Tsukiji Market is the biggest fish market in Tokyo. It is aisle after aisle of all things writhing and aquatic and edible. It is massive with a business that is blinding; Japanese men zipping around on forklifts and 3-wheelers full of every kind of fish one can imagine. It is marketplace, slaughterhouse, and auction block all under one tin roof. It also hosts the freshest and best sushi to be found anywhere in the world. You think you’ve eaten tuna until you’ve eaten it here. We sat at a 10-seat counter at 5:30 in the morning and ate the most buttery tuna I’ve ever eaten and then walked across the perilously slick and massive warehouse to the tuna auction and watched the Japanese version of laissez-faire capitalism at work. Chefs and seafood buyers are given an hour or so to inspect the tuna for purchase and promptly at 5:30 a.m. the auctioneers start furiously ringing handbells and taking bids. When a lot is sold, a man with a bucket of red dye goes around to each massive frozen bluefin tuna and designates an owner and a price. The price of tuna is variable, like any other commodity, depending on that day’s catch.
It smells remarkably like the sea and not rank at all, but briny, in a way. There are huge scallops, wolf-fish, monk-fish, buckets of live eels, cartoon-like, big-eyed redfish and octopus, all manner of oysters, clams, and mussels and seafood butchering going on all around you . This is a real Tokyo experience. Almost everyone I know who has been in this city has told me to come to the fish market.
What is striking to me is not how different Japanese and American culture are, but how alike. The Fish Market, for me, is not different than watching traders on Wall Street yelling and screaming and trying to get theirs while the sun is out. Our cultures do not differ at all when it comes to profit-motive initiatives. Like America, Japan has an arduos work-ethic in that it is thought that work dignifies one’s life and provides one with identity.
I will say that the fish market seems infinitely more civilized than the trading pit. As we walked around this morning smiling at the melange of activity and colors and scents, people smiled back at us. They were well-aware that we’d never seen anything like this before and were as polite as their schedule would allow. It is a remarkable place and has been part of Japan for centuries. When we think of the South Street Seaport and the Fulton Markets back home, they probably have their genesis in this place of brine and grime and work.