world, somehow making its way to Tsukiji, all of it finding its place within this gigantic warehouse by 5am. And it is all packed up by 1pm. I don’t think there is a real central planning agency; the whole spectacle makes a great case for bottom-up organization – let people work and they will get things done. (If one wanted to get fancy in their ethnographic, economic, or social studies, there is a lot of material here to play with the ideas of emergence in a social / economic setting.)
It’s a Holiday week so I will leave you with some pictures. If you would like to read more serious pieces about Tsukiji, there is an article and book I will recommed:
If you Knew Sushi by Nick Tosches for Vanity Fair – an excellent overview of the market and its players. Recommended for everyone.
Tsukiji – The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore Bestor – this is an ethnographic study of the market, its history, and how it manages to work. The book is full of interesting facts and figures, but it is an academic study so it can be (quite) dry at times too. Only recommended for the die-hard.
One of a few parking lots
Whale meat / blubber anyone? Despite the moral issues, this stuff looked seriously tasty.
Chopping turtles – yum yum
The remains of some fish
Some sort of miniature eel
A random stall selling random things
An octopus for every size
It might be alive
Some tiny fish
It’s definitely a must-do for anyone that has a passing interest in sushi – just be careful – you can get seriously hurt. Some people recommend the sushi restaurants within Tsukiji but the lines were ridiculously long (I can’t stand lines) and I heard that, while excellent by American standards, the sushi did not compare to the best places (two of which I would later eat at.) But the whole affair, my third day in Japan pre-sushi, made me crave sushi. I managed to snag a same-day reservation later that day at Kyubey (Ginza) for lunch.
That story will have to wait.