15 June 2010

Tuna Auctions at The Tsukiji Market, Tokyo

The alarm clock's incessant beeping woke me at 3:30am. The temptation to turn it off and snuggle under the warm duvet of my ridiculously comfortable bed at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo was almost too much. Then I realised what lay ahead. Tuna. I was heading off to the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (aka Tsukiji Market), and here I would be able to witness the sight of tons and tons of tuna being auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars. At Tsukiji the action starts early and the hotel concierge advised us to be there by 4:30am at the latest.

Tsukiji Market is truly huge. It handles over 2,000 tons of seafood each day, which by comparison is almost 30 times more than Billingsgate market in London, and employs over 60,000 people. If you were in any doubt about the importance of seafood in Japan, then you only need to look around at the sheer scale and intensity of Tsukiji Market which handles about a third of Japan's seafood. The market is split into an inner- (Jonai Shijo) and outer-market (Jogai Shijo). The inner market is where most of the activity is and apart from access to the tuna auctions it now remains closed to the public until 9:00am. The outer market consists of small restaurants and various shops selling things like restaurant supplies, kitchen utensils, amazingly sharp knives, seafood, and fruit and veg.

Tsukiji Market has had an up and down relationship with tourists and has periodically banned them from attending the famous tuna auctions due to the behaviour of some thoughtless tourists interfering with the auction process. The tuna auctions have just reopened after their latest tourist ban and have now limited the number of daily sightseers to just 140 on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The tuna auctions run from around 5:30am to 7:00am and the daily group of 140 sightseers is split into two groups of 70 to better manage the crowds. Even though we arrived by 4:30am we were in the second group which entailed about an hour and a half wait before we got to see the auctions. Before entering the auction area we were given bright green "gaijin alert" vests to wear and were guided through the market to the inner market area where the auctions take place. Even at this early hour the market was in full swing, with dozens of small motorised fish-carrying carts zipping around all over the place. One false move and you'd easily be run over. It was organised chaos and was amazing to see, this being my first time at a working fish market.

The actual auction area itself was breathtaking; A gigantic, football field-sized warehouse with hundreds of frozen bluefin tuna fish laid out in neat rows on the floor. They looked like giant steel-grey torpedoes, and the mist coming off them gave a very eerie feel to the place. The tuna has been arriving from all over the world since the previous evening and each fish had been marked with bright red paint to presumably indicate it's provenance and weight. Seven wholesalers take responsibility for bringing in the tuna from around the world and then selling it to mid-level wholesalers who in turn sell it on to distributors for use in shops and restaurants. The fish had been grouped, seemingly by size, into smaller lots. Their tails had been removed and a huge gash was cut into the rear of the fish so that a flap exposed the flesh beneath. Licensed buyers working in overalls and wearing wellington boots would inspect the fish with a small gaff and a torch to check the quality and determine how much they would bid.

Inspecting the tuna before the auction begins

Suddenly a loud clanging of hand bells indicated that an auction was about to begin. An auctioneer stood up on a plastic crate in front of a row of tuna and a small gaggle of buyers huddled around. Then the auctioneer launched into some rhythmic shouting. I have no idea what he was saying, but now and then one of the buyers would make some subtle gesture and scribble something down on a notepad. And then as quickly as it had started it was over. This lot of tuna were sold. Tens of thousands of dollars had changed hands and the auctioneer was already off to auction the next lot of tuna. Someone came round to paste labels on the fish, indicating who had just bought it. Two men hauled the beasts with their fish gaffs onto small hand carts and they were carried off to their next destination en route to being turned into wonderful sushi.

Auctioning off the bluefin tuna

Clip of a tuna auction

Labelling the winners´fish

Cutting up the tuna with a bandsaw

After that we filed out of the auction area, again watching out for the motorised carts, and instead of hanging around till 9:00am when the central wholesale market opened to the public we decided to wander off in search of some of the best sushi on the planet.

Tsukiji Market is really an amazing sight and a must-see if you are ever in Tokyo. Unfortunately though, it is not immune to changing times and its longer term future remains uncertain, at least in its current form. Due to the growth of the market there are plans to move the market to a new 374,000 sq.m. site on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay in 2014. Sadly, it is also expected that the traditional open-outcry markets will be replaced by a computerised system. However, whether this materialises or not is another question, a recent article in the Japan Times cites the growing trend for end-users to source seafood directly from fisherman and a growing appetite for meat in Japan as a cause of the Tsukiji's declining influence. It would be a real shame if the Tsukiji Market as we know it today were to change significantly and one hopes that the Market can adapt and bounce back and keep wowing visitors with its amazing seafood spectacle.

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