Aqua-Abattoir : The Tsukiji Fish Market

If you want to wake up in a city that never sleeps, then don’t come to Tokyo. The big stores all lower their steel shutters by 9:00 PM. Most of the city’s restaurants follow suit by 10:00 or 11:00. There are all-night bars to be found, but the emphasis is on “all night.” That’s because the rail system drifts to a halt around midnight, making it difficult for late drinkers to go home. After that hour, this great city is dark, quiet, and still. Except at the Tsukiji fish market. Last winter a friend and I paid a visit there at 4:00AM.


It was like stumbling onto a secret military base on the eve of a major invasion. The darkness was suddenly hacked apart by dozens of sweeping headlights. The air was filled with the snort and rumble and smell of diesel engines. Thousands of boots trampled the ground. Boxes made of Styrofoam, plastic, cardboard, and wood were tossed from hand to hand by muscular arms. Hooded bulbs swung from overhead wires. Huge crates were hoisted suddenly aloft. The warning squeal of reversing trucks could be heard from all directions. Dozens of poker-faced men and women raced flatbed trolleys through the chaos at breakneck speed. And this was just for starters. We were on the outer edge of a vast complex that covers several city blocks. It employs at least 15,000 people and includes 1,600 individual businesses. Tokyo has a lot of mouths to feed, and most of those mouths are partial to fish. The Tsukiji fish market handles about 2.5 million pounds of seafood every day, or more than 1.1 million kilograms.


The place is not set up as a tourist attraction, but we found ourselves ignored as long as we were able to dodge the hurtling forklifts and swinging blades. Every corner we turned led to a startling new scene. On one large counter hundreds of brazen octopi mooned us with all eight cheeks. Nearby, a sinister collection of 2-meter knives stood upright in a barrel of ruddy water. In a dark alcove, shadowy figures were shucking mussels as big as my shoes, totally silent but for the scrape and slurp of their knives in the shells. Most of the market is a maze of narrow passageways, but in one open area there were about a dozen brawny silver fish, each a meter long, laid out on a wooden pallet. As we examined them, one of them rolled a big black shiny eye at me. Standing over him, I wondered how he must see me. I decided not to dwell on it. A man who had dumped a bucket of live eels onto a metal table was grabbing them one after another, cutting their throats, and tossing them into another bucket to squirm their last. One arm grabbed and tossed while the other arm chopped, and neither arm ever seemed to be at rest. As we walked past his table, a flying drop of eel blood struck the back of my hand. After a moment’s hesitation, I licked it off. It was salty and surprisingly warm.


Someone raced past us with a cart full of flapping bream. We followed him until he dropped it off at another metal table half a block away. There was a slender young man waiting for them in the standard Tsukiji dress. This consisted of sturdy work pants and shirt, Wellington boots, and a white towel. The towel could be tied around one’s head, draped around one’s neck, or tucked into the waist of one’s pants, but all the guys at Tsukiji had one. Along with a blade. These came in endless variety. In this man’s case it was a big knife with which he validated the breams’ tickets to the next round of the karma lottery. A bream (tai in Japanese) is a large, roughly square fish, somewhat like an heirloom Bible that has grown fins and a tail. Still, our man handled these scaly blocks of muscle with seeming ease. Tossing one onto the table, he cut its tail half off with one stroke. Turning the tail aside, he bent double the bream’s body with both hands, ejecting a powerful jet of fluid that hit the floor three or four meters away. After watching him dispatch four or five fish this way, my friend and I suddenly leapt aside as a jet of bream juice shot in our direction. Judging by the playful grin on the bream-killer’s face, this was no accident. We smiled back at him but decided to move on before he got bigger ideas.


Finally, we came to the site of the daily tuna auction. On a concrete pier on the riverward side of the market, hundreds of gutted and deep-frozen tuna carcasses were laid out in neat rows. None of them were small, but a few were truly colossal. All of them had red numbers spray-painted directly onto their sides, and most of them were cold enough to give off a white mist which crept along the floor. At one end of the pier there were a few dozen black marlins laid out in similar state. Bidders moved among the fish in the standard Wellington and white towel outfits, but he blades that they carried were iron hooks on short wooden poles. They used these to tilt the fish up to examine their lower sides, or to hack out little bits of frozen flesh. Once defrosted between the bidders’ busily working fingertips, these morsels could be tasted to see if the tuna was really as good as it looked. At one point two bidders swung their hooks at each other, but the fight was broken up by bystanders before blood was spilled. Did they both want the same fish, or was it something more personal? I can’t say. You don’t ask too many questions of an angry man with an iron hook. The auctioneers, like auctioneers in many parts of the world, spoke in a rapid musical patter that only the initiated could understand. The bidders wore baseball caps with plastic badges that identified the store or restaurant they represented. As they quietly signaled their bids, the auctioneer made a note of who got what. The auction was remarkably sedate, especially compared to the hubbub in the rest of the market.


We left Tsukiji on foot after several hours. Most of the crustaceans, mollusks, and fish leave by truck. Luckily, I knew where to catch up with some of them. In my next column, I’ll tell you about some of my favorite places to enjoy Japanese cuisine … including lots of seafood.

Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

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