Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I've got some eel blood on my shoe that seems impossible to wash off, but the visit to the Tsukiji fish market was worth the tenacious stain. If you ever happen to be in Tokyo, and especially if you just flew in from the US and find yourself jet-lagged and awake at some unreasonable hour like 4 am, you should get over to the fish market. Take the subway (some lines begin running at 4:30) and arrive by 5 am.

Then you get to see the auction for tuna. Don't think "tuna fish" like something that in the states would end up in a can, remember, the bluefin tuna started out as a 400 pound fish before it was processed and that is what you get here. A large room, with big frozen tuna lined up on the floor with not much room left to stand. Then all of the wholesalers gather in a group with the auctioneer and they start buying. As each tuna is sold, it is marked with some type of buyer's i.d. and they move on until the entire room has been sold off to wholesalers. This takes about an hour and a half to sell off several hundred fish, and I think they sell for around US$10,000 each, depending on quality and size (quality is determined by a small cutout made near the tailfin, which each buyer lifts up and runs his fingers across).

Then this amazing distribution begins. They have thousands of these small, motorized carts zipping everywhere. In fact, the main danger for tourists is being run over by one of these things.

image of motor cart thing

So these dart into the big tuna auctionroom, and 3 guys with scary looking gaffs hook into a 400-lb tuna and toss it onto the back of the cart. They can stack up maybe 5 tuna before things get to slippery to deal with. That cart zips away and another zips in for its bunch. By 8 am the room is cleaned up and you can walk around and see tuna being cut with bandsaws. By 9 am, some of the retailers have beautiful cuts of sashimi in their stands, ready to eat. If you want great sushi for breakfast, this is the place to go.

All types of seafood are handled at the market, and there is an entire fleet of refrigerated delivery trucks parked within inches of each other (they fold the side mirrors in to get them even closer) lined up ready to zip the fish to every restaurant and market in the Tokyo area, most likely to be eaten that evening. Just one more way I'm amazed at how they've made something essential to their daily life extremely efficient.


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