An article in The Guardian (UK) a few days ago alerted me to the fact that the world’s biggest fish market is about to close. This is the Tsukiji wholesale Market in Tokyo where Japan’s obsession with seafood is transformed into an operation worth almost 2 billion Yen a day (about £15.5 million).
But Tokyo’s new governor, Yuiko Koike put a halt to the move to the new premises in Toyosu, about a mile south along Tokyo Bay, as rumours have arisen that the new site, built at a cost of Y588 billion, is contaminated with dangerous toxins.
Let’s get the stats. out of the way fist. The current site handles more than 400 varieties of seafood a day and sells nearly 300 varieties of fruit at stalls around the periphery. Approximately 200,000 vehicles pass through its gates every day and it is estimated that about 60,000 people depend on the market for their livelihood. Those are the numbers that put the market at No. 1.
The auctions at Tsukiji start at dawn and by the time they have ended, hundreds of thousands of tuna, prawns, lobsters, crayfish, octopus and squid, will have passed through the market on their way to fish stalls and restaurant around the country and beyond. The Japanese eat more fish per head than any other developed country, about 27 kg. compared with the global average of 19 kg. and they consume 80% of the bluefin tuna caught.
When I went there I was struck by how this very old market was equipped with the most modern technology on the floor, from the automatic carts and floats that buzzed around to the ice-making machines, and how huge blocks of ice were loaded into a hopper which then disgorged crushed ice to be rushed along to the dispatching area to be packed around the fish.
Like the London markets which were forced to leave their hallowed premises, the Tokyo move to new premises is acknowledged as necessary. At the same time, it is recognised that something is always lost when atmosphere and charm are swapped for modernity and clean lines.
Although the outer market is being spared – good news for the thousands of tourists who flock here for the most refreshing sushi breakfast in Japan – for the thousands of people with an emotional attachment to the Tsukdji Market, the city planners are ripping the heart out of Japan’s food tradition.
The jury is still out on the move. We must wait and see.
Below, a slideshow of some of the photographs I took inside the market. They are not pretty, but then this isn’t a retail market, it’s a very busy wholesale market where the fish are inspected, bought and shipped out within an hour. The knives were in a shop that sold only fish knives like these: I feel sure I could gut a fish if I had one of these, but then I’d have to close my eyes as I’m squeamish and I might cut off a finger!