Reminiscing the good ol’ days of Tokyo’s iconic Tsukiji Market as it braces for relocation

The Tsukiji Fish Market is a treasure trove of all things seafood. Pic: Travelience

TSUKIJI MARKET – the largest and busiest fish market in the world – is a reigning force in Tokyo, a space of organized chaos where fish and seafood of all types and sizes are coddled and treated as precious gems.

By November this year, the operation will effectively move out of its original location in central Tokyo near Ginza to a shinier, bigger site in the Toyosu district of Tokyo’s Koto Ward. Operations will take place as usual after the move, but the original market will be sorely missed.

A wet market, anywhere else in Asia, is a place of frenetic energy, a slippery den of fishy smells. But Tsukiji – built in 1935 – manages to maintain a sense of composure and sanity despite handling over 480 varieties of fish (or 1,800 tonnes) and 270 types (or 1,160 tonnes) of fruit and vegetables daily.

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At the “inner” market, you’ll see distributors transporting crates of seafood on forklifts, vendors longingly explaining their product to keen buyers, and if you’re lucky, auctioneers selling off mammoth hunks of whole tuna. If you really stopped to observe, Tsukiji is poetry in motion.

A thing of marvel are the forklifts on which produce is moved about. They move about by seasoned drivers with little noise, an indication that locals are tuned to weaving in and out without collision.

For your dinner, you can find just about any species you could possibly imagine, from coral tuna slabs and prized caviar to writhing live octopus and plump scallops.

The market has also had fervent tourists rise at 3am simply to catch a glimpse of the famed tuna auction – a symphony of auctioneers rhythmically chanting while discerning vendors observe frozen fish laid on the floor. It’s a sullen morgue of premium fish where the men fight for the best bodies.

It’s a strange but enlightening sight to get to watch in real life – each vendor or buyer examining small pieces of maguro in their hands, holding out small fragments of pink flesh to their flashlights to check for fat content.

The Food Geographer is not far off when it says that the marketplace auction is not just a commodities trading platform; it’s a complex playground of hierarchies and cultural exchanges between buyers, wholesalers and auctioneers, and above all, their relationship with the tuna.

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By the end of the auction, the vendors take their slabs back to their stations to delicately slice for sale while the rest go towards the best tuna poke bowls you’ll ever eat.

At the “outer” section of the market is a cluster of small retail stores and restaurants – undoubtedly the most exciting part for tourists.

It’s common to see visitors pick up Japanese kitchen equipment – bowls, bamboo trays and charming tea cups. The edible souvenirs too – dried seaweed, konbu, rice crackers, katsuobushi – get snapped up pretty quickly.

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But it’s the food tourists really come for. Lines form for glistening slices of sashimi cut at acute angles to buttery, melt-in-the-mouth effect, intricately layered slabs of tamagoyaki served on toothpicks, freshly grilled tuna and salmon steaks slicked in soy sauce, and creamy sea urchin still in their thorny pods.

At the beginning of November, the market will close the doors on its 80-year history as it prepares for the big move. The new space will be a multi-floored 40-hectare site in a building that’s separated into three main sections for various purposes.

Most vendors and buyers are apprehensive about the move, causing 69 vendors to end their businesses at Tsukiji. For some wholesalers, the lack of heirs to continue the legacy are a concern. But for the rest, the show must surely go on.