Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Bonus Tsukiji photos

Exactly one year ago today I emerged groggily from the Oedo line Tsukiji-shijo station at some unearthly hour of the morning in order to visit one of Tokyo's most popular, but unusual, tourist attractions - the jaw-dropping Tsukiji fish market. The city has at least ten wholesale markets that sell meat, fish, vegetables, flowers and fruit - but the most famous is the fish section of the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market. Almost 3000 tons of seafood are sold there everyday, in only five hours of trading, generating £15m. That's per day.

This is what most of it looks like - narrow passageways through countless white polystyrene boxes. The site as a whole is vast - the world's largest fish market is surprisingly hard to find. We ended up walking through a large bustling truck depot, then past fruit and veg stalls, before a narrow row of sushi restaurants told us we were getting closer. At 8am a lot of the stalls were already closing. Here you can follow 24hrs at Tsukiji, and we got there just as the 'jobbers' were loading the white boxes into the vans to whizz around the city, and beyond.

Some 450 kinds of fish are received, and other things besides. The Official Tsukiji website has a cover page with a typical beast on display for sale - things like that (a scary-looking crab) were everywhere. I had trouble recognising half of it, even with my degree in Marine Biology. From tiny thumbnail size translucent fry to gigantic tuna (see below), and everything in between. Some of it did make me uneasy though, especially the obvious deep-sea species - nobody knows population sizes, yet the Japanese are hoovering them up.

Octopus in a bargain bin. For biological reasons that I won't go into here, a lot of animals that live in deeper water are bright red. Combined with the blood on display, it wasn't for the faint hearted - or faint stomached. But it was fascinating, as the market is open to all, so large bulk buyers were there, as well as elderly Tokyo wives with their shopping baskets. We tried hard to take everything in, and yet not get in people's way - but nobody minded us being there. The men at the back of each stall were happy to pause for the camera as they hacked up something unfortunate for the boxes being scoured by the customers.

Tuna heads on display. Compare the size of these with the man standing directly behind. Sadly the highlight of the market - the 5am tuna auction - is now off-limits to tourists after they (and their flashbulbs) kept getting in the way. These things go for thousands of dollars each, so it's a very serious business. The auction is conducted by a group of eager buyers standing around each fish, which has had a core of the tail taken and laid out for all to see. The most expensive cuts are the belly, where the natural fat gives the raw tuna more of a silky texture compared with your average seared tuna steak.

Again, not for the squeamish. But it was an eye-opener to us supermarket shopping Westerners, seeing it all there. You don't see men wrestling to cut the heads off live eels behind the fish counter at Asda. Of course, you need to get up early to see it - by 9am everyone's pretty much going home. The Tsukiji workers must watch a lot of Japanese daytime television. But it's a unique thing to see - it's frantically busy, and yet everything works really smoothly. There are all kinds of creatures on display, and they are all for sale - if you fancy a few of these or a bagfull of these, then off you go. But before you leave, go back to the row of sushi restaurants and get some sushi for breakfast. It will be the best you will ever taste (and I've tasted a lot...)