On the 29th August 2017 at 5:50 AM, Tokyo mega-city woke up from its cyberpunk dream with sounds of shoes tapping on the metro steps. Up and down, quick steps form the rhythm of the workers’ life. The white-shirt-black-trousers corporate people rush in the trains for their daily commute. Doors close. Train wheels squeak. The hymn of capitalism.
At the Tsukiji Fish Center, things look and sound quite different. At precisely the same time, the first tuna fish auction is about to begin. More than 500 professional fishermen are getting their coffee, smoking a cigarette and preparing mentally to jump into the bidding race for the fattest, reddest, biggest tuna. It’s a merciless 30 minute first come, first served race. All is done on pen and paper, with shouting and ringing bells. When the auction bell stops ringing, the fish bidding is over. Every part of the tuna is valued differently: back or belly; front, middle or tail – all has a different price. I spoke to one fisherman and he said the holy grail of a tuna fish is finding a dark red fat belly. Irresistibly sexy for sashimi connoisseurs.
Everybody shops at Tsukiji: 3-star Michelin restaurants, sushi chains and private customers. The relationship between fishermen, salesmen and chefs is quite particular. Fishermen are, technically speaking, bitter competitors. Yet, you can feel this only in the two 30-minutes slots in the mornings when the tuna auction takes place. Otherwise, they hold high respect for each other’s work. Each fisherman is specialized in 1 to 4 types of fish on average. Some trade only with tuna. Others have a stand in the Inner Fish Market where they sell a few breeds of fish. Fishermen have a trust-based relationship with their chef clients. If a fish quality is not good enough for the chef’s clientele, it will never be sold to him for the sake of profit. High reputation means everything both for the fishermen’s clients and for the chef’s restaurant. Nothing is compromised for money. All is for the love of fish.
The fishermen told me 83 years ago, when the market was founded, this place used to be dull, boring and lifeless. All the charm and atmosphere were created generation by generation from the hard working hands of the fishermen. Every stand, every painted label, the neat and clean lanes – all come from these people who never grumble despite the crazy work hours, heavy fish carried in motor cars and the competitiveness of the job.
Today, the Tsukiji Fish Market an iconic Tokyo experience. At the current time of writing, about 17K Google Maps reviews are averaging at 4.3 out of 5 stars. This is more reviews than Tokyo Tower, Tokyo National Museum or Sensō-ji temple. Is it the fact that Tsukiji is the biggest fish market in the world? Is it the unique sight of the tuna auctions? Is it the gluttonous tourists? Is it the sophisticated sushi restaurants?
It is all this together and one more thing. The symphony of the rubber boots, the splashing water, the knifes chopping fish heads and plates full of sushi placed on the wooden tables is clear and loud. But in the background, I could hear the humming of a sad tuna tune. It was telling the story of Tsukiji closing due to the government building infrastructure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. It’s a story of the people versus the institution. A story of a battle lost. A story of profit over tradition and honor. To add a final tragic note, a fire in 2017 erupted. As if Tsukiji was protesting itself.
I have no idea what was going on in the meeting room that decided to close and move the Tsukiji market in 2018. But I am damn sure, sashimi will never taste as good for any of these people. As I left the inner fish market, I glanced at the last tuna. It’s eyes were dead, body stiff and cold, mouth wide open. “Farewell” she whispered. I left Tsukiji and never looked behind, but the salty ocean smell of fish blood haunts me till this day.
All pictures were taken in the Tsukiji Inner Fish Market. Photos there are strictly prohibited. The fishermen were kind with me and let me in. I am grateful for their generosity. This project is dedicated to them. Let’s try to safe Tsukiji Market Together.
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