Monday, February 17, 2014

Experiencing Japan: Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Buyers inspect tuna at the Tsukiji Tuna Auction
Amidst the pre-dawn bustle of Tsukiji Fish Market, I scampered labyrinthine alleys, dodging carts and turret trucks with the agility of … well, a CAT.

Located in the heart of Tokyo, Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. The size of over 40 football fields, Tsukiji is crammed with stalls selling over 400 kinds of fish and seafood. I saw all kinds of shrimp from all over the world in open plastic sacks in Styrofoam boxes. I passed giant crabs, bright red octopus, swordfish, even whale. I saw live flounder, flying fish, eels, squid, mackerel and tanks of live fugu, a kind of blowfish that is deadly if incorrectly prepared. There were sheets of kelp, octopus roe and piles of shirasu (baby anchovy).

But I had no time to dawdle; I didn’t want to be late for a very special event: the Tuna Fish Auction, where a Bluefin tuna can fetch over $170,000.

There was a time when anyone could attend the 5:30 am tuna auction, but now it’s by invitation only. I was the personal guest of oroshi gyōsha Hiroki Fujita, who knows my good friend Kumiko from the Beacher Café in Toronto. Fugita is considered somewhat anti-establishment; I think this is because he has his own way of doing things. Fujita was featured in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”.  If you haven’t seen the film yet, go see it. Jiro refers to Jiro Ono, the master sushi chef or “shokunin” whose restaurant Jiro, in the Ginza area of Tokyo, is renown for its heavenly sushi experience. A course at this 3-star restaurant can cost more than 35,000 yen ($460) and reservations must be made at least a month in advance. Ono is one of Fujita’s clients and relies on Fujita’s choice of tuna for his restaurant. Says Fujita: “only one of the ten [tuna] can be the best and that is what the client wants from me.” There are days when Fujita walks away with no purchase. “I either buy my first choice or I buy nothing.”

The auction happens in a large warehouse in the “inner market” (Jonai Shijo), the licensed wholesale market where most of the fish processing by dealers who operate small stalls also takes place. The market opens most mornings at 3:00 am with the arrival of fish by ship, truck and plane from all over the world. Licensed buyers, including intermediate wholesalers (nakaoroshi gyōsha) like Fujita, restaurant agents, food processing companies and large retailers inspect the fish prior to bidding on them.  

After donning safety vests and rubber boots, I followed Fujita inside the large warehouse. Row upon row of up to 300 kg tuna lay on aluminum pallets for viewing by buyers smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in paper cups. They roamed from fish to fish that were caught from all over the world. I watched as Fujita hunkered down and peered into the belly of one carcass with his flashlight. He picked up the chopped off tail, held it to the light and inspected the orange flesh, feeling it between his fingers and envisioning the perfect tuna, a vision of true kata.

According to Nick Tosches in his 2007 article in Vanity Fair, what someone like Fujita determines by his quick and practiced analysis "is an indication of the tuna's inner colour, its oil content, and the presence, if any, of parasitic disease. A smooth-grimed and marbled tail is a prime indication of quality. The richness of the tuna's lipid content, its fat, can be gauged by how slippery the slice of tail feels between the fingers. Pockmarks reveal parasites. It's a complex diagnostic method that is mastered only with years of practice. The overall form and colour of the tuna are also quickly assessed at the same time. The ideal of these qualities, inner and outer--the word for this ideal is kata--is also a bit of a mystery to outsiders."

At 5:30 the auctioneers began their recursive bellows and buyers crowded around. Buyers made their bids in a flurry of hand flicks and the sale was soon reached; a an invoice was rapidly dispatched and stuck on the fish then the crowd moved onto the next fish.

It was all over in half an hour.

Fujita filleting his prize tuna
The bought fish were then either loaded onto trucks to be shipped to the next destination or on small carts and moved to the many shops inside the market. I followed Fujita to his stall in the market where I watched him cut and prepare his freshly purchased tuna for sale to retail buyers. Cutting and preparation is elaborate. I watched one of Fujita’s men cut frozen tuna with a large band saw and another make the initial lengthy cut of the fresh tuna with a very long knife (called maguro bōchō—“tuna cutter”). Fujita then made the final cuts; The subtle cutting art of maguro no kaiwa (“the conversation of the tuna”) was mesmerizing.

Each knife is used for different cuts. First the mid-sized knife is used to remove the head, tail and fins. The very long knife is used for the first cut along the spine of the tuna, separating the dorsal and ventral parts, to get the first upper quarter section of the fish. Depending on where the cut is taken on the fish, you get differing levels of fatty content. For instance, Akami (lean tuna) is the dark red meat closer to the centre of the tuna; O-Toro (fatty tuna) is cut from the underside of the fish belly; and Chu-Toro (medium tuna) comes from the fatty parts closer to the dorsal region of the tuna between the akami and otoro layers.

I’m told that the average Bluefin tuna yields 10,000 pieces of sushi.

Lineup at a market sushi place
And speaking of…a day in Tsukiji is not complete without a sushi breakfast, which was exactly what I had with my new Japanese friends. By 7:30 am, we’d wound our way through the warren of inner market stalls, outside, past stacks of polysterene boxes, and turret trucks and outer alleys and were standing in a very long line in front of the faded doorway curtains of one of the area’s best known sushi market restaurants. We were eventually seated amid a cramped row of people and enjoyed personally made sushi that went for about 700 yen per piece. I ate sea urchin (uni), salmon roe (ikura gukan), fried egg (tamagoyaki), red snapper, yellowtail and eel among other delectable surprises. My favorite was the chu toro (fatty tuna). It was like a sweet aria. Buttery smooth and utterly delightful, it melted in my mouth and sang all the way down my little stuffed body.

Shokunin displays diverse sushi entree
By 9 o’clock we wandered through the outer retail market (Jogai Shijo) that bustles with shops and eateries all day. Energetic shopkeepers call out from all sides, eagerly advertising their diversity of goods including fresh vegetables, meats, seafood, seaweed, kitchen produce, sweets and various gadgets. Lke in a scene from Bladerunner, you can find busy Tokyo businessmen and housewives with children any time of the day standing at iconic noodle street bars and sucking back steaming noodles with a helping of beer.

The Tsukiji market, which has operated since 1924 (when it replaced the former Nihonbashi fish market destroyed in the 1923 earthquake) sits on prime waterfront real estate, next door to the high-rent Ginza district. The market property was apparently sold by the city for a few trillion yen. The fish market is slated to move to Toyosu in Koto Ward by 2015 (construction was delayed due to the need to clean up the contamination by benzene of the new site).

Go see Tsukiji while it’s still there.

Fresh sushi at Tsukiji Market
I’m the COOL Travel Cat! Itadakimasu…good appetite. And Kampai!

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