Fluorescent lights hummed on the edge of hearing. I watched out of the corner of my eye as a thin bead of drool ran slowly down a sleeping woman’s chin.
It was 4:20am in Tokyo, and I’d been sitting in a small room on a hard floor with about 100 other early-risers for the past hour and a half. Just long enough to learn that I possessed no measurable core strength. The voluntary torment was scheduled to last another 70 minutes. That’s when Tokyo’s Tsukiji tuna auction was due to begin.
To be fair, we had been warned about this enforced waiting. Our tour guide, Sylvia, had filled us in last night.
“We’ll need to get there at about 3:30am. They only let in just over 100 people, then they close the doors.”
“What time does the tuna auction start?” someone asked.
“They let in the first batch at 5:30am, the next group after 6:00am,” Sylvia said.
“So we’ll be sitting around waiting for over two hours?”
“Yes. Did I mention there are no chairs?”
Tokyo’s tuna auctions have become one of the city’s hottest tourist tickets. And with only about 100 spots up for grabs each day, you have to get there two hours before the thing begins (when the majority of tourists are still in bed). Apparently years ago you could rock up at 5:00am, then it was 4:00am…now it was 3:00am. It’s sort of the seafood equivalent of the wait for the new iPhone.
Tsukiji is the epicentre of Japan’s cultural obsession with seafood, an obsession that is sadly costing our oceans dearly. The one glimmer of hope is that the amount of seafood consumed by Japanese people has been in steady decline since 1989.
Eventually a door opened in the wall and us gaikokujin (foreigners) were ushered through the morning mist of the Tsukiji fish market. Tsukiji is first and foremost a working market, not a tourist site. White-gloved officers are there to escort (and protect) you from the three-wheeled motorised carts that zoom through the hangers, stacked high with seafood, taking corners like an 80s car chase. It had rained in the night, and the sun glinted on the pavement, a little vapour rising up from the cold ground. The breath of the traffic cops hung in the air.
“This way please!”
“No photographs please!”
The fish market’s main building was built in the mid 1930s, and it’s still an impressive sight. The floor is a mosaic of tiny fanned cobbles, slick with melted ice and blood, and the great steel beams of the hanger’s roof stretch high overhead, looking down on every kind of marine life you can imagine (a sad reminder of how far places like Tsukiji have to go to become sustainable). Blue and yellowfin tuna, salmon, snapper, garfish, whiting, red octopus, abalone, pippies, squid, black-spined anemones, giant crabs with rubber bands on their pincers, dreaded fugu fish, their gills puffing in and out, clams, zebra mussels, lobsters and about 480 other species dredged up from the deep. The place smelled like a fresh tide and everywhere was the shouting of voices, the burr of bandsaws and the squeak of polystyrene.
Occasionally they’d lift up a flap of flesh, rub a little between thumb and forefinger to check the colour, texture and fat content.
Finally we made our way to the auction room. The Bluefin tuna (known as kuromaguro) were waiting for us: frozen solid, gutted, tails cut off, arranged in neat rows like dozens of solid grey missiles. I hadn’t realised just how big they were – at least 6ft long. Each had a number daubed in red on the side. Potential buyers patrolled the rows, hooks and hatchets in hand. Occasionally they’d lift up a flap of flesh, rub a little between thumb and forefinger to check the colour, texture and fat content.
These fish are, pound for pound, one of the most expensive creatures on earth. Each one can fetch tens of thousands of dollars and weighs about 250 kilos. When fresh, the flesh is deep tangerine, fading to plum red at the centre. When frozen, it looks more like timber: white, solid and ringed. The fishmongers at Tsukiji cut it with industrial size bandsaws, shaving slices from thick tuna steaks with their bare hands. The blurred blade passes right between their thumbs.
No flash photography. No talking. Just stay off to the side, take a few photos, and keep quiet.
The auction itself is brief, but enthralling. A cowbell echoes through the hanger, then an auctioneer climbs on a small crate or bench, clipboard in hand, and begins singing out numbers in a deep baritone. The roll and pitch of his voice rises to a crescendo every five seconds. Another sale. Another sale. Like auctions everywhere, the buyers stand aloof in the crowd, nodding or raising a hand ever so slightly. They’re all leather-faced longshoremen in rubber boots and blue overalls. It feels a bit little like a religious rite. Tourists aren’t allowed to interact or interfere with this process either. No flash photography. No talking. Just stay off to the side, take a few photos, and keep quiet.
Within 15 minutes it was all over. The dozens of mammoth fish on the ground had all been claimed. A future of dicing, slicing, filleting, dipping and chewing lay in store. I saw a few buyers nod grimly and pull out their phones. The white-gloved traffic cops began ushering us out into the early morning light and I heard one American asking them what happens next, to the tuna.
“Eat,” said the cop, cracking a big smile. “Eat them all.”
Want to check out Tsukiji for yourself? Have a browse through our Japanese adventures.
Feature image c/o Rob Sheridan, Flickr