Last week I had occasion (read: chaperoning my child’s school trip) to go to the Tsukiji Fish Market for the first time in probably at least 8 years. What I found was the same vibrant, busy place that I knew from years ago.
The idea of a fish market first came from the Shogun Ieyasu in the sixteenth century. He allowed merchants to come in and sell to various markets throughout the city, thus meeting the increased demand for fish in the newly formed capitol of Edo, as Tokyo was called then. Markets for fish, vegetables and other food items cropped up throughout the city, but it wasn’t until after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government took over and built a structure to centralize the wholesale industry.
What has emerged is a model of modern efficiency and wizardry. Tsukiji is the largest fish market in the world, and arguably the largest market of any food item in the world. It opens to fishermen at 3am most weekday mornings. They come in to display their wares, and then licensed wholesalers get to bid on the stocks. Most notable are the huge tunas that come in and the way the experienced buyers
examine them before making their bids. The auctions take place between 5am and 7am. I went only once at that hour, but the sight of the normally staid Japanese men serenely muttering bids in increasingly louder intensities astounded me.
After the auction, the fish and a few other related items are carted off on these little electric cars to the wholesaler stalls throughout the humongous market for purchase by retail establishments between the hours of 7-9am mostly. The aisles of the market are cramped and the floor is constantly wet. You never know when
a merchant might need to “wet” his stock with a bucket or hose, so covered shoes are a necessity when visiting. Tsukiji is open officially until 1pm, but most business has died down by 10am.
Policemen and security people are stationed throughout the market partially because of the increase in tourist interest in the market. I was leading a group of five kids through it, and an officer gave me a sheet of paper. It had “rules” on it, written in English, including no purchasing (we’re not retailers), and no taking photos without the merchant’s permission.
The economics of the place are astounding, according to online sources: more than 700,000 metric tons of seafood are handled every year, with a total value in excess of 600 billion yen (approximately 5.5 billion US dollars). The number of registered employees as of January 2010 varies from 60,000 to 65,000, including wholesalers, accountants, auctioneers, company officials, and distributors.
Of course the kids I was leading weren’t thinking of any of the history or economics of the place. They were astounded at the sheer size of the market as well as the vast array of seafood on display at the hundreds of stalls spanning aisle after
aisle of the cavernous building. The merchants and buyers walked around us, or bumped into us while going on their
way getting what they needed. They were polite, but business came first. Tourists were a bit of a nuisance to them. Rightfully so; we were interrupting their livelihood.
There have been times in the past few years when the fishmarket has been closed to tourists, but as of now it’s open and the kids were delighted. It was quite a foray into the underpinning of Tokyo life and an invaluable lesson in how the foods they love might get to their plates. A definite must-see for travelers to Tokyo.