Guest Column: World’s largest fish market is astonishing

First published in Landings, December, 2015.

Jeff Bennett, senior trade specialist at the Maine International Trade Center (MITC) said the word “Tsukiji” (pronounced “tskee-gee”) and I was sold.

Deirdre Gilbert spent a very early morning at the world’s largest fish market. Photo courtesy of D. Gilbert.

Deirdre Gilbert spent a very early morning at the world’s largest fish market. Photo courtesy of D. Gilbert.

For last month’s State of Maine Trade Mission to Japan and China, Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Patrick Keliher offered to sponsor events in Tokyo and Shanghai that would feature Maine lobster.  The MITC also hoped to have a DMR representative provide an educational seminar on the fishery to chefs, buyers, government officials and media in both cities.

The Commissioner had a conflict due to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission annual meeting, so someone would have to go in his place. Who that somebody would be would be “negotiated” among senior staff. Bennett explained to DMR Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson and me what the trip would entail. It was the offhand comment about the opportunity to pay an early-morning visit to the Tsukiji Market that convinced me that this was one arm-wrestling contest I needed to win.

Tsukiji is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. It handles over 400 types of seafood. Every day, nearly 2,000 metric tons of seafood are sold through the market.  Yearly sales approach 700,000 metric tons, compared to around 100,000 at the world’s second-largest, the Fulton Fish Market in New York. For someone with an interest in fisheries and seafood, Tsukiji is a kind of Disneyland.

Tsukiji has a long and storied history, beginning with its founding in 1923 following the destruction of previous Tokyo seafood markets in the Great Kanto earthquake. Its days are numbered in its current location however, as the market is scheduled to move to another site in Tokyo in November 2016. A major impetus for the move is that Tokyo is hosting the summer Olympics in 2020, which requires a new road to pass through the current site. The Japanese government views this as an opportunity to modernize and improve the market, but the coming changes made the chance to see the old Tsukiji that much more enticing.

If you want to see what makes Tsukiji famous, you need to start your day around 3 a.m.  Visiting Tsukiji has become a popular tourist activity, and the fresh and frozen tuna auctions are the biggest draw. In order to manage the confluence of sightseeing and commerce, the market limits daily passes to 120, issued to two groups of 60 people between 5:25 and 6:15 a.m. Luckily, we had a special tour arranged that took us further behind the scenes than most tourists are allowed to go.

Many New England seafood products are tagged “Boston” because they are shipped from Logan Airport. D.Gilbert photo.

Many New England seafood products are tagged “Boston” because they are shipped from Logan Airport. D.Gilbert photo.

Starting our tour with a short orientation and the distribution of appropriate footwear (short, white rubber boots), we followed our guide through a warren of hallways to emerge at our first stop, the daily urchin auction. As a Mainer, I was excited to see our own product in this global marketplace. There were dozens of tables arrayed with wooden boxes, stacked 10 or so high, with the urchin roe or “uni” artfully displayed inside. Buyers walked around the tables with clipboards, documenting their observations on color and other indicators of quality that remain a mystery to me. The Maine urchin season had opened before I left on the trip, so I knew that we would have product on offer, but all I could find was a small section labeled “Boston.” It a common problem: our Maine seafood products become associated with the airport they flew from, rather than the waters they came from!

We couldn’t stay for the urchin auction because we also wanted to see the tuna auction. We toured two separate rooms – one filled with frozen tuna, one filled with fresh, from seemingly every corner of the world. Again, the buyers circled around the fish, this time holding metal hooks that served as a tool to flip and inspect the giant fish to their satisfaction. For tuna, the art of assessment extends to slicing off small samples of the flesh, rubbing it between the thumb and forefinger and peering at it with the help of a flashlight. Decisions are made, and the auction begins. Every tuna on the floor is sold, and the Japanese character representing the name of the buyer is marked on the fish with red paint. It is hard to imagine that this happens nearly every day (except Sundays, and every other Wednesday) and that there are always dozens of tuna to fill the rooms.

After the auction, we trailed along after our guide through enormous warehouses filled with virtually any type of seafood you could imagine. Tsukiji covers nearly 55 bewildering acres. While you are gawking and photographing, “turret trucks” whiz by in every direction, moving styrofoam boxes filled with fish from one place to the next. The market employs around 60,000 people, and sometimes it seemed like all of them had somewhere to go. Miraculously, and probably due entirely to the skill of the turret truck operators, we avoided any accidents.

Our group shared impressions after the tour. One thing that struck everyone was the utter cleanliness of the market – no fish smell, no flies, nothing unpleasant. Seafood moves in and seafood moves out, and nothing sticks around long enough to even begin to degrade. The work that goes into an average day at Tsukiji is hard to comprehend.

The traditional end to a Tsukiji visit is to have “sushi breakfast” in one of the many restaurants that surround the market. It is certainly the freshest fish available. While I tried to welcome raw fish to my diet during my visit to Japan, my open-mindedness did not extend to sushi for breakfast. This was undoubtedly my loss, as my fellow travelers said it was the best they’d ever had.